Cross-Cultural Aspects of Academic Writing: A Study of Hungarian and North American College Students L1 Argumentative Essays

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ABSTRACT

The paper presents the findings and implications of a contrastive rhetorical study of Hungarian and North American college students' L1 argumentative writing. With the help of the refined version of Mann & Thompson's Rhetorical Structure Analysis, the investigation highlights potentially culture-bound differences in the positioning and function of nuclear or thesis statements, logical organisation in terms of rhetorical structure relations on different levels of text and the representation of alternative viewpoints. Differing argumentative schemata are related to different underlying intellectual traditions, and suggestions are made for the pedagogical integration of findings.

KEYWORDS: Rhetorical structure, nucleus, satellite, hierarchical text organisation, plausibility judgment, inductive/deductive argumentation, opposing/supporting argument, listing/alternating/elaborating argument structure

I. INTRODUCTION

Enkvist (1990) voices a common complaint of writing teachers when he says, discussing questions of coherence and interpretability, that the problem with students is not that they do not know enough English but that they cannot think. This obviously does not mean that teachers actually know what is going on in their students' heads but that they are dissatisfied with the written products that reflect students' thinking processes. In this sense, "thinking" may be interpreted as "the capacity for logical argumentation" (Enkvist, 1990: 22), the ability to present one's propositions in a justifiable order and in a coherent manner, complying with the restrictions of linearity that writing imposes on writers as opposed to the unconstrained freedom of thinking. As a teacher of Anglo-American academic writing, I have often shared the concerns described by Enkvist wondering why advancing an opinion in second language (henceforth L2) writing means such a demanding task for most of my students, who otherwise possess advanced language skills in English. While they master description or explanation relatively easily, there are aspects of Anglo-American argumentative rhetoric that pose notorious difficulty for them, which suggests that Hungarian students may have different first language (henceforth L1)-based concepts of argumentation than what is expected of them in an English writing class. The issue is all the more relevant today as the worldwide spread of English as a lingua franca raises not only questions of foreign language learning efficiency but also the controversial problem of acquiring ways of reasoning and expression inherent in the target language culture. It was this recognition that has inspired me to explore argumentation as a cultural and rhetorical phenomenon, and compare Hungarian and North American college students' L1 argumentative writing to trace elements of culture-bound difference. In the following, I shall present the most important findings of my investigation and point out some pedagogical implications.

II. CONTRASTIVE RHETORICAL PERSPECTIVES

The idiosyncratic rhetorical features of writers from different cultural backgrounds and the difficulties they face in L2 communication have been widely explored by Contrastive Rhetoric. Ever since Robert Kaplan first pointed out that "rhetoric is not universal, but varies from culture to culture" (1966: 2), there has been increasing interest in the "cultural thought patterns" of second language writers. In cross-cultural research into argumentation, different tendencies can be observed in terms of the cultures involved in and the main objectives of the investigations. Fuelled by the Kaplanean idea, attention in the 1980s was focused on the problems second language students faced in acquiring North American rhetorical standards in US educational environments (e.g. Connor, 1984, 1987; Kroll, 1990; Stalker & Stalker, 1989). Numerous research studies aimed to contrast oriental languages with English (e.g. …