Submit Document

Cultures of Writing: How First Language Can Affect a Non-native Student’s Writing in English

Problems in academic writing in English for non-native students can be the result of the transfer of their first language.

Have you ever wondered why no matter how much time you spend learning the English grammatical rules or how hard you pay attention in your English classes, you are still unable to produce an effective English paragraph? When it comes to real writing, you tend to forget the rules of grammar you have learned and end up repeating the same errors again and again. For many ESL students, writing an English paragraph can be problematic. Some students tend to unconsciously produce the same errors repeatedly each time they write. Why is this the case?

It is said that writers usually integrate into their own writing what they have come across in texts they have read, such as the language, rhetorical style and structure. Likewise, most ESL students, even though they are unaware of it, tend to transfer the writing elements found in their first language into English writing. The transfer can work to their advantage if the element exists in both languages, but often this is not the case. For example, while the Chinese style of writing usually praises eloquent language and avoids making direct points or arguments, English writing tends to develop in a linear way, requiring the writer to directly state the point being made. The contrasting nature of the two languages can also result in the omission of some grammatical elements. In many languages, the rules of ‘articles’ and ‘tenses’ do not exist; hence, the speakers of those languages are more likely to neglect these important elements of English when producing an English text.

Writing in English is problematic for ESL students but not impossible. Now that we know that the writing style that is acceptable in someone’s native language may not be favourable in English writing, it is beneficial to work at improving the writing method that suits the conventions of English rhetorical patterns. As mentioned earlier, people’s writing performance is likely to be influenced by their reading; thus, reading English texts regularly can gradually shape the English rhetorical patterns in their mind as well. Those who wish to improve their English writing should pay more attention to the rhetorical style of the texts they read, that is, the structure of sentences, development of paragraphs, word choices, and so on. Most of all, ESL students should practise writing regularly employing what they have learned from their reading.

Updated 09 October 2018

Dr Ellen McRae,

Managing Editor,

Elite Editing.