Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

How Do Culturally Situated Notions of `Polite' Forms Influence the Way Vietnamese Postgraduate Students Write Academic English in Australia?

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

How Do Culturally Situated Notions of `Polite' Forms Influence the Way Vietnamese Postgraduate Students Write Academic English in Australia?

Article excerpt

This paper explores how the Vietnamese culturally situated notions of `politeness', which are embedded in Vietnamese postgraduate students' performance at different Australian universities, influence the way they write academic English. The data of this qualitative study were collected from in-depth interviews with four Vietnamese postgraduate students from different universities in Melbourne. The paper also makes suggestions to Australian academics on how they can best help Vietnamese postgraduate students' writing at universities.

Introduction

With the increasing number of Asian students enrolled in Australian tertiary institutions, cross-cultural issues in learning have drawn great attention in the literature, for example, Ballard (1984), Ballard and Clanchy (1984, 1988, 1991a, 1991b, 1997), Barrett-Lennard (1997), Burns (1991), Chalmers and Volet (1997), Felix and Lawson (1994), Kennedy (1995), Liddicoat (1997), Samuelowicz (1987), San Miguel (1996), Watkins and Biggs (1996). Such issues relate to a variety of academic performances of Asian students, among which academic writing seems to cause most trouble.

Cross-cultural issues, in general, arise when `the non-native speaker has to learn to communicate in a specialist community in another language' (Liddicoat, 1997, p. 13). When shifting from more traditional eastern backgrounds to an open western environment, cross-cultural adjustment is vital to survival, adaptation and development for every single easterner. For Asian students who are enrolled in tertiary institutions in Australia, an English-speaking country, cross-cultural issues challenge them right from their arrival. The culturally situated notions of `politeness' which are embedded in these students' academic performance have been explored (Farrell, 1994, 1997a, 1997b; Liddicoat, 1997). Such cross-cultural issues also sometimes act as gatekeeping events, such as exclusion from courses on the basis of `unsatisfactory' writing.

With a large population in different Australian universities, Vietnamese students have contributed to the multicultural environment of university life in Australia. However there are seldom any studies conducted specifically with Vietnamese students to see what difficulties they have had in their academic writing performance at universities. For this reason, I conducted a study with Vietnamese postgraduate students from different universities in Melbourne to explore how the Vietnamese culturally situated notions of `polite' forms influence the way they write academic English in Australia.

Culturally situated notions of `polite' forms

Since language and culture are closely connected to each other and one's culture influences one's writing (Farrell, 1994, 1997a, 1997b; Hall, 1997; Liddicoat, 1997; Purves, 1988), `actual discourse is determined by socially constituted orders of discourse, sets of conventions associated with social institutions' (Fairclough, 1989, p. 17). Purves (1988) contends that `the ways in which we express thought in writing are very strongly influenced by our experiences with discourse generally and written text specifically and the related conventions that govern each of these within our own social and cultural contexts' p. 178). Such arguments help to explain the relationship between the Vietnamese culturally situated notions of politeness and Vietnamese postgraduates' academic writing in English.

The notions of politeness in English writing, as Farrell (1997b) argues, `reflect a relatively high value placed on combativeness and individualism, and a relatively low value on community identity and traditional forms of knowledge' (p. 69). In order to be polite in a test, particularly in academic writing performance, candidates are advised to enjoy an equal relationship with the examiner who is reading their essays. Nevertheless they should not be considered `aggressive' or `arrogant' or `rude' in arguing in favour of a point of view or against another point of view. …

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