O is for Othering

8 04 2012

‘Othering’ is the way members of one social group distance themselves from, or assert themselves over, another by construing the latter as being fundamentally different (the ‘Other’).  It is a term that is associated with discourses of colonialism, and, in particular, with the work of Edward Said. In his influential book Orientalism, (1995: 332) Said wrote:

‘The development and maintenance of every culture requires the existence of another different and competing alter ego.  The construction of identity… whether Orient or Occident, France or Britain… involves establishing opposites and otherness whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and reinterpretation of their differences from us‘.

Patterns of written discourse (after Kaplan 1966) Click to enlarge

A discussion of otherness arose last week in my MA TESOL discourse analysis class. One of the students had posted this diagram from Kaplan’s (1966) seminal study of different, culturally-determined, styles of expository writing. According to Kaplan, text production is influenced by different ‘cultural thought patterns’ (represented schematically in the diagrams), and a comparison of these patterns can predict the kinds of problems learners face when writing in their L2: this is known as the contrastive rhetoric hypothesis.

It’s a view that has a certain face validity to many teachers, especially those having to deal with the lack of coherence that characterises the texts that their students regularly deliver under the guise of academic writing.  But there are problems with it. For a start, the contrastive rhetoric hypothesis assumes that culture, language, ethnicity and nation are mapped on to one another in a monolithic, homogeneous and mutually determining kind of way. Thus, the Japanese (or the Spanish, or the Arabs, or whoever) write the way they do because they think that way, and they think the way they do because they are that way – and that way is different.

Such a view seems overly reductive in this day and age. Indeed, Kaplan’s characterization of  ‘Orientals’ [sic] as being circular in their argumentative style, in contrast to the English (whoever they are) as being direct, seems to reinforce the worse type of cultural stereotypes. As Claire Kramsch (2001: 203) observes, ‘Such characterisations sound dangerously ethnocentric.  They show the difficulty of expressing one culture in terms of another without sounding critical or condescending’.

Pennycook (1998: 161) is more forthright: ‘What such examples raise for me are a host of questions about how we construct the Others of ELT, our students.  Why is it, for example, that Chinese students are so frequently and so consistently categorised as passive, rote-learners, whose logic follows a strange spiral pattern?’ Pennycook attributes such stereotyping to a  postcolonial mindset, the same mindset that privileges native speaker teachers over non-native ones.

Whether that is the case or not, the notion that ‘foreigners do things differently’ is perpetuated in many teaching materials, especially those that claim to target cultural issues.  A recent course aimed at teaching conversation (Steinbach, 1996) goes so far as to compare different conversational styles with sports: basketball (U.S. English), bowling (Asian languages) and rugby (Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East). And, always, as Kubota (2001: 24) points out, ‘the underlying assumption in the discourse of cultural dichotomy is that U.S. culture is the norm’.

Moreover, it’s not just the ‘colonisers’ who take this line: the colonized seem equally complicit.  McKay and Bokhorst-Heng (2008: 186) note that, ‘in many countries where Western characters are introduced in textbooks, it is often in the context of presenting differences between Western culture and local cultures, often accompanied by a subtle emulation of Western culture and traditions’.

But does this mean that we have to adopt a ‘universalist’ position, arguing not only for the equality of all cultures, but for their lack of differentiation as well? Surely, by definition, different cultures do things differently? That, after all, is a fundamental principle of genre theory.  As Eggins (1994: 35) reminds us, ‘Foreign travel broadens our minds by showing us that the genre potential of two cultures is not the same, nor is the mode of realising particular genres.  A foreign culture may have genres our culture of origin does not… Equally disorienting is the fact that apparently the same genres are in fact expressed in very different ways, so that you do not, for example, write an essay about sociology in France the same way you write an essay about sociology in Australia’.

Kramsch (1998: 63) would seem to confirm Eggins’ point:

There are striking differences … between the French and the Anglo-Saxon genre ‘research paper’.  …. Whereas American research articles end with the obligatory discussion of ‘the limitations of the study’, French articles do no such thing; instead, they are obligated to raise larger questions, and point to directions for further areas of study.  These two different styles within two scientific communities that otherwise share the same purpose may create difficulties for some French scientists, who may be willing to publish in English but wish to retain their own cultural scientific style.

Other researchers have documented similar differences in the way specific cultures realise particular genres. For example, Celce-Murcia and Olshtain (2000: 149) cite research that shows that Japanese expository writing ‘has a number of rhetorical organisational patterns that are quite different from those found in English expository writing.  In some of these patterns, the main theme is not foregrounded as it is in English but rather hinted at’.  They add, ‘English teachers may view English essays written according to one of the Japanese organisational patterns as lacking in coherence and unity, and thus rate them lower than essays written with English organisational patterns’.

Whether, in fact, the lack of coherence in student writing is due to transfer of L1 discourse patterns, or to other reasons altogether, is a moot point. Odlin (1989: 67), for example, concludes that ‘the extent of discourse transfer is not clear. Some studies of contrastive discourse have found little or no evidence for transfer’.

Even if transfer were to occur, should we be judging a Japanese writing style by US, UK, or Australian standards? Kachru (1999: 85) says, emphatically, that we should not: ‘Contrasting rhetoric with the aim of changing the behaviour of non-native users of English is a form of behaviourism no longer acceptable in linguistic research or language education’.

As I see it, the questions to resolve are these:

  • What evidence is there that different cultures have different rhetorical styles?
  • Do these rhetorical styles impact on, or interfere with, the target language rhetorical style (assuming there is one)?
  • Does it matter?

Or, perhaps, as Humpty Dumpty famously said, ‘The question is, which is to be master — that’s all’.


Celce-Murcia, M. and Olshtain, E. (2000) Discourse and Context in Language Teaching: A Guide for Language Teachers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eggins, S. (1994) An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics, London: Pinter.

Kachru, Y. (1999) ‘Culture, context, and writing’, in Hinkel. E. (ed.) Culture in Second Language Teaching and Learning, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kaplan,  R. (1966) ‘Cultural thought patterns in inter-cultural education’, Language Learning, 16, 1-20.

Kramsch, C.  (1998). Language and Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kramsch, C. (2001).  ‘Intercultural communication’, in Carter, R. & Nunan, D. (eds.) The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

Kubota, R. (2001) ‘Discursive construction of the images of U.S. classrooms’, TESOL Quarterly 35, 1, 9-38.

McKay, S.L., and Bokhorst-Heng, W.D. (2008) International English in its Sociolinguistic Contexts: Towards a socially sensitive EIL pedagogy, New York: Routledge.

Odlin, T. (1989) Language Transfer: Cross-linguistic Influence in Language Learning, Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Pennycook, A. (1998) English and the Discourses of Colonialism, London: Routledge.

Said, E. (1995)  Orientalism: Western conceptions of the Orient, (revised edition), London: Penguin.

Steinbach, S. 1996. Fluent American English. Davis, CA: The Seabright Group.

Illustrations from Alexander, L (1967) New Concept English: First Things First, Harlow: Longman.



32 responses

8 04 2012
Adam Simpson

In terms of writing, I’d say that the important thing is to write for the audience. One thing that Kachru’s statement ignores – perhaps addressed elsewhere – is that if you’re writing for a specific audience, it might be an idea to ‘write for them’. Of course, there’s always going to be a fine line between forcing a style on another culture and observing the conventions of a particular genre, but considering the audience should, I feel, be a starting point. More to the point, I’ve seen some interesting stuff recently at EAP conferences which suggests that the opposite is happening: non-native writers are changing the conventions of writing through the application of they assume to be the ‘correct way of writing in English’. For instance, even transition signals such as ‘in contrast’ and ‘on the other hand’ have traditionally been much more genre specific than is realized, and so by teaching them as being interchangeable, we’re leading our learners into misusing them, to the extent that non-native writers are reshaping written discourse.

One thing we’ve suffered from is the notion of a ‘one-size fits all’ approach, the five-paragraph essay being the culmination of this idea that we can effectively teach writing in English by going through the steps required to put together such a piece of writing. This is the written discourse equivalent of what you call the ‘grammar mcnugget’ and has caused untold damage. Not only are the skills developed non-transferable (to other styles of writing), they are also reinforcing the idea that this technique can be applied to each genre, which it can’t.

By the way, has anyone ever seen a spiral piece of writing?

9 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Adam, for the comment. With regard to the notion of audience, it’s useful to recall that, according to the Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, classical rhetoric ‘was a politically and ethically established style of teaching effective public speaking’, which, presumably, foregrounded the notion of audience, adapting the speech to the audience, rather than assuming that the latter would adapt to the former. As rhetoric became more codified it seems to have lost this capacity to ‘keep the reader/listener in mind’. However, “the ‘new rhetoric’ of the last 30 years has been conceptualised as a social-psychologically grounded tool of communication… characterised by (a) the pragmatic aspects of the speech act, where one is conscious of its effect and perlocution, and (b) by the changing text-internal features of a situativey suitable, argumentative and stylistic structure” (same source.)

The term ‘situatively suitable’ seems to capture your point about ‘writing for them’, rather than, perhaps, ‘writing like us’. Of course (and this might be Kachru’s point) as with any language event, the language is working both as a communicative tool but also as a marker of identity. Just as with the argument about accent reduction, there are many who would argue that ‘my writing style’ is me.

8 04 2012

When we looked at written discourse on one of my MA modules, the tutor (Julian Edge) presented the notion of SFRE – that is Situation, Focus, Response and Evaluation and showed us how such a pattern can be identified in multiple written contexts regardless of genre, target audience and the author’s cultural background/first language. That was quite an eye-opener for me, especially the suggestion that when we deem a piece of written discourse to be ‘muddled’ or ‘poorly written’, it usually fails to follow this pattern.

In regards to Adam’s above comment, I have the same misgivings about teaching set formulas such as the five paragraph essay or, as happens in my context with 6th grade students, the one paragraph piece of descriptive writing which drills over and over the need for a ‘topic sentence’ to engage interest, ‘body’ sentences to give details and a ‘concluding sentence’ to leave the reader with ‘an interesting idea’ (needless to say, this is the formula presented in the book we have to follow). I think my students writing started to improve once I abandoned the 5 sentences formula and encouraged them to think about SFRE patterns instead.

8 04 2012
Stephanie Ashford

That’s interesting, Dave. I remember this as as SPRE (Situation, Problem, Response, Evaluation), so it must have morphed! It’s certainly a useful structure for academic writing.

9 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Yes, as I read Dave’s post, I wondered if the problem-solution organisation is an even more basic – and more universal – rhetorical structure. Here’s a good example, in the form of an advert on the front page of yesterday’s El País:

Somatoline Cosmetic
Específco Celulitis

It also adopts a question – answer framework, which may be another rhetorical universal.

9 04 2012

One striking thing about the examples we looked at (all taken from a variety of contexts and ranging from the 1980s up to the present day) was that the SFRE structure was always apparent. It was the content that was clearly influenced by the cultural background and context of the author, not the organisation.

9 04 2012

SPRE was also presented but SFRE was preferred as ‘more universal’ – there don’t always have to be problems!

9 04 2012
Stephanie Ashford

True, but isn’t scientific research driven by the need to solve problems? (I’m thinking Karl Popper here.)

9 04 2012
Adam Simpson

You think that’s common, try looking for instances of IMRD (intro, methodology, results, discussion) for writing up research.

8 04 2012

This is a really interesting post, about an area that I am particularly interested in.

When we looked at Kaplan’s diagrams during a session on my DELTA, someone in my group asked – ‘I wonder what that would look like from their perspective’ – i.e. How would a Chinese or Russian Kaplan draw their diagrams? What would ‘English Discourse’ look like then?

How useful are generalisations around culture? I think it depends whether we are dealing with things on a general level, or with individuals. On a general level it might be useful to think of these trends, such as those explored by Trompenaars and Hofstede – when planning a syllabus for a course. However, it is dangerous to think in the same way when dealing with individuals as these trends are by no means universal within a particular group. I am particularly uncomfortable with assigning value judgements to these (which Kaplan seems to do).

There are definitely differences of genre between cultures – certainly on a superficial level. In my MSc dissertation I compared research article abstracts authored in English, authored in Spanish (from Argentina) and the translations of these articles. The Spanish-language abstracts differed in their organisation of content and the degree of certainty expressed; many started by describing their study, while the English-language abstracts studied all started by establishing the reason for the study. Most of the English language abstracts discussed the results of the study, while most of the Spanish language abstracts did not include this. The English language abstracts were more likely to include hedging strategies in the texts. (See Swales, John.M. 1990. ‘Genre Analysis: English in academic and research settings’. for more on genres)

I do not think that you can attach a value judgement to these differences, they are just different conventions. However the question of audience is important and the English translations of the Spanish-language abstracts all followed the patterns of the Spanish language texts. They were intended for an English-language context, but displayed Spanish(Argentine?)- genre features.

I don’t know the effect that this might have on the intended audience – given that the international scientific/academic community is, well… international and many (most?) of the participants in it are Non-native English speakers working in English. There is probably a higher percentage of native speakers acting as gatekeepers though.

Like so many things it comes down to the context in which people are going to use language, and how much power they have within those interactions. Where writers are not constrained by a powerful audience’s expectations

9 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Regarding your comment, Phil: “How would a Chinese or Russian Kaplan draw their diagrams? What would ‘English Discourse’ look like then?”, Alistair Pennycook (In the source quoted in my original post) recalls that “a number of years ago, when I was teaching in China, I was intrigued to see the one of the textbooks used for teaching writing at the senior levels of the undergraduate programme… discussed in its introduction Kaplan’s (1966) models of contrastive rhetoric. Shortly afterwards, I was listening to a student discussing some of her frustrations at trying to learn to write in English: why is it, she wanted to know, that English writing always went round and round and round, with its introductions, conclusions, topic sentences and the like, while Chinese was written in a straight, clear line? As she drew the patterns of text in the air, I saw Kaplan’s diagrams being formed almost perfectly in reverse” (p. 161).

8 04 2012

Really interesting post – Wanted to add something that came to mind while reading this in relation to ‘othering’ Recently read an interesting book edited by Lesley Scanlon (2011 – link given at end of comment) on the topic of professional learning and identity. Scanlon starts by discussing metaphors of learning that are commonly understood, for instance as ‘transmission / delivery’ – moving on to metaphors of participation and construction which have become more drawn upon in recent times. However, there is a feeling that in a globalised world with new ways of communicating that perhaps these metaphors are no longer valid in how we understand learning. Scanlon draws on a metaphor of ‘becoming’ – meaning as individuals we are always in a process of becoming other – a process she refers to as ‘othering’. Through this metaphor individuals are considered to be in constant flux, always in a transformative state.

We can apply this idea to the teaching of writing in L2 if we reject the idea that writing is a neutral skill and regard it as social practice. Academic is a social practice as with any other form of literacy, it comes with it’s own relations of power, values, norms, expectations – there are things you can write and can’t, there are ways of saying things. I don’t believe academic writing can be taught as a neutral skill – the implications for this are that to learn how to write academic English, the only way is to be in the process of becoming academic which implies that it something that can be taught in genre while at university as a student – which then leads me to the unfairness of major exams that ‘assess’ academic writing as a university entrance requirement. To sum up then, learning can be seen as a process of othering, meaning that learning to write, speak English etc is a process of becoming someone, seen in this way we could our students are becoming speakers of English as opposed to our students speak English at this level or that level. The former points to the embodied social nature of learning.

Best wishes

Becoming a professional – Lesley Scanlon link below


9 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Richard – I find the concept of ‘becoming the other’ very suggestive. It also recalls a phrase that Steven Thorne used in his plenary at the IATEFL conference last month – he talked about the way – especially in digital communication – language users achieve ‘semiotic agility’ – including the capacity to code-switch, accommodate, and co-adapt to their interlocutors. Kramsch, in her recent book ‘The Multilingual Subject’ (Oxford University Press, 2009) refers to something similar: “Much of what we see afforded by the electronic medium is reminiscent of what we encountered when discussing the decentred nature of the multilingual subject, his or her semiotic flexibility and ability to play with signifiers, that is, speak French but think Russian… We recognise in the playfulness of electronic chat rooms the ambiguities of Self and Other and Other in Self to which the multilingual subject is particularly sensitive” (p.176).

(I also see connections here with some of the previous discussion on imitation – or mimesis – and I feel a Bakhtin reference coming on!)

9 04 2012
Mihaly Benedek

A great post, thanks.

10 04 2012

Scott, I enjoyed reading this. I am intrigued by Richard’s comment and your reply. Please do let that Bakhtin post channel its way through. I notice here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contrastive_rhetoric that Kaplan’s work has been sort of politically correct-ed.


11 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Rob. I’ll spare you the Bakhtin (I was hoping Richard would oblige 😉 ) and thanks for the Wikipedia reference – that piece is well-worth reading for an update on the state of contrastive rhetoric – now re-invented as intercultural rhetoric. (If it weren’t in Wikipedia I would refer my students to it!)

11 04 2012

Scott, Rob – Got something on ‘Bakhtin and Blogging’ brewing at the moment, and will let you know when I post. By the way, Scott, you talked about ‘Contingency’ in your post ‘A for affordances’. You mentioned Leo van Lier in relation to this in terms of classroom affordances and contingencies. The term strikes me as being related to Bakhtin’s ideas on ‘every text responds to a previous text and anticipates another’ a notion that Fairclough operationalised through his work on intertextuality wrt discourse analysis – do you happen to know where the term contingency has come from – does it stem from Bakhtin?

11 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Hi Richard – I keep meaning to blog a C is for Contingency post, but briefly, Leo van Lier has a whole chapter titled Contingency in his 1996 book Interaction in the Language Curriculum, in which he refers to the work of Roger Shuy, who uses the term ‘contingency questioning’ to describe an alternative to the IRF, display question, mode of questioning typical of traditional classrooms. For van Lier, contingency means “the ways in which utterances are tied to the world (including utterances), and at the same time project into the unknown” (p.54).He adds “contingencies are creatable, controllable and noticeable in our own and others’ utterances, and … therefore contingency is the key that unlocks all varieties of social interaction and, in doing so, simultaneously unlocks our students’ learning potential” (p. 184). He doesn’t directly relate this to Bakhtin but Bakhtin does get a mention in the same chapter, with regard to hybrid interaction types “much like Bakhtin’s double-voiced dialogue”.

11 04 2012

Hi there. Interesting and thought-provoking, as usual! I did a session on contrastive rhetoric at Bham uni once in response to a session I had done with my presessional students in which we analysed how ‘we’ write and ‘our’ voices in academic writing and compared them to each other. I’ll try and dig it out and put a link to my blog in case anyone’s interested. I had Colombian, Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Saudi students so it was really interesting and quite eye-opening how Kaplan’s ‘orientals’ could be so different (of course!)!

@ Rob, yes, I think the Kaplan interpretation has been long criticised. I think it was Kumaravadivelu in ‘Cultural Globalization and Language Education’ who when discussing Said’s comments said that referring to ‘the other’ was like perceiving another group of people as an ‘indistinguishable mass’. Don’t you think this goes against the West’s current ideology of individualism?…mmm…yet wasn’t the colonial West that promulgated this notion?

All this reminds me of my MA in Greek Civ. (before I started on the TEFL path!) and studies of βάρβαρος as the ‘other’ (barbarian – someone who speaks ‘bar-bar’ or ‘nonsense’), and Levi-Strauss and Radcliffe-Brown and concepts of kinship.

Really interesting.

11 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Emma,for that insightful comment – and for mentioning the ‘barbarians’. Coincidentally, I just read a piece by Neil Acherson in the latest (but one) issue of the LRB, in which he writes – of the history of Europe – ‘The strangers come from the East; they want what we have; they are Other. In the early period of westward migration, Otherness often resided in the encounter between settled farmers and nomadic pastoralists, those who have no centre,… The antipathy of settled communities to travelling communities or individuals is still hard-wired into Europe…’

13 04 2012

I think Othering is necessity of existence in the Lacanian sense that identity is created by comparing ourselves to others and noticing differences. To quote from Neon Genesis Evangelion in the scene where the world is gone and only Shinji exists:

Shinji: This is the world with nothing, the space with nothing,
the world with nothing.
The world with nothing but me.
I’m losing definition of myself.
I feel as if I am going to disappear.
My existence is fading away.


Misato: Because there’s nobody but you.

Shinji: Nobody but me?

Misato: Because you have no existence but of yourself,
You can’t figure out your own shape.

Shinji: My shape?

My image.

Misato: Yes. You are getting to know your own shape through
seeing others’ shape.

Asuka: Seeing others’ wall, you imagine yourself.

Rei: You cannot see yourself unless there are others.

Shinji: Because there are others, I can exist.
If alone, I am always alone everywhere.
The world is entirely by my ..

Misato: By cognizing the difference between you and others,
you form the image of yourself.

I feel that the question becomes how you cognize this Other, as merely a difference or as an inequality?

It’s clear to me from both experience and research I’ve come across that other cultures think in different ways. They certainly have different conventions that are followed when it comes to logic, social interactions, or writing styles. Looking at thought and behavior as trends within a culture is useful as they tend to be quite systematic. Macro perspectives are useful for general trends, but always fall apart as you go smaller. Micro perspectives give a closer look with deeper insights, but lack extrapolatory power. The desire not to overgeneralize is a cultural convention in and of itself.

13 04 2012

“Knowledge is not for knowing: knowledge is for cutting.” – Michel Foucault.

I think this idea fits quite well into the discussion. What Foucault is saying is that knowledge is about finding differences. The more we know about something, the more we realize how it is different from other things. In effect, knowledge actually creates distance between two things. Othering may simply be a unavoidable outcome of learning about others.

13 04 2012

Indeed, it is not that ‘knowledge’ is about finding differences, but rather what constitutes ‘meaning’ (the definition of meaning of anything) is about finding differences; Some say ‘meaning’ is the recognition of the place of anything in a system which occurs when the relation a thing has with others in the system becomes clarified and understood.
If every thing in any system were in the same place, then there could be no recognition, there could be no meaning, since there would be no relational criteria to judge, discriminate, distinguish and clarify.
Furthermore, for recognition to be possible, there must be (1)specific difference, there must be (2)essential relation and, moreover, these must (3) remain, for if the difference and the relation were not enduring but were in a state of constant change specifically and essentially, then recognition of things would be impossible, and meaning would perish. Meaning and knowledge are intrinsically connected?

13 04 2012

Something else I often point out to teachers is that bad writing may simply be just bad writing . Writing is a skill and I’ve seen enough poorly written high school and college essays to know that some people can do it much better than others. I think we sometimes make the mistake of assuming that because the essay is bad, it’s because the student has poor English or comes from a cultural background that lacks the writing conventions we are used to. However, I honestly feel it’s more often just that many of our students come from educational systems where they were never asked to write anything much less learn about writing conventions.

After conventions are established, I think it becomes a matter of identity and comfort. Arabic letters traditionally start very differently from American ones, which start differently from Chinese ones. Some people are comfortable conforming to another culture’s communication style. Others prefer to retain their own and ask the receiver to conform more. Which conventions are adopted and used depend on the relationship of the communicators and the context it’s being used in.

13 04 2012

Hi Scott,

It’s funny because we use this diagram on one of our courses. In fairness we do offer students the chance to evaluate it.

I’m curious when “Oriental” became perjorative? The first time I heard this was from an (Asian) American who shouted “I’m not a piece a furniture!” Occidental still seems to be fine, but Oriental is slowly losing out to “Asia”, it seems. But Asia is more vague isn’t it? I asked the furniture woman what she calls people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to which she replied “indian” -far more offensive to my mind.

13 04 2012

To my knowledge, it became pejorative after Said. Much of European lit and therefore Western acadamia referred to most anything East of Europe “the Orient” particulary British colonies. As Said argued, “the Orient” was more a creation of what academics writing about it imagined it to be rather than as how it actually was. This can be seen clearly in examples where artists could not find Middle Eastern woman who matched their imaginations, so they would hire prostitutes to dress up according to their imagination and paint them instead, passing off the pieces as true representations of the Orient..

13 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

…and just to add the point that the distinction Occidental-Oriental was one chosen and applied by the self-styled Occidentals, not the other way round. Hence ‘occidental’ is not considered as pejorative as ‘oriental’. Social or ethnic groups who have had a generic name thrust upon them, however literal it might be, are less likely to take kindly to it, especially if it is one that asserts a power difference. The way we ‘cut up’ with world (to borrow the Foucault term referenced by Nick above), is seldom disinterested, especially when it comes to social groups. Witness: white-negro, American-South American, straight-queer, cowboys and indians…

14 04 2012
Gareth Knight

Great post, Scott. The problems arise when language teachers decide the discourse that the learners will write, and impose a rhetoric to meet the teacher’s own expectations. Rather, the teacher should best concentrate on understanding which, if any, transnational discourse communities the learner wants or needs to join, and study the genre in order to help the learner know the community’s expectations. I’ve found John Swale’s book Genre Analysis is great for understanding the issues.

14 04 2012

The point about helping students to adjust to the discourse community they want to join is a very good one. It’s important not to waste our students’ time.
However, I have the impression that most transnational communities are dominated by Anglo-Saxon models. So there is actually little room for variety. This leads to a repetitiveness in terms of text structure which, at least for me, makes for incredibly dull reading, especially in academic articles written for journals.

6 05 2012

This post has me rethinking the shape and orientation of my proposed MA dissertation on Arabic academic writing (in English) and for that I thank Scott and everyone else who’s participated in the ensuing discussion. I do have some further questions and points to raise for consideration.

1. I find it intriguing that no one has yet mentioned Ulla Connor, who has written plenty on the topic of Contrastive Rhetoric (or Intercultural Rhetoric, a term she and others have proposed to mitigate the negative connotations of Contrastive Rhetoric), and who has raised many of the points raised here. Any Google scholar search will find her work, but key dates for her publications are 1996 (book), 2002 (state-of-the-art article), 2004 (a special issue of Journal of English for Academic Purposes), 2008 (edited e-book), and 2011 (book). I’m not necessarily saying her work is more authoritative than any other, but I am wondering why she’s been excluded as a key participant in the post-Kaplan CR discussion.

2. For finer-tuned view of ‘culture’ with respect to Contrastive Rhetoric, I found an article by D. Atkinson , illuminating, certainly worthwhile reading for anyone troubled by the monolithic definitions and assumptions some adhere to.

Reference: Atkinson, D. (2004). Contrasting rhetorics/contrasting cultures: why contrastive rhetoric needs a better conceptualization of culture. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 3, pp. 277-289.

3. As an English teacher in the UK, British English is my main point of reference, and so I compare my students’ writing against the audience I assume they are writing for – tutors at British universities. This makes the norm necessarily ‘Anglo-centric’. Thus a discussion of the similarities and differences between ‘their’ culture’s writing and my own (in whatever genre), is informative, especially where the learners’ goal is instrumental, ie. writing to pass assignments. It’s hard to see in this case how teaching students to write for their audience (as Adam mentions above) is wrong or culturally insensitive.

This brings me to my last question: are there similar conversations about writing styles and conventions taking place between teachers and academics of other languages, eg. Japanese and French, say, or Arabic and German? Or is this limited to English only, because it is such a dominant language?

7 05 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Stephanie, for updating the references/research into this area. A quick Google search produced this state-of-the-art article by Ulla Connor – well worth a read:

Click to access connor-new.pdf

20 05 2013

I’ve used your stuff for a few of my assignments. I just want to say you seem like a stand-up dude.
Good on you.

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