Accentuating the Cultural Aspects of L2 Writing: A Saudi Arabian Context

by Sulaiman Jenkins, Donald Peter Lambe and Dr. Motasim Badri

For many EFL instructors in foreign contexts, teaching English writing will undoubtedly be a difficult task because writing, a very complex cognitive and linguistic skill, requires extensive time and practice to master. Students must first gain competency in English grammar, understand how to construct meaningful sentences and paragraphs, and then subsequently organize those into various rhetorical modes: an arduous cognitive enterprise. By adding the layer of L1’s influence on writing acquisition, the task very quickly compounds in complexity. That is because a plethora of other important considerations must be factored into the equation when accounting for the role that L1 plays in developing writing proficiency. Does the L1 culture have a tradition of writing or does it follow a predominantly oral tradition? Are the thought processes involved in composing texts similar between the L1 and L2 (e.g. linear vs. circular)? These particular questions and their answers provide some insight into how the transition process might be for foreign students learning to write in English and may also highlight potential hurdles many of our students face, hurdles that, we believe, are often overlooked and not entirely accounted for. For this, we sought in this brief article to explore and investigate some of the ancillary cultural issues surrounding L2 writing and at the very least, hoped to raise awareness as well as stimulate discussion about how to best address the cultural intricacies involved in teaching writing courses. We must first briefly look at three critical areas:

1)         What are some of the critical stages of the writing acquisition process?

2)         How does writing differ from culture to culture?

3)         How does one adopt the most suitable pedagogical approach to writing depending on one’s particular context?

There is a plethora of sub skills learners must acquire in L2 before advancing in writing proficiency. L2 writing involves being able to formulate ideas and express them clearly in English, which is predicated almost entirely on vocabulary and grammar knowledge (Grabe & Kaplan 1996, cited in Schoonen et al. 2003). Naturally, the growth in the complexity and sophistication of students’ texts will be commensurate with the size of linguistic knowledge they’ve learned, have command of, and can employ competently at the sentence and paragraph level. So initially, students must have the ability to manipulate their knowledge of vocabulary and grammar in order to competently express themselves.

However, becoming competent isn’t restricted to just linguistic knowledge; as proficiency grows, so too must meta-cognitive understanding about ‘what works/doesn’t work’ in English. After students build a sizable linguistic foundation, they must start internalizing the norms and expectations of the audience for which they are writing. This is a very significant part of the acquisition process in that, beyond merely learning new words and grammatical rules and manipulating them, students must deconstruct the concept of what constitutes ‘good writing’ in L1. Essentially, they have to distance themselves from the “cultural backgrounds [that] influence their organization of writing…[and] how they express their main ideas…” (Ming et al. 2008). Because writers’ cultures encapsulate values which influence their understanding of what’s appropriate/inappropriate, this process of deconstruction is not always an easy transition.

English functions primarily in a linear fashion, whereas other cultures (e.g. Chinese) focus on more circular patterns of reasoning/expression. Some cultures place the onus on the reader to figure out what the writer intends with his/her writing rather than place it upon the writer to make his/her ideas and line of reasoning crystal clear (S. Allaei & U. Connor 1990). As such, what happens when a student is completely foreign to such concepts? How can the students learn about these critical differences, sometimes stark, if they’re never taught explicitly? The world is quite vast, and as such, people have different writing systems to express themselves. Therefore, it becomes very important to prevent ourselves from falling into the danger of adopting myopic approaches with regards to teaching writing, approaches which assume that learning to write in English is just a matter of learning grammatical rules, sentence structures, or particular writing strategies. There needs to be a bit more pedagogical support to help students make this important transition. This is where, we believe, one must analyze more thoroughly some of the important cultural underpinnings involved in developing L2 writing skills.

Decades ago, Robert Kaplan provided some insight into the differences between L1 and L2 writing when he introduced the concept of contrastive rhetoric. Kaplan (1966) galvanized attention when he wrote “logic which is the basis of rhetoric, is evolved out of culture; it is not universal.” (p.12) He went on to explain that by extension, rhetoric cannot be universal either but must rather be considered an artifact which varies from culture to culture. In addition, thought patterns which guide and mold rhetoric are also cultural bodies which ‘evolve’ out of culture, no one thought pattern being superior to another, “…not a better or worse system than any other, but…different.” (p.12) In time, his theories have been challenged (a synopsis can be found in Kubota & Lehner 2004), but nevertheless, we are to be cognizant of the fact that our students may have backgrounds in writing systems that are completely different than what they’re attempting to learn in English. As educators, then, it becomes incumbent on us to factor that into the pedagogical/curricular equation; we must take into account some of the cultural constraints that L1 could possibly have on L2. This is best achieved by having some insight into the functions L1/L2 writing have played in the society/educational system, especially with regards to the frequency of/exposure to L1/L2 writing as well as differing systems of organization.

These two areas are critical in that students who are not exposed to writing in L1/L2 at all (e.g. from predominantly oral traditions) or who have limited exposure to writing will have a brittle foundation from which to operate. In the context where we teach, Saudi Arabia, it is well-known that it is a culture doesn’t particularly write much and that reading and writing are not widely utilized/practiced skills (Al Yacouq 2012). Furthermore, in a small-scale study we conducted on 75 male/female students (see Table I) we found that students had very little practice writing in their own languages, let alone in English! If this is the case, then this has to be factored in when determining the pace at which teaching L2 writing is conducted. For example, developing or teaching a writing course in our context, in which little writing has been done before, would need extra care and attention focusing on

1)         practicing the skill of expressing one’s ideas through writing by free writing or journal entries first

2)         understanding and constructing solid English sentences before moving on to more complex organization (e.g. paragraphs and essays).

This way, students build a solid linguistic and cognitive base in writing before advancing on to more complex stages in the acquisition process. Contrarily, to begin a writing course in such a context by teaching paragraph structure and different rhetorical modes without giving any consideration to the function writing has had in L1 is disastrous and could actually demotivate students as they struggle to ‘figure out’ what works/doesn’t work.

With regards to systems of organization, they differ from culture to culture. In Arab culture, studies have shown that Arab cultural thought patterns may reflect elements of “repetition, indirectness, elaborateness, and affectiveness” (Rass 2011). A student, then, who hasn’t been exposed to English thought patterns may write beautiful sentences using L1 thought pattern. In our case, if students use the same Arabic thought patterns but with English lexicon, they will run the risk of their work being evaluated as “irrelevant, illogical, or unclear” (Ming 2008) because their presentation of ideas will closely mirror that which they’re accustomed to in L1. So rather than ‘get to the point’, they might express their ideas in a circular fashion. In this instance, then, it is also important to explicitly teach students that there may be very different ways of presenting ideas in L1 vs. L2. It is the job of administrators/instructors to determine how to raise student awareness of those differences and help provide ample practice so that students can internalize the thought pattern that governs English writing. One possible solution could be to take an ‘academic’ source of L1 writing and compare it to an academic source of L2 writing on a similar topic. Instructors and students could discuss what they thought was similar/different between the presentation of ideas.

One final point is that we feel this call for explicit instruction of some of the cultural intricacies of L2 writing is particularly important in EFL settings for two reasons. Firstly, students studying in ESL contexts have the advantage of being exposed to English on a daily basis and a wealth of linguistic input to draw on due to the very nature of them studying in an English speaking country, whereas EFL students usually suffer from “a scarcity of input in English (comprehensible or any other) [as well as] serious limitations in variety, richness and volume of the input available” (Tarnopolsky 2000). Secondly, ESL students also have the liberty of having any linguistic input constantly situated in L2 cultural pragmatics and norms. Therefore, their predictions about and experimentation with the language are always reinforced by the metacognitive knowledge they necessarily gain by constantly interacting with proficient L2 users. EFL students, on the other hand, are not afforded these opportunities, and as such may require much more time and effort to gain such metacognitive knowledge.

In conclusion, this was a brief commentary on some of the peripheral, yet integral, cultural issues that we felt are important parts of the writing acquisition process, especially for students studying English in foreign settings. Hopefully, educators and curriculum designers alike find currency in this important proposition and incorporate some of these ideas so as to make this important transition to academic English writing as easy as possible for learners.

Table I results:

Author’s Bio: Sulaiman Jenkins is a US citizen working as an English lecturer. He completed his BA at Amherst College and his MA in TESOL at New York University. His research interests include the relationship between culture and language, learner identity, and second language writing. Donald Peter Lambe is currently Chairman of the English Department and has been working in Saudi Arabia since 1990. His research interests include first/second language acquisition as well as syntax. Dr. Motasim Badri is an Associate Professor of Biostatistics and graduated from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He published widely in infectious diseases with focus on HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. His research interests also include medical education. All authors are currently working at the College of Science and Health Professions, King Saud ibn Abdul Aziz University for Health Sciences in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


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