Cultural Root

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Culture Root and Academic Writing: Factors That Influence Chinese International Students’ Academic Writing at Universities in North America

By Lan Zhong University of Windsor

Cultural Root Abstract In this paper I examine the three major factors that influence Chinese international students in academic writing: culture, education, and language. The aim of the paper is an

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attempt to understanding the challenge of Chinese international students in academic writing. I conclude with educational implications that students should be aware of challenge based on difference of cultures, educational experiences, and language backgrounds; they should positively modify their approach of attending classes, learning strategies, and to learn ways of developing arguments and presenting ideas in order to adjust their study in a new country without losing their own cultural values. The conclusion also implies the significance for professors both in China and North America to develop the strategies and practice to finding ways of helping Chinese international students writing academically and learning successfully in North America.

1999.g. 1997) state that the native culture and the target culture (Kaplan. Dong. Researchers (e. 1991. educational experience in the home country.. and linguistic backgrounds than other students. 1995). Blunt & Li. Academic writing is not easy for most native speakers. Gadman. . Zhu. 1992). Ballard & Clanchy. Hayward. who have different cultural backgrounds. the differences between the first language and the target language. such as Europeans (Casanova & Hubbard. educational and linguistic differences. There has been considerable research on ESL composition processes by college ESL students (e. educational backgrounds. and how this challenge impacts Chinese international students’ study in North America. Connor & Kramer.Cultural Root Culture Root and Academic Writing: Factors That Influence Chinese International Students’ Academic Writing at Universities in North America Introduction 3 There are increasing numbers of Chinese international students studying at universities abroad. as they attempt to meet academic writing requirements (Thesen. Brools. 1985. 1995).. I deeply understand the challenges in academic writing encountered by many Chinese international students as I do. 1997) in North America. 1996.g. Failure of the successful academic writing may lead students to emotional stress. 1995. 1998. who are required to do academic writing in English (Dudley-Evans. but until recently. 1995). It is more difficult for Chinese international students. low self-esteem. 1992. Silva 1993. In other words. Chinese international students have to struggle with resolving difficulties both on an academic level and on conflicts due to cultural. and students’ previous knowledge of grammar and writing skills. Crow & Peterson. physical problems. little has been written about ESL graduate level students’ academic writing (Casanova. 1998). 1994. and slow academic development. Zamel. As an international Chinese student.

However. in social sciences and humanities. and short answers which require reproduction. plan/proposals and book reviews. summaries. They found that the common written genres include literature reviews. include documented essays. I explore some of the factors that challenge Chinese international students in academic writing.Cultural Root 4 influence the graduate second language students’ academic writing. The most common written genres for course assignments. in ways that reflect their own language and culture. Academic writing in this paper refers to the course assignment writing and the research proposal for a thesis or dissertation (Hu. Moore and Morton (1999) studied the written genre and text at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in Australian universities. in physical and mathematical science and engineering. according to Hale et al. Kaplan (1996) illustrates graphically typical various modes of discourse structure by speakers of several languages as below. few in-depth studies have examined the factors which influence Chinese international students’ academic writing. 2001). expositive and argument essays are frequently required. summaries. . This aim of this paper (together with follow-up papers) is to contribute to Chinese international students learning successfully. (1996). In this paper. research proposals. Culture Kaplan (1966) is the first author to state that people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds organize discourse differently.

and circular approaches to the topic. Confucius is the representative of Confucianism (Chan. . The central idea of Taoism is to promote the inner peace of individuals and harmony with nature (Berling. Confucianism sought to teach the proper way for all people to behave in society. That is. everyone restrains his or her ego and absorbed the supreme order of ritual. Although this work has been viewed as generally too simplistic. which would lead to a just and harmonious society. Wang. Taoism believes that everything we know is encompassed in nature.” “Tao” in the Chinese language means “way.” indicating a way of thought or life. 1990) have explained the influence of cultural thinking patterns on the worldviews. and language use of ESL/EFL learners. Since then researchers (McLoughlin. 1996. Yu. and ruler-subjects-involved a set of obligations. The universe and all things in it. Wierzbicka (1990) states the relationship of language and culture: “Differences in the ways of speaking prevailing in different societies and different communities are profound and systematic. That is viewed as inductive. 1985. McLoughlin (1995) holds that traditional writing in Chinese discussed the subject from different angles but in indirect way. and reflect the different cultural values” (p. indirect. run according to the “Tao. 1994.Cultural Root 5 The above graphics demonstrate that the “Oriental” pattern including Chinese is an inward turning spiral (Kaplan. while writing in English prefer to present the main point at the beginning. 1995. 1982). He claimed the proper patterns to be obedience and loyalty of inferior to the superior: each relationship--husband-wife. Mohan & Lo. 1988). values. Confucius claims social harmony and the building of ethical virtues. 43). behaviors. which shows direct. Traditionally. while the Anglo pattern is linearity. Wierzbicka. Confucianism and Taoism mainly shaped Chinese culture. 1966). parents-children. they do open up what has become a fruitful discussion about the nature of different writing patterns in different cultures.

is mainly featured as following: (1). Using long sentence. obedience and loyal to the superiors. condition. people should be selfdiscipline. which can date back five thousand years ago. both in spoken and written language. Chinese logical structure. but also as a principle of discourse organization at the text level. modesty. This way of presenting an idea and organizing discourse reflects Chinese traditional culture value in self-discipline. Kirkpatrick (1993) explained that the sequence of modifier-modified in Chinese language is not only present in word pairs. sentences with complex clauses. the views of the world. and avoid being too aggressive and offensive. People should be modest and be oriented towards the collective. 1998) when people express their ideas. Chinese traditional culture not only influences people’s behaviors. and harmony characteristics (Chan. Chinese writers tend to put the less important first. Conzalez et al. ways of thinking patterns. Confucianism advocates social harmony. human and nature should be in harmony. 1991). but also the writing system.Cultural Root 6 In sum. Chinese writing system. To avoid expressing what they want to say overtly and openly. 420). and gradually express the main ideas to invite easy and harmonious agreement (Leki. Thus. Taoism believes that everything in the world is wholeness and connected. 1991). As McLoughlin (1995) states that paragraph organization and overall coherence also reflect cultural variation in thinking and logic.(2001) state that “the syntactic organization of discourse follows a modifier-modified unit” (P. (2) put the important word and idea to the end. Wang (1991) states that Chinese rhetoric patterns tend to produce longer orientation to the theme of a sentence or discussion than English native writers. location or reason before they go to the main ideas. often places the key words or important ideas towards the end of the sentence or paragraph (Wang.Chinese writers often start the main idea by first stating the purpose. This Chinese cultural based rhetoric pattern and idea presentation makes sense as Chinese .

an inward turning spiral (Kaplan. 1992. and that its tone should be polite and reasonable rather than strident or badgering (p. Crow & Peterson.Cultural Root 7 writing is inductive. direct thesis . and convincing reasons (McLoughlin. . and circularly approaches (McLoughlin. In addition to its "natural" structure.g. develops statement by defining. 2000). formal logical argument and analytic deduction flowering in Greece The North American cultural pattern expected thought sequence in linear in its development. simple sentences. When Chinese students are required to writing academically in Northern America universities. with either explicit or implicit attention paid to possible objections. logical and to the point. and demonstration. that it should be short. without irrelevant digressions. a tradition of adversarial debated. 1995). followed by convincing reasons that support it.. as it showed in Kaplan’s graphic as “Oriental pattern” -. 1996). Casanova & Hubbard. Education It is most difficult for Chinese international students to conduct academic writing which require critical thinking and analyzing because the students’ previous education almost never not require such thinking (Grierson. they use to transfer the writing patterns that they have been familiar with in China. 1995) to the topic. then. Northern America academic writing expects short. The Chinese writing system was established almost five thousand years ago.. 1995).12). and Westwood. and speak more frankly.. Unless the intention is to connect with the previous sentence. the argument should sound assertive and confident. Goode (2000) states that western thinking has existed at least since ancient times. Westwood. indirect. And many of them find it is difficult to present academic writing in an acceptable form (e. Helen Fox (1994) confirms this assessment with her own observations of what most college teachers expect academic writing to look like: In its simplest form an academic argument is just a clear. this writing pattern often places the primary emphasis or key idea at the front of the sentence.

The long-established Chinese culture emphasizes authority (Chan. Young. organizer and friendly critic (Jiang.g. learning by listening and reflection (Cortazzi and Jin. Teachers are expected to impart knowledge to students almost completely and clearly. an authority. 2001. listening and taking notes. Instead. The students’ duty is to acquire knowledge from teachers and obtain wisdom. Studies (e. Most of the times teachers stand in front of the classroom when they deliver classes. In contrast. The desks and chairs are usually fixed and can seldom be moved because teachers dominate the class. 1991. they may see the western students’ frequently interrupting teachers by asking questions in class as rude and not good manners. The individualist cultures are more likely to want to show up in class. Teachers talk more in the class than in Canadian classrooms. 2001). rule-governed family and society and collective.Cultural Root Roles of Teachers and Students Teachers are viewed as authority figures in China who embody knowledge (Jiang. and engage in debate. In addition. If a student does not understand what the teaching is talking about. but tend to maintain formal and distant relationships with teachers. They are often . they are critical of too much informality in the classroom and lack of respect for professors. Students sit in the class. 2001) show that Asian students tend to show respect to the teacher.. he or she usually will wait until the class is over. The collectivist culture makes this student not want to bother the teacher’s talking and interrupt other students’ listening to the teacher in this way. 1994). he or she usually does not stop the teacher immediately. 1997. To question and debate the authoritative teachers is generally regarded as an inappropriate challenge to teachers and a disrespect to teachers (Ballard and Clanchy. 1988). 1996). and a “parent. power distribution. to ask questions. give answers. the North American students view the teacher as a facilitator. Cortazzi and Jin (1997) argue that Chinese students are more likely to view a teacher as a model. Jiang.” students are also more likely to see their own roles as result-focused. 8 2001). Hu.

2003). 9 Reading comprehension and grammar exercises. In contrast. books. via using computer-based technology in and out of class. 1999). are the activities most used by English teachers (Cheng and Wang. or with the whole class: group work. . Students usually reread the text books and notes they took in the class from the teacher’s talking if they have problems in doing their homework. open students’ minds. Classroom Activities As described above. Students’ deeper understanding can be achieved through dialogue and collaboration with their peers and their teachers (Biggs. and projects (Foster. essay writing. and Internet. Mainly. oral presentations. but also enable students to share ideas. 1994. and stimulate critical thinking. Northern America teachers expect their students to develop independence. problemsolving. in North America there are a variety of class activities that require students either work on their own. Additionally. students have few opportunities to participate in activities.Cultural Root seen as competitive. students are required to complete their work on their own. such as the Internet. 1985). generally. whole class discussion) work with others gathering and using information from journal articles. reflection writing. report writing. Vygotsky (1962) asserts that each individual’s learning is facilitated by his /her social interactions with others. view a topic in different aspects. Take English courses as an example. such as multiple choice and fill in the blank. shed new light on topics. discussion (small group discussion. and Videoconference. students obtain rich resources for academic writing. engage in dialogue and develop critical thinking (Young. 2004). Classroom activities not only increase students’ cooperative ability. an critique evaluation of articles. in groups. Toomey. WebCT. since teachers dominate the class in China.

academic writing is required to analyze. teachers encourage students’ questions. . understanding concepts rather than knowing facts. According to recent studies (Biggs. The benefit of the recitation learning strategies is reflected by an old Chinese saying: recite three hundred poems from the Tang Dynasty [very famous classic poems in Chinese literary history]. In addition. based on the memorizing and rote learning strategy. criticize.. which functioned to help students memorize the classics. Ballard and Clanchy. 2001). and recite the famous poems and articles in the textbooks.g. 1990). one can compose one poem (Hu. analyzing. 1997). 1996. through repeated memorizing.Cultural Root Learning strategies 10 Use of memorizing and rote learning is the Chinese students’ major learning approach (e. western cultures value competition. Kember & Gow. and criticizing. and express the author’s own opinions (e. be rigorous in organization. out of context. In contrast. 1989. 2001).g. there is a sudden enlightening of the meaning. Initially. memorization and rote learning strategies stress recitation of Confucian classics. 1996. students have to obey the teacher. they are used to repeating other authors’ opinions rather than giving their own opinions in developing conclusions in their assignments (Watson. Harris.. However. Instead. analyzing rather than rote learning. 1996. This learning strategy is commonly based on Confucian heritage cultures. No critical thinking is trained. 2001). Moreover. rather than remembering facts in isolation. and confined people to old books without anti government ideas (Jinag. the students’ academic writing is usually more reproductive (Watson. evaluation. 1997). 1991. Ballard. Kember & Gow. 2001). in academic writing. and they encourage students to develop as independent learners by training students’ questioning. Clanchy & Ballard. 1990). the process of memorizing leads students to understand materials gradually (Biggs. For instance.

the emphasizing one teaching approach only. the outgrowth of the language arts” (p.Cultural Root With such learning strategies used by Chinese students from elementary schools to universities. Ediger (1999) asserts that “variety in selecting words to convey an accurate meaning is necessary in speaking and writing. written communication is more effective when a depth of vocabulary and command of language is evident” (p. In other word. 1986). Corona et al. exam-based education. Language Language proficiency is one of the conditions for writing well in any language (Simpson. 2003). Since Chinese and English languages belong to different school of linguistics. which require strongly convincing argument with writer’s own ideas (Hu. the breadth and depth of a student's vocabulary will have a direct influence upon the descriptiveness. and homogenous culture increase this difficulty. . critique of articles.26). accuracy. and thesis. Chinese international students have problems in selecting vocabulary accurately. 1). Since Chinese and English languages belong to different school of linguistics. and employing grammar correctly (Hu. Vocabulary The ability to write effectively depends on largely having an adequate vocabulary (Mayher and Brause. and quality of this student’s writing. 2001). using vocabulary variously. 2001). 1998. 2001). it is very difficult for Chinese international students to completely understand the expectations from professors in North America regarding academic writing. such as the 11 reflection paper. Chinese students frequently struggle with choosing an accurate vocabulary to express exactly what they want to say. (1998) share the similar idea: “at any level. the vocabulary and grammar are almost completely different. Zainuddin & Moore. and with using variation of words and sentence structures to express ideas (Hu.

students spend lot of time reciting vocabularies. However. Grammar Another problem comes in grammar errors. Many students can memorize all the vocabularies in the vocabulary handbook preparing for TOEFL and GRE tests. a few can even memorize the vocabularies in the Chinese-English dictionary. In this case. 2). Therefore. little attention is paid to making students practice vocabularies by listening. Through a multi-case study of fifteen mainland Chinese graduate students’ in science and engineering at a major Canadian university. and verb). The findings showed that students’ grammatical problems mainly include subject-verb agreement. Zhong. meaning. students need not only know the knowledge of the word: pronunciation. adjective. and large stores of words in mind. However. the feature of the word. 1999. journal writings.g. although students have the knowledge of the spelling and pronunciation. English teachers spent time in teaching knowledge of vocabulary. the feature of word (e. p. 2001). misuse of prepositions and conjunctions. they write very few essays and research papers in English before they come to North America (Hu. and storing large numbers of words in mind. and so on (Corona et al. 1998. 2005).. the meaning. The vocabularies stored in students’ minds are like sleeping volcanoes which is not been made activate by using them.Cultural Root 12 In terms of learning vocabulary. run-on sentences. spelling. according to my experience as a teacher in China. noun. and doing writing activities. students “will memorize terms and concepts for testing purposes only or largely” (Ediger. Teachers should provide students a variety of activities to incorporate new vocabulary into their oral and written opportunities to express ideas. such as small group and whole class discussions. but also. as Ediger (1999) states. dangling . oral presentations. students should be able to contextualize the vocabulary terms they have learned and use them in society. overuse of the passive. book reports. Hu (2001) explores the writing processes and challenges of these students. speaking.

some of 13 students had a good mark on the TOEFL test. and required students to do exercises such as multiple-choice questions and fill in the blanks. most students understood grammar forms well. and the Situational Teaching Approach) dominated the English classroom (Richards & Rodger. In the English teaching and learning classroom. students memorized these grammar rules and did many grammar exercises which were isolated from meaningful conversations in context (Liu. Consequently. the Audiolingual Teaching Approach. Students who were taught via the Communicative Teaching Approach were more likely to express themselves in the classroom and could express themselves more fluently than the students who were taught via the grammar. Few meaningful communicative opportunities were provided for students (Chastain. 2005). 1988). 2001) was introduced in China. 1998). although among the fifteen participants. students made more grammar mistakes both in speaking and writing (Zhong. Grammar-Based Teaching Method Switch to Communicative Approach For several decades prior to the early 1980s. 2001) in China. traditional grammar-based teaching approaches (the Grammar-Translation Approach. This teaching approach moved attention from explicit grammar instruction to fostering learners’ communicative competence. but they had difficulty expressing what they wanted to fluently and appropriately in both conversation and writing (Swain.based approaches (Swain. 1998). and many might have received high marks in examinations on grammar. . Chinese English teachers spent most of their time on explanation and analysis of grammar points and rules. in the Communicative Teaching Approach without teaching grammar. 1995). Hu comes to conclusion that having knowledge of grammar and a high mark on the TOEFL test does not mean one can use the language well.Cultural Root modifiers. In the mid 1980s. the Communicative Teaching Approach (Richards & (Rodgers. and non-parallel structures. However.

According to the Chinese Education Commission. parents would like to choose such a school for their children. But present exam paper is mainly knowledge focused (Liu. Thus. China has developed a well-organized examination system in the world. and school administrators. the case is that the he results of examinations are related to students. 1995). Accordingly. the school can gain more financial support both from government and parents. Based on my over ten years experience as a university teacher and student-teacher supervisor. which implies a good future. high rates of students who pass the university entrance examination is judged by the public as meaning a quality school. So I have this first-hand information). when examination is coming. anyone who wants to be enrolled in a university has to take English exams. Writing ability training and learning is paid little attention in daily classroom teaching. China is examination-based education. to satisfy the need of examination in writing. Take English as an example. The best students passed the examination were to be offered appointment to lesser offices in the central and local administrations. which stressed on literary skills. Consequently.While writing ability is included in the English examination for university entrance recently.Cultural Root Examination-Based Education Traditionally. Good marks for student means obtaining the ticket to enter university. I keep close relationship with secondary schools in my home town. school teachers can get more bonuses and other benefits. (As a student-teachers’ supervisor. Chinese English teachers provide writing models to simulate the format of the university entrance . teachers teach to fit the contents of the examination. Civil-service 14 examination. Also. Being associated with the educational ideal “universal education without class distinction” (Confucius). Since ancient time. Examination is still important to many Chinese today. was given every year. teachers. parents. Some of my university classmates are working at schools. it represents only a very small percent of the total score. and schools foster test-trainers.

other subjects textbooks are written in Chinese. It is also a painful experience for each Chinese international student . 1998). among which culture is the root of the other two aspects. educational system. which impact on Chinese international students writing academically. and life styles. Students memorize the formats and set phrases. students have little opportunity to practice English socially outside of English classroom. but they still have difficulty in expressing what they want to fluently and appropriately in both conversation and writing (Swain. let alone use critical thinking. previous educational background. Language Learning Environment English language is a foreign language but not a second language. A student’s only chances to practice English is in class. Consequently. while communication is stressed in some schools and universities recently. but seldom to express their own opinions. the grammar teaching usually is included little. As a homogenous culture as China is. most students have knowledge of vocabulary and understood grammar forms well. Now. It is so confusing when Chinese international students first come to North America and find out that many things are dramatically different from what they have been familiar with since they grew up: the culture. English journals are limited. weather. and language background are major aspects that influence Chinese international students’ academic writing. Furthermore. Neither Chinese English teachers nor students’ have sufficient opportunity to experience North American culture and to employ vocabulary and grammar in context.Cultural Root 15 examination in English writing. Cultural background. except English textbooks. and many might have received high marks in examinations on grammar. Conclusion It is a challenge for Chinese international students in North American universities to write academically. as well as food. the language. and set phrases which are frequently used in the examination.

further study in finding ways to help them have success with academic writing in English is of vital importance. .Cultural Root who has to rediscover their self-identity. educational experiences. and to learn ways of developing arguments and presenting ideas in order to adjust study in North America universities while do not lose their own culture values. and language backgrounds modify their approaches to attending in class. However. Understanding the major factors that impact on their academic writing can enable educators’ both in China and North America to develop strategies and practice to help Chinese international students to learning successfully. it is very important and necessary for Chinese international students to be aware of challenge based on difference of cultures. even though some of them have successful academic experience in China. Therefore. and satisfy the academic expectations in North America. learning strategies. learn completely new concepts (or ways of doing 16 things).

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