February 2013
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CULTURAL INFLUENCE IN ACADEMIC ENGLISH WRITING: AN INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVE
Donna Bain Butler, PhD, Michael Wei, PhD, and Yalun Zhou, PhD

Donna Bain Butler, PhD

Michael Wei, PhD

Yalun Zhou, PhD

International students contribute more than $21 billion to the U.S. economy alone. Further, this revenue is expected to increase (Institute of International Education, 2012). According to ASEAN Matters for America, Asian students account for five out of the top six leading sources of international students in the United States (Siirila, 2010). Although more and more institutions of higher education in English-speaking countries are recruiting international students to their campuses, faculty and program administrators remain generally unaware of international students’ cultural backgrounds and linguistic needs when expected to write in second language (L2) academic English. Too often, L2 undergraduate students are sent to institutional intensive English language programs to remediate their English grammar. Similarly, L2 graduate students may be advised to seek editors who are not trained in English for academic purposes (EAP) or in L2 English composition. Faculty and international program directors may not know that nationality and culture play crucial roles in English language learning and language use (Anugkakul, 2011). They may be unaware of international students’ contrasting views of academic writing and the writing processes. As a result, L2 student learning may be assessed unfairly or inaccurately, or it may lead to culture shock with tragic ending.

To counteract uninformed practices in international education, and to improve intercultural communication with culturally diverse students and institutions, Gillett (1997) recommends that faculty and staff in higher education reconceptualize intercultural communication. This is necessary because (1) people from different cultures do things in different ways, (2) students experience learning and assessment differently from their professors, (3) higher education faculty and staff share sources of knowledge and information differently from international students, (4) pragmatics is cross-culturally different and difficult to understand, and (5) EAP specialists exist to inform programs and advise international student writers by explaining their language use issues as relating to something other than grammar. Echoing Gillett (1997), this study reveals how Chinese and Thai students, ranked number 1 and number 15, respectively, among U.S. international student populations on campus (Institute of International Education, 2012), inherit a wealth of academic writing culture in their home countries.

What Our Study Does

Our research purpose was to disclose cross-cultural issues related to writing with a view toward advancing writing proficiency for academic English writers. Specifically, the study reveals how Chinese and Thai students perceive or understand academic English writing regarding the following five questions:

  1. What are graduate writers' perceptions of their native academic culture?
  2. What are graduate writers' perceptions of academic English writing?
  3. What are graduate writers’ perceptions of strategies for academic English writing?
  4. What are graduate writers’ perceptions of composing for academic purposes?
  5. What are graduate writers’ metaphors for academic English writing?

 

Methodology

Through a quantitative survey approach with 100 graduate student writers, our study explored key issues in writing that influence academic writing literacy for Chinese (n = 50) and Thai (n = 50) graduate students across disciplines. The purpose of our study was to describe (a) Chinese and Thai graduate students’ learning cultures of academic English writing and (b) their perspectives of writing processes as they relate to writing conventions in academic English. We used Bain Butler’s (2010) Academic English Writing Questionnaire to collect data.

For content validity, we consulted a variety of teachers, experts, the research literature, and target group members for relevance, representativeness, and exactness of wording. A validity check with our Thai and Chinese colleagues disclosed no objections about questions or results (personal communication, December 13, 2011). For reliability check, Cronbach’s Alpha was .885 for Thailand and .544 for China.

Our survey instrument allowed graduate student writers to (a) distinguish between academic cultures and (b) identify the strategies they use for composing academic English assignments and abstracts.

Results

Abbreviated results are presented in order of the five research questions.

1. What are graduate writers' perceptions of their native academic culture?

Our study found different assumptions and expectations about who is primarily responsible for successful communication in an academic culture―the reader or the writer. Explicitness and directness appear to be sociocultural elements of academic style for the Chinese participants. In contrast, the Thai participants may prefer to let readers infer the meaning of their (Thai) writing. Although rhetorical preferences and style are known to vary from culture to culture and from language to language, they may also be influenced by academic English curriculum and writing instruction, as this study shows.

2. What are graduate writers' perceptions of academic English writing?

Most (72% or more) Chinese participants and most (66% or more) Thai participants agreed or strongly agreed that teaching students how to (a) write using authoritative (printed and electronic) sources and (b) make the shift from writer-centered drafting to reader-centered communication may be needed.

3. What are graduate writers’ perceptions of strategies for academic English writing?

Participants’ strategies for academic English writing are grouped into four categories: (1) writing process, (2) social interaction, (3) language use, and (4) writing from sources.

In terms of writing process, the Chinese participants may be more willing to revise ideas than the Thai participants are. Both revising and editing are components of the composing process that may be taught and learned.

The Thai academic writers employ social interaction more than the Chinese academic writers do. Social strategies were found important for Thai student respondents to communicate effectively with professors and classmates and to refine ideas.

The Thai participants re-use the language from source text more than the Chinese participants do, and the Thai participants correct language-related issues only after revising ideas, in contrast to the Chinese participants.

In terms of writing from sources, most (58%) Chinese participants disagree that they summarize information in English “simply” by reducing source text, whereas most Thai (78%) participants agree. The Chinese participants seem more likely to summarize information in English by selecting and reorganizing course text.

4. What are graduate writers’ perceptions of composing for academic purposes?

Competence-related constructs for composing were discerned by studying this question. Summary, paraphrase, and synthesis were found to help develop L2 academic writers’ purpose and knowledge for writing. Most (60%–68%) Chinese students and most (54%–86%) Thai students “agree” or “strongly agree” that they comprise levels of composing.

5. What are graduate writers’ metaphors for academic English writing?

Most (72% Thai and 56% Chinese) participants agree that they are like architects when they write in English, that is, they plan, draft, and then edit their own work. In addition, most (58% Thai and 55% Chinese) agree that they write like artists when revising their writing as they go along.

Conclusion

Cultural issues in writing were disclosed by this research, that is, six global categories within which varied perceptions for academic English writing arise:

  • the roles of research and inquiry
  • writer versus reader responsibility
  • the roles of revising and editing
  • student versus teacher roles
  • values of individualism versus collectivism
  • ownership of text and ideas

Each one can be found and understood from the writing research literature, and most have been acknowledged by the College Composition and Communication Statement on Second Language Writing and Writers (2009). The contribution of this study is that they are shown to exist in academic cultural context. Further, because some relate to Western notions of plagiarism and academic integrity, they are high-stakes issues for international students and degree-granting institutions.

English university program directors need to be aware of potential differences in academic culture and in academic English curricula if they are to act responsibly as educators. International students do not have homogeneous cultural backgrounds for academic English writing, and their interaction with university program content is not related simply to English grammar or to ethics.

In sum, competence in intercultural (versus monocultural) communication provides a basis for curriculum development, instruction, and assessment in international higher education. Both personnel in English-speaking countries and students seeking advanced degrees in these countries should be aware of developing their intercultural competence (proficiency). Language use cannot be separated from culture, and this study shows that it is not. International students bring with them diverse perceptions of academic English writing when they enter the English-speaking academy. EAP professionals can help with research-based tools to disclose (a) what students are taught in their home countries; (b) what students missed in terms of meeting the requirements for disciplinary writing; and (c) how EAP faculty, course designers, and disciplinary professors can collaborate to bridge the gap for both students and universities that place value on best practices for teaching, learning, and assessment. The questionnaire designed for this study is one such tool and will be used to collect data in other EAP writing cultures such as Arabic, Hindi, and Russian. The complete article for this study can be found in ESP Across Cultures (2013), volume 10.

References

Anugkakul, G. (2011). A comparative study in language learning strategies of Chinese and Thai students: A case study of Suan Suanandha Rajabhat University. European Journal of Social Sciences, 19(2), 163–174.

Bain Butler, D. (2010). How L2 legal writers use strategies for scholarly writing: A mixed methods study (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Maryland, College Park.

CCCC Committee on Second Language Writing. (2009). CCCC statement on second language writing and writers. Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/secondlangwriting 

Gillett, A. (1997). Intercultural communication. ARELS Arena, 16, 22–23.Retrieved from http://www.uefap.com/articles/arena.htm

Institute of International Education. (2012). Open Doors 2012 “fast facts.” Retrieved from http://www.iie.org/en/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors

Siirila, A. (2010). New students data: China grows by 30%. Retrieved from http://www.asiamattersforamerica.org/new-students-data-china-grows-by-30


Donna Bain Butler, PhD, Adjunct Professor and Fulbright Specialist, Applied Linguistics/EFL, American University’s Washington College of Law, Washington, DC, USA

Michael Wei, PhD, Associate Professor and Director, TESOL Program, University of Missouri, Kansas City, USA

Yalun Zhou, PhD, Michigan State University, USA

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