Cultural Influence on Saudi Students’ English Writing Skills

Abstract

This paper is a proposal examining the influence of culture in the writing process of Saudi international students studying at Latrobe University, Australia. The proposed study will use ethnography of communication as the theoretical basis for investigating the influence of cultural factors on the students’ writing fluency. It will draw qualitative data from researcher and student observations about their writing. In this way, the study will examine the participant’s writing process in ‘natural’ settings in three months. The data will be analysed using thematic analysis to identify the linguistic patterns, socio-cultural contexts, and language problems that affect the students’ argumentative English writing.

Aims

The study aims at examining the influence of Arabic culture/language in the writing process of Saudi students studying a linguistic program at Latrobe University. Writing skills in a particular genre requires one to understand the language, its grammatical rules, and socio-cultural contexts that guide its textual use. Fitch (2001) writes that the ethnography of communication approach gives a theoretical foundation for studying an individual’s knowledge of the language patterns and norms specific to a particular community. In this study, the ethnography of communication approach will be used to investigate the influence of Arabic language/culture in the Saudi students’ English writing process. Farah (1997) writes that the theory is appropriate for studying a person’s self-efficacy in using “language for communication in real cultural situations” (p. 126). The study will explore the students’ English comprehension and writing efficacy based on their composition strategies.

Background on the Community

In Saudi Arabia, the main language spoken is Arabic. English is a language of communication in business circles. According to Alromi (2000), formal education in Saudi Arabia began in 1925 with the establishment of a directorate of education that borrowed heavily from the Egyptian educational model. The Egyptian curriculum followed the English educational system and so did the Saudi model (Alromi, 2000). These changes expanded basic education in the country and enhanced the enrolment rate.

Saudi students can study in any of the three education systems offered at the high school level, namely, “Qur’anic, general, and vocational” schools (Al-Zaid, 1990, p. 16). Although teaching in all the three systems emphasises on Islamic doctrines, the Qur’anic model aims at training students to become specialists in Islamic law. Learners in a general high school study a universal curriculum in the first year and major in science or art-related disciplines in later years. In recent years, the Saudi education system has faced criticism for not being sensitive to the changing needs of the labour market (Al Salloom, 1991). It has been criticised for not preparing students for university studies.

In the 1980s, the country witnessed tremendous economic growth fuelled by oil money and international influence. Saudi students started studying abroad, primarily in the US, in the early 1990s. Since 2010, the population of Saudi international students has grown to over 80,000 due to financial help from the King Abdullah scholarship program (Alhazmi, 2010). In Australian universities, the population of Saudi students stands at about 12,000 (Alhazmi, 2010). This student cohort faces challenges adjusting to foreign cultural environments that are different from their home culture. A study by Shabeeb (1996) found that Saudi students studying abroad cite their lack of knowledge of the English language as a challenge to adjusting to new social contexts. In this study, the students’ age, study program, gender, and marital status influenced how they perceived the English language as an adjustment problem.

Social relationships with the local students also affect the Saudi students’ adjustment and academic success. Al-Sindy (1994) reports that cultural differences, including gender interaction, affected Saudi international students’ bonding with their foreign counterparts. This has a significant effect on the students’ capacity to improve their linguistic efficacy. Cultural awareness is essential in forming cross-cultural relationships. AlGhalib (2004) writes that Arab students in the US are not knowledgeable of the social values of American society. This harms their understanding of foreign social contexts and practices.

Saudi’s curriculum uses English as the language of instruction at the high school level. AlGhalib (2004) highlights three defining characteristics of Saudi’s English curriculum offered at the secondary level: it contains elements of the Islamic culture; it lacks Anglo-American aspects, and it mainly focuses on the male gender. This indicates that the English curriculum taught in Saudi secondary schools relates strongly to the Islamic culture. Thus, there is a strong relationship between culture and language meanings. This means that new Saudi international students are largely unaware of foreign values and lifestyles, which affects their capacity to adjust to the new culture properly (Mohamed & Omer, 2000).

Literature Review on Prior Work on this Area

In recent years, the population of international students in Western universities has increased significantly. International students often undertake an ESL course to prepare them for programs offered in English. Conor (1996) state that the “salient differences in composing processes and texts produced” between first and second languages disadvantage international students with inadequate L2 knowledge (p. 126). In particular, they face difficulties comprehending textual features and composing texts that reflect prevailing social contexts.

Studies have examined writing as a cultural product that is specific to a particular discourse community. Berkey (2004) writes that writing in one’s discourse community requires a learner to understand the “prevailing paradigm” and standards (p. 17). Since the writing conventions and practices differ from one language to another, writing contexts and genres also vary. A three-year longitudinal study by Spack (1997) investigated the writing and reading skills of foreign students undertaking English courses. The study found that the students do not write according to the dominant American writing discourse, indicating that the way learners think and write relates strongly to their native culture.

The writing styles of non-native students tend to reflect their culture. Fox (1994) found that foreign students have difficulties in “critical analysis” because they comprehend texts in their native culture as “taught by family members, friends, teachers, and media” in their country (p. 127). Thus, adjusting to the dominant writing discourse is a challenge. A study by Abdel Latif (2007) attributed the low English writing skills among Egyptian students to foreign language apprehension. In this study, the students’ linguistic and affective skills in English influenced their writing strategies. Furthermore, the text quality and vocabulary knowledge in their writings were low. Based on the results obtained, the author concluded that Arab students in the US faced writing challenges because of inadequate “linguistic knowledge and negative writing affect” (Alhaisoni, 2012, p. 147). The two factors affected their composing process, which led to low-quality writing.

Studies indicate that first language writing (L1) can affect literary composition in the second one (L2). A study by Akyel and Kamisli (1997) investigated the relationship between L1 and L2 writing approaches among Turkish students. The study found that English writing instruction influenced the students’ attitudes towards L2 writing. This indicated that student attitudes towards the two languages (English and Turkish) affected their composition process. In particular, the study found that proficiency in L2 writing depended on the students’ attitudes towards a foreign language. In contrast, Alhaysony (2008) found that Saudi students applied the same strategies when writing in English and Arabic. The study, which involved the think-aloud method and interviews, found that students organised, edited, revised, and rearranged sentences similarly when writing in Arabic and English.

Research suggests that L1 writing consists of three elements, namely, “cognitive, socio-cultural, and linguistic domains” (Myhill, 2009, p. 409). Students face writing difficulties related to the coherence of the composed script. Coherence describes the way various semantic configurations are linked together into a logical text. To achieve coherence, the writer must be familiar with the norms and rules of a language. Al-Abed and Ahmed (1994) used a checklist to assess the argumentative writing skills of Saudi learners. The study found that college students had problems developing a central thesis for their argument. The authors attributed this to the use of L1 composing process in English writing. Al-Semari (1994) investigated the learners’ attitudes towards L2 writing. The students cited limited understanding of L2 “grammatical systems and thought/organisational patterns” as the problems they encountered when writing in English (Al-Semari, 1994, p. 267).

Basfar (1995) examined the ESL literary compositions written by 21 Saudi students. The author analysed the writings to identify intra- and extra-sentential differences. The study found that Arab writers, compared to their Western counterparts, used stylistic texts characterised by “intense coordination and subdivision” when writing (p. 176). She noted that classical Arabic and Quran styles were present in the writings of Arab students. In this view, compared to the English language that centres on the meaning, Arabic composing style emphasises on the textual language as opposed to subject matter knowledge. This implies that Arabic rhetoric writing is different from English writing style.

In another study, Mohamed and Omer (1999) investigated Arabic rhetoric by comparing novels written by Arab writers and translated into English by Western editors. The researchers examined grammatical “coordination and subordination” in the two texts (p. 296). They found that coordination was prevalent in the novel written in Arabic while subordination was high in the English version. This indicates that rhetorical writing varies between the two cultures. Ghazala (2004) argues that Arabic rhetoric is structured horizontally such that related perspectives are linked together. Additionally, in Arabic, repetition of ideas is the main strategy of persuasion and thus, coherent argumentation is not possible. Therefore, Arabic syntax limits persuasive writing; hence, Saudi students may have difficulties in English argumentative writing.

Theoretical Positioning

This study will use ethnography of communication to investigate how the rhetorical conventions of the native language affect Saudi students’ argumentative writing. The ethnographic approach will reveal how the learners write texts and the influence of their first language/culture in their writing process. Fitch (2001) proposes the ethnography of communication as an approach for comprehending language as being used in speech or writing. He holds the view that studying a language should focus on analysing its use in actual communication contexts as opposed to determining its grammatical use in abstract situations. This stems from the fact that the native language speakers use in communication not only reflects the social/cultural context, but it also follows specific grammatical norms. Thus, besides grammar, social context (communicative competence) is important in studying language patterns in written texts.

Language encompasses the shared linguistic code and the social/cultural rules and practices that surround its use in communication by a specific group. Ethnography of communication provides a theoretical basis for investigating an individual’s understanding of language patterns and how or she uses them. Fitch (2001) writes that linguistics aims to study “ways of speaking”; implying that language constitutes ways of communicating that go beyond grammatical rules (p. 447). In his view, speech consists of both the ways and the linguistic styles that people use during communication. Thus, Fitch (2001) gives an approach for examining linguistic variation and coherence between speakers. Since linguistic patterns vary widely across cultures, a person’s first language often affects his or her communicative competence in a non-native language. This implies that one has to be knowledgeable of the second culture to understand the socio-cultural contexts that guide language use.

The literature review indicates that the writing problems encountered by Arabian students stem from the linguistic differences between the Western and their native culture. The linguistic code in Arabic differs from that in English. Additionally, the socio-cultural context in which writing or speaking takes place is different between the two languages. Rowe (2011) outlines the three characteristics of a social context as “the field, the tenor, and the mode” (p. 12). These features define the social context of writing and its meaning. Fitch (2001) argues that grammar and context are interlinked and inseparable. What a person can say or write depends on the social context. Thus, studying what people say or write in a particular cultural context (language) requires an ethnographic approach. The analysis of the meanings contained in a speech or writing reveals the “participant’s setting and channel” involved in communication (Fitch, 2001, p. 56). Thus, the writing process and cultural factors are inseparable.

Fitch (2001) maintains that culture influences linguistic styles and understanding of meanings. Besides grammar, social/cultural factors form a special component of any speech or written text. In this view, one’s writing style should not only reflect the grammatical norms of the language, but also the culture underlying it. The proposed study will focus on ESL course offered to Saudi international students in Australia’s Latrobe University. An ethnographic approach involving researcher observation and fieldwork can give insights into the students’ writing process in argumentative writing. Since the students come from a different cultural background, their English writing styles will have an Arabic influence. Additionally, the rhetoric differences between the Arabic and English languages, including its horizontal structure, subdivision, and coordination, influence argumentative writing (Basfar, 1995).

The way writers organise or structure written discourse depends on the language used. Since language and culture are interlinked, one’s L2 writing is often influenced by the writing norms and rules of the native language. Semantic differences between English and Arabic influence how Saudi students use L2 in writing and speech. Thus, their text structures and composing process are likely to be different when writing in English. The subtle writing differences result from the instruction that students receive in their first language. The proposed study will use an ethnographic approach to evaluate the writing process in a classroom context.

Research Questions

The following two questions will guide this research:

  1. How does the participants’ linguistic knowledge (English) influence their composing process?
  2. How does the first language/culture interfere with the participants L2 writing fluency and strategies?

Methodology

The study will involve an ethnographic project (researcher observation and fieldwork) investigating the participants’ argumentative writing in English. It will evaluate the writing process rather than the written product. International students take English courses to improve their proficiency in the language before enrolling in their preferred programs in a foreign university. The aim is to help improve their evaluation, analytical, and reporting skills.

The study will be conducted at Latrobe University, Australia. The participants will involve a convenient sample of Saudi international students undertaking a freshman English course at the University. The English as a Second Language (ESL) program is offered to international students to improve their academic writing and composing process. The researcher will serve as the instructor and the observer during this study while the learners will be the participant-observers of their writing process. This will give qualitative data about the writing process of argumentative essays.

The project will focus on how the Saudi students (male and female) organise their thoughts when writing in English. It will involve a writing course instructed by the researcher for three months. The class, a one-hour lesson, will be offered three times a week. It will involve argumentative writing instruction followed by a composition activity that the student will complete during each period. Additionally, the students will be required to interact during the lesson and observe their colleagues’ writing styles. This will enable the researcher to assess the students’ writing process and progress within class settings.

The project will involve writing activities on three topics: (1) individual experiences at Latrobe University, (2) reflections on cultural writing patterns, and (3) aspects of the English language that are difficult to understand. Data collection will involve researcher observation of the students’ writing process during the class sessions. In the first month, the participants will consider their experiences as foreign students at the university and share them through four writing assignments completed in class. During the second month, they will write their reflections on the writing patterns that distinguish Arabic from English. In the third month, the participants will identify the problems they encounter when writing in English. During each writing session, the researcher will observe how well the students define the thesis and support it with logical arguments.

The methodology follows an ethnographic approach because it involves researcher observation. Additionally, in the study, the participants will observe their writing process. This will yield multiple perspectives about the participants’ writing process and satisfy the triangulation requirements of an ethnographic study. It will reveal the influence of the Arabic culture on English writing based on the students’ self-perceptions and the researcher’s observations. The qualitative data will be recorded for analysis.

Ethics

Ethnographic fieldwork involves ethical issues related to language and power that the researcher must address. According to Besnier (2013), university ethics clearance notwithstanding, a researcher must minimise harm to the participants. In ethnographic studies, the “entry into a community, data collection, speech transcription, anonymity considerations, and interpretation and reporting of findings” raise ethical issues (Trechter, 2013, p. 43). Although participant observation can yield insights into the ‘natural’ behaviour of a community, the researcher must protect the researched individuals from harm.

In the proposed study, potential ethical issues related to the nature of the participant observation. Thus, the study will involve an overt ethnographic approach to inform the students of the research purpose. According to Li (2008), covert participant observation, though yielding reliable data, raises ethical issues related to informed consent. In covert research, the researcher does not reveal the identity and aims of the study, which contravenes the principles of informed consent. Thus, by revealing the research identity and aims to the students, they will be able to give informed consent.

Since the researcher seeks to explore the effect of the first culture on second language writing in classroom settings, the participants will remain anonymous. By not revealing their identities, this ethnographic study will protect the participants from potential psychological harm. Additionally, by involving student observers, the researcher will absolve himself from psychological conflicts that may affect observation research. Li (2008) writes that, in sensitive research, the researcher’s characteristics must be similar to those of the participants to build an effective researcher-participant relationship. In the proposed study, since the cultural background of the researcher and the participants are the same, it will be easier to access to the experiences of the Saudi students in Australia.

TimeLine

Month Week Writing activity Content Date/Time Person(s)
1stMonth Week 1 Cultural experiences – Write an argumentative essay about the second culture
– Share with other students during class sessions
– Observe the other students’ writing process
– Three lessons of one hour each – The researcher
– The students
Week 2 Linguistic experiences – Write about the differences in linguistic patterns between Arabic and English
– Identify elements of Arabic that are absent in English and vice versa
– Three lessons of one hour each – The researcher
Week 3-4 Foreign social lifestyles and values – Write about the aspects of foreign social life that differ from the native culture – Six lessons of one hour each – The researcher
2ndMonth Week 1-2 Reflections on grammatical rules and norms – Identify the differences in grammar rules between Arabic and English – Six lessons – The researcher
Week 3-4 Reflections on social/cultural contexts – Write on how sociocultural contexts influence the writing process – Six lessons – The researcher
3rdMonth Week 1 Knowledge of the English language – Identify aspects of the English language that are difficult to understand – One lesson – The researcher
– The students
Week 2-3 Data analysis – Thematic analysis – The researcher
Week 4 Interpretation and report compilation – The researcher

Potential Educational Implications

The findings of the research will have pedagogical implications for foreign language instruction. In particular, a finding that the participants consider certain aspects of English grammar difficult to understand will indicate that they have little background knowledge of the language. This will imply that writing instruction should focus on building the learner’s L2 knowledge to improve his or her writing fluency.

The differences in cultural patterns that will be cited by the participants will indicate how cultural background affects the content and structure of written texts. This will have implications for foreign language curriculum development. The design of a program should reflect the native culture of foreign students to enhance their English comprehension. In this way, the students will “improve their syntactical structures” and argumentative writing (Mauranen, 1993). Also, the study will reveal the students’ understanding of socio-cultural contexts that surround language use. This will indicate the importance of learning culture-specific values in effective argumentative writing.

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