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.

T is for Taboo

27 06 2010

What have the following got in common?

  • mother bringing sandwiches to father as he fixes the roof
  • father expressionless or relaxed in trying circumstances
  • mother comforting young children
  • modern Native Americans working on ranches, in menial jobs, or doing construction work
  • people in Africa wearing native dress or wearing westernised version of African costumes
  • Hispanic young people always working on second-hand cars
  • old ladies with twenty cats
  • modern Asian Americans wearing dark business suits and glasses

They are all images that a leading US publishing group advises its educational authors and illustrators to avoid, since they are likely to reinforce gender, racial and ageist stereotypes and thereby incur the wrath of government watchdogs.  Likewise, the following topics (among many others) are taboo in US textbooks: conflict with authority, controversial people (such as Malcolm X), creation myths, divorce, euthanasia, illegitimacy, and lying. This time, the prohibitions are motivated – not by a liberal multicultural agenda – but by right-wing attempts to promote and protect traditional American values. Either way, educational publishing is subject to massive self-censorship, due to a combination of “left-wing political correctness and right-wing religious fundamentalism”, according to Diane Ravitch in her (2003) book The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. Ravitch documents the way that

…by the end of the 1980s, every publisher had complied with the demands of the critics, both from left and right.  Publishers had imposed self-censorship to head off the outside censors, as well as to satisfy state adoption reviews. Achieving demographic balance and excluding sensitive topics had become more important to their success than teaching children to read or to appreciate good literature.  (p. 96)

In ELT publishing the ‘verbal hygiene’ that publishers impose on themselves is motivated less by a wish to assert multicultural values than by the need to avoid offending potential markets. ELT publishers do have strict guidelines aimed at promoting ‘inclusiveness’, especially with regard to their treatment of women, and of different ethnicities and cultures. Nevertheless, the marketing imperative “means that the progressive and ethical dimension is all too often undermined by the perceived need to sanitize content” , as John Gray (2002) points out. The sanitizing process is enshrined in the lists of taboo topics that publishers provide their writers, such as the so-called PARSNIP topics: politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (such as communism or atheism), and pork. It’s this ‘parsnip policy’ that, arguably, imbues ELT books with a certain blandness – what Mario Rinvolucri once characterised as “the soft, fudgey, sub-journalistic, woman’s magaziney world of EFLese course materials” (1999, p. 14).

Of course, there are other reasons that publishers (and teachers) might wish to avoid controversial subject matter: for example, that it might disturb, annoy or distract the learners. This argument is typically advanced by those who argue that the language teacher’s job is to teach language, not content. There are others who, like Ravitch, might counter that any censorship of educational materials “should be abhorrent to those who care about freedom of thought, to those who believe that minds grow sharper by contending with challenging ideas” (p. 159).

Given the competing goals of values education, language teaching, and marketing – is the content of ELT coursebooks as good as it will ever be?


Gray, J.  2002. ‘The global coursebook in English language teaching’. In Block, D., and Cameron, D. (Eds.) Globalization and Language Teaching. London: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. 2003.  The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. New York: Vintage Books.

Rinvolucri, M. 1999. ‘ The UK, EFLese sub-culture and dialect’. Folio, 5, 2, 12-14