Vol. 6. No. 1 R-10 June 2002
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Second Language Writers' Text--Linguistic and Rhetorical Features

Eli Hinkel (2002)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xx + 370
ISBN 0 8058 3888 0 (paper) 4033 8 (cloth)
$39.95 (paper) $89.95 (cloth)

Despite the very general title, the book Second Language Writers' Text is in fact very much based around a single piece of research on the differences between native speaker (NS) and non-native speaker (NNS) academic texts. To test these differences, the native speaker students and non-native speaker students were given the same writing tasks, and their linguistic and rhetorical features were statistically analysed by nationality and task. 1,215 NNS and 242 NS essays were analysed, making a corpus size of approximately 434,000 words. The nationalities analysed were Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Arabic speakers- chosen by their numbers in US universities. Interestingly, the researchers chose "L2 texts written by advanced NNSs of English" who "had mostly already spent 6 months to 3 years studying" in the USA, and contrasted them with NSs "enrolled in required 1st year composition courses". This meant they could use "routine placement and diagnostic tests", but meant the groups were not easily contrastable as the NNSs had generally received much more instruction in academic writing than the NSs.

The results of this research are divided into "Nouns, Pronouns and Nominals", "The Verb Phrase and Deverbals", "Adjectives and Adverbs", "Subordinate Clauses" and "Text Rhetorical Features", and then the differences by writing task are dealt with by prompt and then by nationality. The results are presented as text, tables of statistics (both in the text and in 70 pages of appendices at the back) and graphs. The text does well to guide you through the important points in what can be an overwhelming amount of information, and the results can certainly be interesting and perhaps different to what you would expect from less technical analyses of your students' texts. For example, NNSs actually used third person pronouns more than NSs, usually where a NS would rephrase or restate the noun phrase.

The prompts used were on the strictness of parents, grades and learning, pay for performers, types of lesson, parents influencing opinions, and choosing majors. All of the questions specified that opinions and exemplification were expected. The differences were more than you might expect from quite similar looking prompts .In fact the task "affected practically all aspects of text construction", and the differences are analysed in detail in the book. The most interesting conclusion for me was that if students are given two possible opinions that are more difficult to choose between, the language produced is more complex. [-1-]

The book then goes on to present the author's interpretation of what the results should mean for academic writing courses, in sections on "Determining Priorities" and an epilogue dealing with implications for teacher training and for the classroom. The author's "top-tier priorities" are based on the greatest disparities between their statistical distribution in NS and NNS texts. The conclusion is that what NNS writers lack above all for writing academic texts is complexity of vocabulary. The greatest difference was in the use of fixed strings, including idioms and collocations, but others included the overuse of vague nouns (people, world etc.), and a lack of advance and retroactive nouns (e.g. issue, topic) to provide cohesion. The author then goes on to state that "mere exposure to academic textsŠ. does not lead to NNSs learning the range of lexis and collocational uses of vocabulary that they need to produce appropriate text and discourse in their writing". In the Epilogue, the author expands this point and goes on to attack the way that academic writing is taught in US universities, most specifically on the use of "process writing". I believe few people who have taught academic writing can have failed to see the gap between the emphasis in self-expression in process writing and what students will actually be doing when they produce their final theses etc. The book's conclusion is not really supported by the evidence presented here, however, as the research does not delve at all into the kind of academic writing training the individual NS and NNS writers had received. The "back to basics" approach of teaching more specific language points supported here is also unlikely to convince teachers who are not already taking this approach, as it fails to tackle the gap between what is taught and what is learnt. This conundrum was partly what gave rise to the process writing approach in the first place. The author does deal with this point by saying that the grammar and vocabulary taught has to be made more relevant to the final aims of the students, and be seen to be so, but that surely is just the start of a very difficult process.

Despite my comment above on how much the book is based on the one piece of research, an effort has been made to make the book of more general interest. The book starts with a 64-page "Background: Research in Text and Written Discourse" section and there is a glossary at the back. The background section is very comprehensive, covering more theoretical approaches and individual pieces of research. It does suffer somewhat for the general interest reader by often listing pieces of research without giving any indication of their conclusions. The glossary definitions are clear and accurate, but again the choice of terms they have chosen to explain does not exactly match what someone with a background in general applied linguistics or ELT would have difficulty understanding.

In summary, this work is a valuable reference for anyone specifically involved with the design of academic writing courses, and presents some interesting data which I am sure any writer of a more general book on second language academic writing, as well as those working on more effective ways in which to teach it, will need to take into account.

Editor's note: For more information on this text, go to:


Alex Case
Central School of English, London, UK

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