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Getting it ‘write:’ Essay styles vary by country, creating difficulties for international students

Published: Monday, October 20, 2008

Updated: Monday, October 20, 2008 08:10

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Tien Tien/Tufts Daily

The Olin Center houses Tufts’ language professors, many of whom notice vast differences between American and foreign essay styles.

This article is the first part in a two-part series examining the disparities between essay-writing styles in nations around the world. This installment focuses on the American model in comparison with those of other countries and looks at how the differences affect international students' experiences at Tufts. The second will focus on what Tufts does to provide support for these students, as well as how American students who study abroad are faced with similar issues.

Words like "topic sentence," "thesis statement" and "conclusion" have been ingrained in most students' minds since they first learned about the five-paragraph essay in elementary school. But for non-American students, this format is often alien.

Although most products of America's school system consider the five-paragraph essay to be standard procedure, professors may overlook the fact that these norms aren't universal, which can leave some international students at a disadvantage.

Director of the Academic Resource Center Carmen Lowe explained that at a school like Tufts, where the population is comprised of 16 percent international students, there is much room for discrepancy in classical writing training.

"Every nation and culture has its own approach to writing an essay, so when international students come here, they're shocked," Lowe said. "And it's not explicit to the professors unless they actually know that they're re-teaching international students how to write the American style essay. Most instructors don't realize that this is not a universal system."

In fact, students and professors tend not to realize that the American system is very specific.

"Almost all professors at Tufts expect students to write in the American style, which means basically to get to the point right away, be very direct, emphatically clear and don't leave any areas of ambiguity for the reader," Lowe said. "Paragraphs should have topic sentences, they should relate back to the thesis statement and there should be a clear beginning and end of the essay."

Although most countries' teachings include the necessity of a thesis statement, sometimes it's the placement of the thesis that marks for such vast divergence in the overall structure.

Assistant French Professor Zeina Hakim, who has studied French literature in both the United States and Switzerland, confirmed that the French style of essay structuring deviates from the American style, largely due to the differences in basic schooling.

"French students are trained to write an essay in the style that they called, ‘une dissertation,' a very codified version of an essay that they've most likely learned from the International Baccalaureate style," Hakim said.

The difference between the American and French styles, Hakim stressed, is especially evident in the introduction and the conclusion. She explained that the Americanized essay will often begin straight to the point, with the thesis in the introductory paragraph, while the French version may deem that style to be too abrupt, and instead choose to place the thesis in the concluding paragraph.

"With the Anglo-Saxon version, the conclusion exists to synthesize and restate what has been proven throughout the essay; it's very natural," Hakim said. "The French, on the other hand, prefer suspense — they prefer to wait until the conclusion for the thesis to appear."

Lowe confirmed Hakim's observation, and claimed that this may be true in greater European culture as well.

"With the European style, their notion of what is good academic writing has to do with the fact that your reader is not an idiot — if you make things too clear, you will offend the reader," Lowe said. "So you, as the writer, will guide the reader gradually to your point."

Hakim went on to say that there are fundamental differences in thesis placement, even though the body paragraphs of both nations' essay styles remain largely the same.

"Another difference is that the French often begin with questions in their introductions as a didactical way to show the reader which questions the essay will answer, but the ‘developpement' (body paragraphs) in both models, would be very much the same," she said.

Hakim stressed, however, that although the French version may be structured in a different way, it doesn't mean that the core elements of the essay differ too vastly from the American style.

"Students shouldn't see the French as not using thesis statements — in both the French and the English style, the thesis is very important, but it just differs in terms of where it appears," she said.

But the French writing style is not the only culture that differs from the American one — in fact, Lowe explained that many other nations use markedly different writing models from those in Romantic language-speaking countries.

"The Chinese have something called the ‘Eight-Legged Essay,'" Lowe said. "It's this extremely ancient, complex form in which you as a writer are supposed to explain to the reader why you chose this topic, why it's interesting and what past scholars have said about the topic, etc. To an American reader, it may seem like ‘Where's your point?' But it's just another very different style of writing."

In addition to the disparity in essay structure, Lowe said that the Chinese, and many other Asian countries, also tend to endorse very different styles of learning methods from what is commonplace in the United States.

"In a lot of East Asian cultures, students are taught all through elementary school, high school and even into the undergraduate level, that what they're supposed to do is memorize, word-by-word, verbatim, what experts and authorities say and then just spew that out as fact," she said.

Such methods, though perfectly accepted and common in those nations, can sometimes get students in trouble with issues of plagiarism here in the United States.

"[In such nations], there are no copyright laws, there's a lot of memorization regurgitation, the whole concept of ‘intellectual property' does not exist," Lowe said.

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