Though e-mail has become a common interpersonal communication medium, it does not mean that this medium is used without difficulty. While people can write e-mails to peers in any manner they like, writing e-mails to authority figures requires higher pragmatic competence and critical language awareness of how discourse shapes and reflects power asymmetry in an institutional context. For L2 learners, the challenge of composing this type of e-mail can be greater due not only to their limited linguistic ability but also their unfamiliarity with the target culture's norms and values. To provide a deeper understanding of how an L2 learner develops email literacy in the target language environment, this paper presents a longitudinal case study of a Taiwanese graduate student's e-mail practice in English during her studies at a U.S. university for two and a half years. Using a critical discourse analysis approach, the study reveals the complexity of an L2 learner's evolving e-mail practice and struggle for appropriateness, particularly in her e-mail communication with professors. Her development of e-mail literacy is discussed in relation to her evolving understanding of the e-mail medium, changing performance of student identity, increasing knowledge of student-professor interaction and realization of culture-specific politeness.
The development of information and communication technology along with the widespread use of the Internet has rapidly promoted e-mail as a common interpersonal communication medium. With its high transmission speed and less intrusive nature, e-mail has been widely used for both personal communication and institutional communication, particularly in academic and business institutions (Baron, 2000; Crystal, 2001). The wide use of the e-mail medium, however, does not necessarily mean that it is used without difficulty. While people can write e-mails to peers in any manner they like, research has shown that people in the workplace tend to feel uneasy writing e-mails to those perceived as higher in status when initiating communication, suggesting new ideas, making requests, and expressing disagreement or criticism (Baron, 1998, 2000; Kling, 1996; Murray, 1988, 1995). They usually need to spend more time planning and composing such status-unequal e-mails in which various face-threatening acts are involved.
An important reason for the challenge of using this medium, particularly for status-unequal communication, is that e-mail, unlike face-to-face talk, lacks paralinguistic cues such as vocal inflection, gestures, facial expressions, and a shared mental and physical context (Murray, 1995). These paralinguistic cues usually constitute metamessages that convey social meaning (e.g., relationships between and attitudes toward each other) and serve as social lubricants. Without these paralinguistic cues, the metamessages sent via e-mail are revealed solely by how the written words are chosen, expressed, and organized. Wording and message structuring, thus, become more crucial in e-mail communication than in face-to-face talk.
However, there seem to be no fixed, standard e-mail writing rules for users to observe, especially since email is a hybrid discourse inheriting features of both written and spoken language. On one hand, e-mail users may feel liberated from the restriction of traditional letter writing rules; on the other, they may struggle to produce an appropriate e-mail to meet the recipient's standards. Though the appropriateness of language use in e-mail may differ from person to person, it is generally determined by those who have more power, like any other communication medium. As Fairclough (1995) points out, "appropriateness is an 'ideological' category, which is linked to particular partisan positions within a politics of language" (p. 234). That is, appropriateness is ideologically situated in different sociocultural contexts and those who have less power need to observe standards of a dominant sociocultural group. This critical perspective on language use implies that e-mail users do not always have freedom in writing when they are in a position of lower power; instead, they have to follow the standards of appropriateness set by those who are on the dominant side in order to communicate successfully.
For nonnative speakers, writing status-unequal e-mails can pose an even greater challenge because they need to have sophisticated pragmatic competence in the second language (L2) and critical language awareness of how discourse shapes and is shaped by power relations, identity, and ideologies established in the target culture. Due to their limited linguistic ability and unfamiliarity with the norms and values of the target culture, confusions or problems can occur in their L2 communication, including e-mail communication. In Shetzer and Warschauer's (2000) discussion of electronic literacy, they have placed strong emphasis on the importance of L2 learners' pragmatic competence for computer-mediated communication, such as the ability to perform speech acts and use appropriate communication strategies in the online environment, yet they did not address how L2 learners develop such pragmatic competence for producing electronic discourse. The development of pragmatic competence and critical language awareness in using the e-mail medium, which I would like to term as "e-mail literacy", is a pressing issue in the digital era and needs to receive greater attention in second language research and education.
To gain a deeper understanding of how an L2 learner develops e-mail literacy, I conducted a longitudinal case study of a Taiwanese graduate student's e-mail practice in English during her studies at a U.S. university for two and a half years. This case study particularly focused on a type of status-unequal e-mail practice in the academic context: the student's e-mail communication with professors. Using a critical discourse analysis approach (Fairclough, 1995), this study aimed to uncover the complexity of an L2 learner's developing e-mail practice and to explore sociocognitive and sociopsychological factors affecting her language use via this medium in relation to power relations, identity construction, and culture-specific ideologies.
STUDIES ON L2 LEARNERS ' E-MAIL PRACTICE--A PRAGMATIC PERSPECTIVE
Studies on L2 learners' e-mail practice have mostly focused on how e-mail exchange, either between L2 learners and native speakers or between L2 learners of diverse linguistic backgrounds, facilitates second language learning and encourages collaborative writing (e.g., Cummins & Sayers, 1995; Lapp, 2000; Li, 2000; Liaw, 1998; Pennington, 1996; Singhal, 1998). A number of studies compared how L2 learners' email discourse differed from L2 oral discourse (Chapman, 1997; Warschauer, 1996) or differed from L2 offline written texts (Biesenbach-Lucas & Weasenforth, 2001). However, not many studies investigated how L2 learners use e-mail from a pragmatic perspective, as a day-to-day communication medium to carry out a variety of social functions.
Concerning the few studies on L2 learners' e-mail practice, I would like to focus on a common type of email practice that most L2 learners who study in higher educational institutions need to do--e-mail communication with professors. This type of e-mail practice has received increasing attention from researchers and educators because they found that the e-mails that L2 learners write often contain some inappropriate language use and may even produce a negative impact on their studies. Probably the earliest study on L2 learners' e-mail communication with professors was conducted by Hartford and Bardovi-Harlig (1996). They compared how international graduate students and U.S. graduate students made requests to professors via e-mail and reported four important findings: (a) international students used fewer mitigating forms in their request e-mails that produced a negative impact; (b) they used institutional explanations less frequently for their requests; (c) they mentioned their personal needs and time frames more often for their requests; and (d) they acknowledged imposition on the faculty members less often than U.S. students. The authors concluded that the L2 students' use of these discourse forms and strategies reflected an overestimation on the part of the student of the faculty member's level of obligation to comply with their requests and that they seemed not to recognize the different status that the student and the professor assumed in the academic context. This study points out crucial pragmatic problems in L2 students' request e-mails sent to professors, yet it does not explain why they used these socioculturally inappropriate discourse strategies.
Subsequent studies on student-to-professor e-mail communication have similar findings. Biesenbach- Lucas and Weasenforth (2000) found that L2 students used fewer modal constructions and hedged expressions in their e-mails than did U.S. students; instead, their e-mails often contained inappropriate pleading for help from the professor. In addition, L2 students employed negotiation moves less frequently and solicited professor responses less explicitly, which indicated that they lacked effective negotiation skills, which might hinder them from achieving their communicative goals. Examining the same e-mail data, Biesenbach-Lucas (2005) further pointed out that L2 students demonstrated less initiative and weaker capability in using e-mail to interact with professors than did American students, particularly in providing progress reports, negotiating project topics, requesting professor responses, and offering potential response points for the professor. Both studies attributed the deviation of L2 students' language use in e-mail to their adoption of an inappropriate cultural model that might be acceptable within their native cultural experiences but not acceptable within the U.S. academic culture. Furthermore, Biesenbach-Lucas (2005) speculated that some L2 students' limited experience with the e-mail medium in their home countries might also make their e-mail use ineffective or problematic. Hence, she suggests that L2 students need to learn appropriate ways of both interacting with professors and using the medium.
Bloch (2002) examined how L2 students used e-mail initiatively to interact with their instructor and found that they were generally able to employ a variety of rhetorical strategies depending on context. Yet some of the rhetorical strategies that L2 students used for making requests and excuses were not institutionally appropriate because the degree of power in their e-mails was not properly distributed, and the reasons that they provided for their purposes were not persuasive, which reflected a lack of respect for or resistance to the instructor's authority. He concluded that writing a successful e-mail requires more than simple fluency in the target language; rather, it requires the ability to express oneself using a variety of linguistic forms and rhetorical strategies, and most importantly, to know when it is appropriate to use them.
With a focus on Chinese-speaking students' e-mail interaction with U.S. professors, both Chang and …