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.