Skip to main content

Cultural and Linguistic Awareness


Please use the links below to learn more about the differences in culture and languages of our international students' countries:

Arabic | Chinese | French | German | Hebrew | Japanese | Korean | Russian | Spanish


Why are we doing this?

Graduate writing fellows should have some knowledge of different cultures and linguistic perspectives to prepare themselves for working with international writers. With a large percentage of ESL clients visiting our writing center, fellows should be prepared for a heterogeneous group. They need to recognize that students from each national group share a set of writing difficulties which are closely related to their linguistic and cultural backgrounds. The information provided enhances the knowledge of Graduate Writing Center fellows. The research will help equip them with information to better serve international ESL students. These students face challenges when operating in a different cultural and educational system and writing essays in English—a language other than their native tongue. Therefore, fellows must be aware that ESL students' writing can be affected by the rhetorical styles of their first languages.

Disclaimer: In order to understand and better help international ESL students, writing center fellows can use this researched information when approaching each writing session. The researched information will include differences between countries, including but not limited to culture, language, and education. These guidelines are intended to help fellows gain a better understanding of the writing challenges ESL students encounter when writing in English; they are by no means exhaustive.


Arabic: مرحبا


Countries include but not limited to: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Syria


Arabic is a Semitic language, having a grammatical system similar to Hebrew and Amharic (Ethiopian). Arabic exists with a wide variety of colloquial dialects. A universal "pan-Arabic" language is taught in schools and used by the mass media and government offices in all Arab countries.

Cultural and Rhetorical Influences

  • Arab is a cultural, not a racial, trait. The Arab world includes Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
  • Arabs highly respect positions of power and authoritative figures.
  • “Arabs tend to be more collectivistic." This entails placing importance on the group rather than the individual. "As an individualistic culture, Americans value completion and reward personal performance. Arabs, on the other hand, place value on teamwork and collaboration."
  • Men do not shake hands with an Arab Muslim woman unless she offers her hand first.
  • "The Arabic approach to writing is ‘Rhetoricism,’" which values expression as opposed to conciseness. "In the Arabic culture there is a strong emphasis upon effective expression."
  • “Arabs lean toward exaggeration, emotionalism, overstatement, and what is sometimes called 'purple prose,'" a flowery style of communication.
  • Arabic composition relies heavily on extensive use of rhetorical figures, varied repetitions, elaborateness, and overstatement.
  • “Arabic does not distinguish between past tense and present perfect, relying on context to clarify the precise meaning."
  • “Arabic prose tends to have longer sentences than English prose, given to coordinate rather than subordinate clauses."


  • The alphabet is very different from English:
    • Has 28 consonants and 8 vowels.
    • Short vowels are unimportant and rarely appear in writing.
    • No distinction is made between upper and lower case.
    • exts are read right to left.
  • Fewer vowel sounds makes it hard to distinguish between certain words (i.e. ship / sheep).
  • Sentences place the verb first, followed by the subject.
  • Adjectives follow their nouns and agree in gender and number.
  • No present tense of "to be"; no use of "do" as an auxiliary verb.
  • Present perfect tense is very difficult for students to use.
  • Indefinite articles do not exist.
  • Unlike English, Arabic requires pronouns in relative clauses.
  • Proverbs and proverb phrases enhance the effectiveness of Arabic writing.

Chinese: 您好


Countries include but not limited to: Republic of China, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia


Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family. The language is a collection of numerous dialects, which may be classified into eight dialects, including Mandarin and Cantonese. All dialects share a written language and important basic features at all structural levels.

Cultural and Rhetorical Influences

  • Show high respect for authoritative figures
  • Students may only listen and take notes.
  • May have difficulty collaborating in tutoring sessions.
  • Sharing others' ideas is acceptable; citing and plagiarism are not strictly enforced.
  • May feel uncomfortable and hesitant working with others.
  • Used to more formal atmospheres of learning and self studying.
  • Activities which are 'pleasurable' and 'fun' may not be conducive to proper learning.
  • Chinese education focuses on the learning method of rote memorization: a technique based on repetition and eventually leading to the recollection of the meaning of the material.
  • Voicing opinions may be difficult due to language barriers or respect for authority.


  • There are structural differences in paragraphs, which may seem incohesive in English writing.
  • Writing is not straight forward and it reiterates many points, producing wordy and repetitive paragraphs.
  • No latin alphabet:
    • Uses symbols to construct words, making it even more difficult for students to learn English
    • Word usage is also difficult.
  • Stress, tone, and pitch are all used to say a specific word:
    • Difficulties hearing differences and pronouncing r and l
  • There are no articles.
  • Conveys meaning through word order rather than verb inflections (is, are, were).
  • Trouble with tenses:
    • ie. She has got married last Saturday. (wrong tense)

French: Bonjour!


Countries include but not limited to: France, Belgium, Canada, Lebanon, Morocco, and Haiti.


French is an Indo-European language and part of the Romance group. Although different dialects exist in French, they are mutually comprehensible. Norman contributed greatly to English, causing many similarities between French and English, both in syntax and vocabulary.

Cultural and Rhetorical Influences

  • Very formal: not as open as Americans and may take time to be acquaintances.
  • May be aggressive in social settings (argue in sessions when suggestions are made).
    • Voicing opinions is highly valued.
  • Traditionally independent.


  • French is a very prescriptivist language.
  • Alphabet: Very similar, excluding letters with diacritics: é (acute accent) è à ù (grave accent), ç (cedilla), â ê î ô û(circumflex), ë ï ü (diaeresis):
    • May mix up i or j when with e or g.
  • Phonology can cause problems with spelling:
    • May omit “H” in words (‘Ave you ‘eard about ‘arry?).
  • Grammar is very similar to English; however, tenses are used differently which may cause improper tense use in English.
  • Does not have the word “do” which can cause problems forming a question.
  • Articles may sometimes be missing.
  • Subject verb object syntax may get mixed up:
    • ie. "You with I play sometimes golf."

Japanese: こんにちは


Countries included but not limited to: Japan, Korea, and Hawaii.

Cultural and Rhetorical Influences

  • Indirect communication is used.
    • Body language, including actions and facial expressions, are the true expression of the speaker.
  • Being 'put on the spot' in public is avoided.
    • Getting an answer wrong can be a cause of real shame.
  • Spontaneous answers are rare.
  • Non-Japanese tutors may easily misinterpret embarrassment as inability to speak.
  • Tentativeness is preferred to assertiveness, hesitancy to momentum.
  • Social hierarchy of in-group and out-group:
    • Friendships take time and trust to build.
  • Questioning authority is frowned upon:
    • Regard for authority and formality is in tune with teacher-dominated lessons.
    • Focus on the 'correct' answer; grammar is emphasized over content.


  • Writing systems: Kanji, Hiragana & Katakana (characters), and Roumaji (Arabic letters).
  • Articles “the/a/an” do not exist.
  • Adjectival phrases always precede the noun.
  • Subject-object-verb word order.
  • Relative pronouns do not exist.
  • Relative clauses precede the modified word.
  • Subordinating conjunctions follow their clause; sentence particles showing interrogation, affirmation, tentativeness, etc.
  • Topic of a Japanese sentence may be announced separately at the beginning:
    • Similar to spoken English, "That car" - we've had nothing but trouble with it.
  • Verbs are self-contained entities: every verb can stand as a sentence on its own, except for the copula (be).
  • Difficulty arises with the complex English tense/aspect system:
    • I see her tomorrow.

Korean: 안녕하세요


Countries include but are not limited to: North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.


The Korean language belongs to the Ural-Altaic language family. The syntax is similar to Japanese, and Korean uses some Chinese characters. Korean is the official language of both North and South Korea; however, the separation of the two countries has resulted in minor differences in spelling and vocabulary choice.

Cultural and Rhetorical Influences

  • Strong cultural pressure causes Koreans to speak in an unhurried manner.
    • Koreans are reluctant to use gestures of any kind when giving presentations.
    • Anything more expressive is regarded as unacceptable.
  • Smiles may be ambiguous, representing a variety of different emotions.
  • Students have little experience constructing essays, because the teachers focus on grammar.
  • Learners are extremely reluctant to speak to avoid judgment, affecting their tutoring involvement
  • Eye contact is regarded as rude.
  • Korean students value the considered pause as it gives them more time to process information.
  • Openness is viewed as being effusive and verbose.
  • Authoritativeness may be interpreted as anger or the sign of an aggressive personality.


  • The Korean language includes many dialects:
    • Differences in pronunciation, making it difficult for some Korean speakers to learn English.
    • Standard Korean language speakers have a slight advantage learning English.
  • Korean letters are phonetic symbols, not ideograms.
  • Characters cannot be capitalized; therefore, Korean students may have trouble with capitalization.
  • Punctuation marks present difficulty, since spaces between words are used in substitution.
    • A noun suffix is used instead of possessive apostrophes.
  • Sentences are structured through subject-object-verb order.
  • No auxiliary verbs exist.
  • There is no perfect aspect in Korean.

Russian: Привет!


Countries include but not limited to: Russia, Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, and Turkmenistan.


Russian belongs to the Slavonic branch of the Indo-European language family. An estimated 80 million people in the former republics of the Soviet Union also have Russian as their first language with another 40 million people in these newly independent countries using Russian as a second language or lingua franca.

Cultural and Rhetorical Influences

  • High respect for authority figures.
  • Those in authority are expected to act dictatorial.
  • Change is often seen as a group endeavor, not the individual.
  • Tendency to be pessimistic:
    • Habit of smiling all the time can make the person angry
    • Belief that things normally go wrong creates perseverance
  • Paper assignments are given limitedly; more focus is placed on class discussions.
  • Students are mostly taught what the answer is, not why or how it is.
  • Organization is not viewed as highly important.


  • Russian is part of the Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family.
  • Word meaning is expressed through adding prefixes and suffixes.
  • Due to phonological differences, sentences may have misused words:Few auxiliary verbs occur; no articles exist.
  • Has 5 vowel sounds without a distinction between long and short vowels.
  • Difficulty can occur with words: set / sat or sit / seat.
  • The “th” sound does not exist; therefore, spelling problems may arise.
  • Few auxiliary verbs occur; no articles exist.
  • Russian is a very phonetic language: predictability in spelling by sounding out.

Spanish: ¡Hola!


Spanish: Countries include but not limited to: Spain, Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.

Catalan: Countries include but not limited to: Catalonia, Andorra, and Balearic Islands.

Cultural and Rhetorical Influences

  • Communicate indirectly
    • "Yes" can mean maybe or no depending on the circumstance.
    • Direct statements are usually embedded within extra context.
  • Time is relative: human needs hold higher importance than deadlines.
  • Focus on the core group(s); group harmony.
  • View change as disruptive to harmony; adapt to problems.
  • Used to formal instruction from teacher, dependent on written materials


  • Do not introduce the main point at the beginning. Usually, the main idea is introduced in the middle of the paper.
  • Vowels can be troublesome due to the similar characters but different pronunciation.
  • Comma use can be used with more flexibility which can cause overuse or improper use of the comma in English.
  • Spanish is a syllable-timed language (English is a stress-timed language) which can cause a lot of misspelled or misused words.
  • Verbs are inflected greater than in English; no one-to-one comparison.
  • Generally, SVO grammar with more flexibility to move/combine phrases.
  • Latin influence: many similar words to English (cognates).
  • Strong correspondence between the sound and spelling of a word.


Banno, Eri. Shokyū Nihongo "genki" =: Genki : an Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese. Tōkyō: The Japan Times, 2011. Print.

Bascope, Judith. "Hispanic Culture in South America." Personal Interview. 15 Apr. 2014.

Campbell, Charles. Beyond Language: Cultural Predispositions in Business Correspondence. 20 Feb. 1998. Website. 27 Apr. 2014.

Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook: Flags of the World. 17 Apr. 2014. Website. 27 Apr. 2014.

Cortez, Judy. "Culture and Schooling in South America." Personal Interview. 16 Apr. 2014.

Dickerson, Miyoko. "Japanese Culture." Personal Interview. 10 Apr. 2014.

Fischer, Boris. "German Culture." E-mail interview. 15 Apr. 2014.

Goehner, Duane, and Yale Richmond. "Russian / American Cultural Contrasts." Russian / American Cultural Contrasts. N.p., 2001. Web. 08 Aug. 2014.

Mei,Sun,and Tian Zhao-xia. "The Cultural Differences Between English and Chinese Courtesy Languages." Journal of Literature and Art Studies.7.3. Web. March 2017.

Mihalicek, Vedrana, and Christin Wilson. Language Files: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2011. Print.

Moujtahid, B. “Influence of Cultural and Linguistic Backgrounds on the Writing of Arabic and Japanese Students.” Writing Lab Newsletter 21.3 (Nov. 1996) 1-11. 

Rohm, Fredric W., Jr. "American and Arab Cultural Lenses." Inner Resources for Leaders (n.d.): 1+. Web.

Shoebottom, Paul. A Guide to Learning English. 1996. Website. 27 Apr. 2014 .

Skillguru. Languages of the World. Digital image. Skillguru. N.p., 2010. Web. 08 Aug. 2014.

Swan, Michael and Bernard Smith. Learner English: A Teacher's Guide to Interference and Other Problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

Western Washington University. US / Japan Culture Comparison. 2011. Website. 27 Apr. 2014.

Zusin, Sasha. "Israeli and Russian Learning Styles." E-mail interview. 05 Aug. 2014.

Back to Top