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Cultural Assumptions about Writing

Both the culture we live in and the first language we learn to speak are powerful forces in shaping our behavior and worldview. Usually we are unaware of the power of language and culture until we experience firsthand a different culture or learn to speak a different language. These activities make us aware that, when two cultures meet, one culture can misunderstand or misinterpret the other.

In the two selections that follow, the authors consider some cultural differences in writing. As you read the first one, answer the questions:


1. What does the term ‘contrastive rhetoric’ refer to?

2. How do cultural differences manifest themselves in a written text?

3. Why do we need more than just word for word translation to be properly understood?

4. On what levels can cultural mismatch be found?


“…The exact nature of the problem is not easy to identify and it has received little satisfactory treatment in the literature. Sometimes the term contrastive rhetoric is used to describe at least part of what we have been considering, although the issue is broader than that.

The problem typically presents itself when we come across a piece of writing that is apparently correct in its surface structures. There may be the odd sentence that, though it is grammatical, sounds unnatural because of wrong ordering or unusual collocations. Having allowed for that, there is still something exotic about the text. Very often we find that it is in ordering of the material, the treatment of previous writers, or the degree of tentativeness that cause the piece of writing to seem to belong to another culture ...

We find quite a widely held view in the literature that scientists have a common body of knowledge and way of looking at the world and that the main task of a writer from another culture writing in English is virtually that they need do no more than translate directly from one language into another. It will certainly be true that in any culture there may be more difference between writing in the arts and in the sciences than between any two cultures in a particular scientific field.

Nevertheless, there are cultural differences, even in the sciences, and a consciousness of the kind of differences between societies can be of great importance to teachers. They can then decide how far to respect the existing traditions of their learners and how far to modify them to be in line with British norms...

It is apparent that cultural mismatch may be:

– on the organizational level, e.g., how to order different elements,

– on the linguistic level, e.g., whether to use nominal or verbal style,

– on the general level, e.g., what to do about counter – evidence .”


(Brookes & Grundy, p. 30, 34)



Reading the second selection answer the following questions:


  1. Are these diagrams helpful or not in your understanding of the differences in the arrangement of ideas in your first language?

2. In what order do English readers expect ideas to be arranged?

  1. How do you know when to begin a new paragraph writing in your native language?
  2. Is the idea of a topic sentence new to your? How are the ideas about a subject grouped in your native language? What usually comes first, second, or last?


“…Learning to write in English involves more than just learning new vocabulary and grammatical structures. Part of learning to write is finding out the order in which readers expect ideas to be arranged. Some researchers have stated that readers of English expect a straight line of development. In this kind of writing, the paragraph begins with a statement of its main or most important idea; this is called the topic sentence. This main idea is divided into connected ideas that are developed further in the paragraphs that follow the first one. Although this is the traditional approach for most English speakers, it may be different from what you learned in your first language. For example, Fan Shen, who was born in the People’s Republic of China and is now living in the USA, wrote an article in 1989 about this difference. The article states:” In English composition, an essential rule for logical organization of a piece of writing is the use of ‘a topic sentence’. In Chinese composition ‘from surface to core’ is an essential rule, a rule which means that one ought to reach a topic gradually and ‘systematically, instead of ‘abruptly’.

Robert B. Kaplan in his work Cultural Thought Patterns in Inter-Cultural Education (1966) has studied the ways to which writers arrange their ideas. This field of study is called contrastive rhetoric. In 1965 Kaplan created a diagram to illustrate the arrangements of ideas in different language systems. Examine the following diagrams carefully:


Date: 2016-01-14; view: 955

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