The Development of E-Mail Literacy: From Writing to Peers to Writing to Authority Figures

By Chen, Chi-Fen Emily | Language, Learning & Technology, May 2006 | Go to article overview

The Development of E-Mail Literacy: From Writing to Peers to Writing to Authority Figures


Chen, Chi-Fen Emily, Language, Learning & Technology


ABSTRACT

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.

INTRODUCTION

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. …

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