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Global students take on new writing style

By Emily C. Tate Senior
On February 7, 2014

The first time Miami junior Yan Zhu ever cited another person's work was during her first year of college in the United States. All her prior schooling had taken place in China, where she said she was never required to attribute someone else's writing or recognize the use of outside information.

This is just one difference that exists between American and international writing styles. According to Gabriele Bechtel, Professor of English Second Language and Professional Writing courses, academic writing in the U.S. can be very distinct from other writing cultures.

"Academic and professional writing in the U.S. is very straightforward and predominantly deductive, front-loading the main point and developing the details further down in a paper or document," Bechtel said.

Jing Li, assistant professor of economics and faculty adviser to the International Student Advisory Council, also had to learn to adapt to this style of American writing. Li grew up in China and, like many international students at Miami, had to make an adjustment in his writing when he moved to the United States.

"Americans are like, 'What is my topic? What distinguishes my idea? I've got to give them that big picture first,'" he said. "The Chinese are the opposite. They talk about detail first - people get bored, people get lost, people wonder why they should care."

While no particular method is better than another, Li said, he has enjoyed becoming more familiar with the American style.

"It works well with our human nature - I want to hear a very interesting story, I want to know the important stuff immediately, and that is the American way," Li said.

Li said it is not just about writing, though. It is also about how to think, and Zhu agreed with this claim.

"Sometimes it goes beyond what we write and deals with the way we think about things," Zhu said. "The way an American student or professor explains something is very different than the way I would choose to explain it. That is because the way we think about these things is also very different."

These writing inconsistencies exist between many countries, as each culture has its own way of doing things in academia. Originally from Germany, Bechtel had to go through her own transition period when she moved to the United States.

"When I was a grad student, I did not know what a thesis statement is, and I developed my paragraphs inductively," she said. "This led to adviser feedback such as 'Frontload your main point - this is not a detective story,' which did not necessarily add to my confidence as a writer."

According to the 2011 CIRP Freshman Survey of incoming first-years, 5.2 percent of Miami students do not consider English their native language. As a result, in order to mitigate some of the difficulties of transitioning to American culture, Miami has developed programs such as the English Second Language (ESL) department.

Many international students go through the ESL department to take courses like English 108 and 109, which are designed to ease undergraduates into the new writing culture.

"A good portion of [English 108/109] course content covers what happens in American classrooms, providing opportunities to discuss differences with what students may have had in their past classrooms," ESL composition coordinator Tony Cimasko said. "Sometimes we will do lessons that are completely focused on American academic culture, and sometimes it comes up in a more informal way, which allows us to discuss it."

Cimasko said ESL's English 109 is set up similarly to English 111, which Miami students are required to take through the English department.

"There's the same amount of rigor, but the standards used to measure may be communicated over a longer time," Cimasko said. "We provide more 'drafts' than you would find in a native domestic English class."

Zhu, having taken both English 108 and 109 already, recognized the patience and compassion her ESL teachers expressed.

"Sometimes my paper did not deserve a fair grade, but the professors know that you do not understand all of the English things," she said. "They are nice, they were not always very strict on my grammar. They understood that I did not know everything for English."

Nevertheless, Zhu said she still needs more adjustment time when it comes to the American English writing style. To address such, Li proposed a writing seminar for international students, led by faculty members of the English department.

"I don't think the international students have been given enough opportunities to practice their writing," Li said. "I would hope that the university could provide a regular seminar, maybe twice a year, to international students. Especially for juniors and seniors, who are preparing to leave the university and enter the job market - they need that experience and insight the most."

Cimasko, on the other hand, is interested in merging the two types of English courses - domestic and international - into a single curriculum that can accommodate both kinds of students.

"One project that I've been working on over the past few years is getting in touch with other professors at the university through workshops and other means, helping faculty to better understand international students, to work with them, and creating lessons that are meant for mixed classrooms," Cimasko said.

In the meantime, Bechtel believes the campus community can be doing things to help with this adjustment process.

"[We can] become aware of and knowledgeable about cross-cultural differences in writing," she said, "and be empathetic with the students experiencing them."

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