ESL Rhetoric

Why Did You Hide Your Thesis?
An Overview of Rhetorical and Linguistic Problems for Non-Native Speakers
D.R. Ransdell

Because of the diverse student population at the University of Arizona, you'll no doubt have students in your classes whose first language is not English. Their writing might pose more problems in terms of language use and rhetorical patterns than the writing of native speakers: what follows are suggestions for approaching their work.

Background--How They Got to Your Class

International students (non US-passports) are automatically placed in the 106/107 sequence. US residents or citizens are placed into 100/101. This means that you will often have second language students in your 100 or 101 classroom. For the most part, these students are in the right place. If they’ve been living in the States for a period of time, they are probably acculturated. They might not have control over English, but they are more familiar with aspects of American society than the students who have literally just tumbled off the plane. Even if these speakers have multiple problems with language use, they probably belong in your class because they will feel more comfortable in that environment and hence work more efficiently.

Language Use and Grammar

Instructors sometimes worry that they won’t be able to help non-native speakers, but usually the students’ problems are manageable. Typical language problems can be grouped into two categories: overt mistakes and “funny-sounding” expressions. While in some cases students make mistakes such as “I go to home,” they may also compose phrases that are confusing, contain multiple mistakes, or that don't sound “right” even though they may be grammatically possible. When examining mistakes, the trick is to look for patterns. Few language speakers make a hundred kinds of mistakes. They make several kinds of mistakes over and over again. If you can help students see a pattern, (“Look, you forgot to use a comma before a coordinating conjunction three times on this page alone”), they will be encouraged and learn to watch out for such problems themselves. (For more specific information, please read “How to Sail through ESL Grammar Problems.”)

“Funny-sounding” phrases or sentences are as difficult for the writer to spot as they are to fix because there are no clear solutions. Here are some interesting ones I received last month:

There was full of anger in me.

I like to study the planet we live on and the processes occurring on it.

Apparently to everybody who was watching, the whole scene of me being tackled and failing to breathe for a few seconds looked like I was dying.

When sentences are wrong in such complicated ways, it’s easier to put a squiggly line under the sentence and ask the writer to recast the whole thing. Such trouble-spots take too much energy to analyze, and since the situations can’t be generalized, they aren't worth spending much time on.

Typical Language Problems to Watch For

Repeated mistakes often stem from categorical differences in linguistic systems. Speakers of Japanese and Korean, for example, battle with articles (the, a) because their languages simply do not use them. The use of articles in English is extremely complicated, and the rules have so many exceptions that few students find them useful. Take, for example, the difference between “I go to school” and “I go to the school.”  Both sentences are grammatically possible, but the context governs correct usage.

Asian speakers have special trouble with tenses for a similar reason: tense structures in English are quite different from the systems used in their languages. Japanese and Korean form tenses by placing a particle after the verb. Mandarin uses word order to signal time change. Indonesian forms tenses through adverbs such as “today.” Speakers of Romance and Germanic languages have an advantage--tense structures such as “I have eaten” are created in similar ways in their own languages.

Phrasal verbs are especially hard for non-native speakers: “pick up,” “pick out,” and “pick on” sound similar, but their meanings are completely different. There is no easy way to categorize and learn these phrases. If pressed, most native speakers cannot explain why you should “put on” your clothes just as you “put on” a record, or why you should “put up with” your brother after he and his friends “put you off.” Few languages use such extensive phrasal verbs. German is an exception, so German speakers might have an easier time learning some of these phrases, but the phrases can't be translated directly from other languages, and their use even differs among world Englishes.

Most second-language speakers battle with punctuation as well. For example, Spanish speakers tend to place commas where English speakers place periods because Spanish is more flexible in sentence boundaries. A related problem is that British and American punctuation differs; many of our students from have been schooled under the British system and may have learned to make punctuation judgments based on style more than grammatical forms.

Strategies for Helping Students Edit

A composition class presumes that students write in Standard Written English. This is not the case for either native or non-native speakers; most of our students need some help with grammar. While most composition teachers don’t feel comfortable spending lots of class time on mechanics, essays can’t be efficient if they’re full of mistakes. You’ll want to provide some kind of support to help your students work through language issues. I feel more comfortable pointing out mistakes on a limited part of a graded essay (I only fix what I think is beyond their knowledge, such as the right preposition for a phrasal verb), docking the essay accordingly, and giving students the chance to make up the points by editing the entire essay. That way they take over much of the responsibility. I also want to make a clear separation between content and language issues. Students become overwhelmed if they try to address too many problems at once.

Note that it is extremely difficult to speak even a little of another language, let alone learn to write in it effectively. Second-language writers are extremely accomplished. What they are doing is an incredible challenge. The students themselves sometimes fail to realize this. They may feel bad about themselves because their English isn’t perfect even though they’ve studied it for many years in their home countries. To ease my students' fears, I remind them that their language problems are normal. They are always relieved when I say, “English is not your first language. Of course you have trouble!” Many are convinced that they are the only ones who struggle with English and are unreasonably ashamed of their “shortcomings.” Your encouragement is crucial to their progress.

I repeatedly invite students to come to my office so that we can work through their material together. They can and will turn in edited material if pressed--sometimes quite hard--to do so. ESL students are seldom recalcitrant. They realize they make mistakes, recognize that formal English is important to them, and look forward to improving their skills.

Rhetorical Patterns

Language problems are the easy ones. Much more difficult to understand and approach are problems caused by changes in rhetorical systems. In writing pedagogy, these systems might be analyzed through “contrastive analysis.” To give a brief background, in 1966 Robert Kaplan wrote a landmark essay in which he claimed that languages follow rhetorical patterns. He came to this conclusion because he and his fellow teachers could guess a student's cultural background from an anonymous writing sample because students from similar cultural groups wrote in a similar manner. In his article, Kaplan described English as following a straight line, Romance languages as zigzagging, Arabic as operating in parallels, and Chinese as a spiral. Over the years, Kaplan has received lots of criticism for his generalizations, but his main point is true: students do write according to rhetorical patterns they are familiar with, and those patterns are learned through popular culture as well as formal education.

Rhetorical Problems to Expect

I don’t have a useful outline for different rhetorical systems, the exact consequences for students, and how best to help them. However, I have learned a few things that come up again and again.

Asian speakers tend to “hide” their points. They feel it is impolite to come out and state: “Chekhov suggests that love should be sought no matter the social costs.” In Asian writing, such a strong statement would seem condescending because the reader should be able to intuit the point from hints given throughout the essay (John Hinds has written about this extensively). Since American academic readers expect a strong thesis at the end of the introduction and topic sentences that govern paragraph construction, students should be taught accordingly. Their other professors won’t read their essays thinking, “Oh, Takanori is Japanese, so it’s okay if he hides his points.”

Another problem for many Asian speakers is that they aren’t used to presenting personal views.  In the minds of Asian readers, such writing is egotistical because your own opinion is not as important as the consensus of the community, so you are expected to hide your “persona” when you write. (Fan Shen speaks of this in her article about coming to accept a Western identity--the identity she needed to put on whenever writing an academic essay at her American university.)

Hispanics and members of many other cultural groups tend to use storytelling techniques when writing formal essays. The consequence is that they seem to leap from paragraph to paragraph, or sometimes sentence to sentence, without regard for whether or not the reader leaps with them. Last semester Jaime submitted an essay that was totally confusing to me--he'd relied so completely on narrative strategies that neither I nor his classmates could understand his work. His second paragraph started like this:

Jerry McGuire, a sports agent had everything going great for him. He had his life together and most of the biggest clients in pro sports. Crowe's ideas helped make this film believable by introducing real athletes to the film. Athletes such as Johnnie Morton, Drew Bledsoe, and Kijana Carter all make this film realistic enough to catch the viewer's attention.  At the beginning of the film Crowe gives the viewer the idea of how good life is for Jerry and how everybody loves him. Except he takes a 180 degree turn into the film when McGuire gets fired for something he did that he thought was morally right, which was to write a mission statement for the company.

When Jaime came to my office, I had him explain the connections that he was making in his mind between sentences, and I explained why I hadn't been able to make those connections myself. He needed me to explain exactly where I got lost so that he would know what to add.

Strategies for Helping Students Approach Rhetorical Problems

For most students, the first step is to recognize that there is such a thing as a rhetorical style. Once they see the difference, they find it easier to address. I also remind them that they are making a practical choice. They need to write in a way that will be effective in an American academic setting.

When students completely misunderstand the assignment because it is culturally foreign to them, I give them the opportunity to try again. Most foreign students have never written a literary analysis, for example. No matter how much I explain the assignment in class, it may take a while for the assignment to sink in on a cognitive level.

I constantly prompt students to discuss their work with me one on one. For many students this is necessary because their problems are so complex that advice from friends might confuse them more. I welcome the chance to work directly with students. It lets me know exactly what their problems are and helps me learn how to advise other students more effectively.

A Final Note

Many of your second-language speakers will need extra help to succeed in your classes. Encourage these students to visit you during office hours, visit the Writing Center, and get help from their friends. The complexities of language acquisition and contrastive analysis would be enough to deter any reasonable person from attempting to write in another language; with any luck, your students won’t realize the difficulties of efficiently composing essays in English until it’s too late for them to give up. More than anything else, your students need the encouragement that stems from knowing that you, the instructor, are aware that they are facing difficulties when writing in English, that you expect for them to have difficulties, and that you are ready and willing to assist them.

For further information, the following texts should prove useful.

Fox, Helen. Listening to the World: Cultural Issues in Academic Writing. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1994.

[In this excellent text Fox explains some of the many problems her foreign graduate students have had trying to cope with writing in American university settings.]

Hall, Edward T. Beyond Culture. 1976. New York: Anchor, 1989.

[Hall explains some of the differences between cultures that make communication so difficult, such as different cultures' conceptions of “time.”]

Hinds, John. “Linguistics and Written Discourse in English and Japanese: A Contrastive Study (1978-1982).” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 7 (1982): 78-84.

------. “Reader Versus Writer Responsibility: A New Typology.” Writing Across Languages: Analysis of L2 Text. Ed. U. Connor and Robert Kaplan. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987. 141-52.

Kaplan, Robert. “Contrastive Rhetoric and Second-Language Learning: Notes Toward a Theory of Contrastive Rhetoric.” Writing across Languages and Cultures. Ed. Alan Purves. 275-304.

------. “Cultural Thought Patterns in Inter-cultural Education.” Language Learning 16 (1966): 1-20.

Leki, Ilona. Understanding ESL Writers: A Guide for Teachers. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton, 1992.

[This is a useful text for anyone who teaches ESL students, written by a well-known ESL instructor.]

Ransdell, D. R. “Important Events: Second-Language Students in the Composition Classroom.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 21 (October 1994): 217-22.

[I discuss advantages to working with foreign students despite the extra help they might need.]

------. “It's All Greek to Me: Creative Writing and the Continuing Education of a Language Teacher.” English Language Teaching Journal 47/1 (January 1993): 40-46.

[I discuss frustrations with learning Greek--and how much I learned by becoming a student again.]

------. “You Can't Write a Memo in C++.” Arizona English Bulletin 36 (Winter 1994): 7-8.

[I discuss ways to convince stubborn students that using Standard Written English is to their advantage.]

Shen, Fan. “The Classroom and the Wider Culture: Identity as a Key to Learning English Composition.” College Composition and Communication 40 (1989): 459-66.

Thurston, Kay. “Mitigating Barriers to Navajo Students' Success in English Courses.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 26 (Sept. 1998): 29-38.

[Thurston discusses typical problems these students have--including the reliance on narrative techniques.]

Tucker, Amy. Decoding ESL: International Students in the American College Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton, 1995.

[Like Leki's text, this one provides insight into the ESL student's experience.]