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How to overcome cultural differences in ESL writing




Man struggling while writingSamantha Stroh, a published author with over 15 years of teaching experience, explores some of the difficulties second language learners face when writing in the language of another culture.

When my students know it’s time to write, the loud groans and yawns are audible from the next room. I also see many fearful faces. Very few of us enjoy the labour (yes, it is work!) of writing in our first language, but it can be terrifying in your second. An ESL writer must not only deal with grammar and mechanics (something most native English speakers also don’t understand) but also the real challenge of confusing cultural differences.

Writing expresses a person’s character and background by the tone and style that is used; trying to express that same voice while adhering to often strict style guidelines of another language can be daunting. It is possible, however, to be a great second language writer.

For ESL students, writing in English is challenging in a variety of ways, depending on where each student comes from. To understand how different cultures communicate, it’s helpful to think of the personality of that culture. Imagine being in a business meeting with native English speakers. Do they warmly greet each other with hugs and kisses? Shake hands? Bow?

In comparison with other cultures, English speakers are generally reserved. Sentences are often short and simple, and it’s the writer’s responsibility to be understood by the reader. No questions should be left unanswered and long, flowing paragraphs with never-ending adjectives and countless commas are frowned upon in most kinds of writing.

In other languages, however, such as the romance languages, paragraphs are filled with run-on sentences, comma splices and beautifully phrased ideas that the reader must interpret. Like the cultures themselves, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian writing is passionate and fiery. In English, these long, wordy sentences desperately need to be reduced. Learning the art of the semi-colon can elegantly transform an overly long sentence. For instance:

The government is proposing a new plan to reduce taxes, it will do this by cutting money from social programs, and it is expected to cause great controversy.

The government is proposing a controversial new plan to reduce taxes; it will cut money from social programs.

In second language writing, wordiness and repetition abound in the hope that continuing to make a point will make it more comprehensible. In fact, what it does is either confuse or irritate the reader, especially the English reader.

Imagine that business meeting again. The native English speakers will present their points in short, precise and direct statements that flow clearly and smoothly from one to the next. Everyone hates a business meeting that goes on too long! Repetition is used only as a device of emphasis. Techniques such as: using participial phrases, adverb clauses and prepositional phrases can help reduce wordiness, as can cutting out all unnecessary words. I often tell my students to read their work out aloud. If they need to breathe by the end of the sentence, it’s much too long.

English presents other problems for learners from Asian cultures. Japanese, Korean and Chinese writing is typically circular, reflecting a culture that honors being polite and indirect to avoid offending anyone. Confucianism, the philosophy which values a harmonious society as opposed to individual accomplishments, is still followed today (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2073227).

Making a writing plan helps to more clearly organize ideas. Also, perhaps because Asian writing is vertical instead of horizontal, sentence fragments (e.g. Jin went to the movie. Because he wanted to see it) and choppy statements are common. These are easily fixed by using connectors and transition words to reduce choppiness and more smoothly link ideas together. Jin went to the movie because he wanted to see it. As Jin wanted to see the movie, he went.

Writing is difficult, but it’s an essential form of communication in business and academia. Learning how to express yourself on paper is vital. Good strategies include keeping an error log to keep track of your most common mistakes and writing creatively.

Creative writing frees learners from set standards, allowing them to use their own voice and imagination to put their thoughts on paper and gain confidence in their writing.

And if you’re confident in your skills, you can do pretty much anything. Even write.

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  1. I never thought of it this way. It really is interesting the way people’s cultures are expressed through something as intrinsic as language.

  2. Disappointed, Samatha I expected some clear and concise suggestions of sociocultural aspects from authors like Sandra McKay or Anne Burns or even David Graddol. But nothing was cited or linked to any current research or studies. In fact, even the ending was a bit of a let down.

    No discussion on links to current ELT writing or suggested learning strategies like metacognitive learning strategies or even collaborative tasked based learning with adapted or modified topics from students to increase cultural awareness. The student would be motivated to learn about other cultures or allow them to explain in English about their culture to the other students in class.

    Yes, disappointed for the lost opportunity to explore a great topic of discussion for a teacher-learner or teacher-researcher.

    • I’m sorry that you’re disappointed. I purposely didn’t bring in any outside research because I was offering my own observations, techniques and strategies from 15+ years of teaching writing. There is a wealth of research to cite which would be a very different type of article. You raise some valuable classroom strategies that would absolutely be useful. It is difficult within one blog post to include all worthwhile ideas to increase cultural awareness and improve writing.

  3. I’m really uncomfortable with the word ‘overcome’ in the title. It seems to belong to the defence stage of ethnocentrism where cultural differences are seen as problems that need to be fixed. There’s often a kind of dualistic ‘us’ and ‘them’ type of thinking involved. The business meeting example is a good one because in cross-cultural communication, people are aiming for ethnorelativism – with an acceptance of the equality and validity of cultural differences. It comes back to the idea of who owns English. When most English speakers (writers) are non-native speakers (writers) why do we insist that all people write according to the set standards of the native speakers? Couldn’t we let an international style/styles emerge by welcoming a flexibility and pluralism in writing conventions.

    • Hear we’re you’re coming from help4ielts. Have you heard this quote by the Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic Chinua Achebe. In response to the question “can an African ever learn to use English as a native speaker?” he says: “I hope not. It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry out his peculiar experience.”

      Achebe, C. (1965), ‘English and the African writer’, Transition, 18, 27-30

      • I actually agree with both of you. Linguistic imperialism is an issue that needs to be looked at more, especially in this global age. Though I wish international forms of writing were more widely accepted, as of yet, they are not. In order to help students integrate in the academic and business worlds, we do need to teach them to adapt their styles to a more currently accepted one. However, it is crucial that students not lose their own voices when writing in English, even when adhering to conventions, and it is this that we can foster in our classrooms.

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