Mother tongue rhetoric transfer is inevitable in ESL writings, especially for the Chinese ESL learners, since Chinese and English are quite different. The paper discusses the negative transfer of mother tongue rhetoric in Chinese ESL learners’ writings from the perspectives of thesis statement placement, discourse cohesion and coherence, choice of diction, use of passive voice, and application of figures of speech, finding that the intensified cultural inputs and authoritative corpus imitation may be helpful in ESL writing.
Keywords: mother tongue rhetoric negative transfer ESL writing.
The statue quo of ESL writing teaching in China is far from being satisfactory, since most of the learners are under the influence of their mother tongue, especially the rhetoric habits. Having studied the compositions of some English majors in a provincial university in China, we found that most of the compositions could only convey the writer’s ideas grammatically correctly, but the organization and the style of the passages are quite far from the standard of the native language.
1. Placement of the Thesis Statement
Thesis statement is supposed to provide the stance, the belief, or the point of view of the writer; or it states the purpose of the essay and conveys the central or main idea of the text. It is decisive for the success of a passage. For native English writers, it usually appears at the beginning of passages, mainly due to their linear thought pattern and writer-responsible culture.
Linear thought pattern, according to Robert Kaplan (1966), is also referred to deductive thought pattern or general-specific thought pattern. It goes from general to particular, from abstract to concrete. Thus, by the thought pattern, a paragraph is usually linear in its development, beginning with a topic sentence, developing by a series of detailed sentences supporting the topic sentence by examples and illustrations, finally concluding by restating the topic sentence. Moreover, writer-responsible culture requires the writers to put forward their opinions right at the beginning of their writings.
Unlike the explicit placement of the thesis statement in English writings, implicitness is a common feature of the thesis statement placement in ChineseESL learners’ compositions. ChineseESL learners, due to their indirect thought pattern, are likely to spiral around and around the point without stating what it is or until the very end of the passage. Besides, brought up in reader-responsible culture, they hold that it is the responsibility of the readers to understand what the writers intend; readers are supposed to read between the lines.
However, for native English readers, they want to know the main point directly at the front, and the rest of the passage to be structured as a point-to-point argument to prove that the main claim or thesis is valid. So, most of them are not patient enough to read till the end to find the main point of the Chinese learners’ writings, let alone the passages of which the thesis statements are implied, not clearly stated within the lines.
2. Discourse Cohesion and Coherence
English is a hypotaxis language, which emphasizes the completeness of form and clear logical relationship among sentences. The cohesion of English discourses is mainly achieved by means of conjunctions, relative pronouns, relative adverbs, etc.. Hence the coherence of English discourses is overt.
Quite different, Chinese is a parataxis language, in which conjunctions are much less frequently used than in English, largely due to the intuitional thought pattern of the Chinese culture. Thus the coherence of the discourses is covert, dependent on the understanding of the readers.
In the process of English writing, ChineseESL learners are frequently under the negative impact of their mother tongue rhetoric habits, therefore their writings tend to be spoiled by the lack of cohesive devices, and appear to be logically unclear and hard to read for the native readers. For example: Pollution has become a serious problem, we should take steps to control it.It’s no hard for Chinese learners to understand the sentence, which appears to be Ok in the parataxis Chinese, in which the logical relation between two clauses can be realized via their order in the sentence: the cause goes before the effect. While in English, the sentence is unacceptable because of the lack of conjunction to explicitly present the cause-effect relationship between the two clauses. Only when the two are connected with a conjunction, for example, since, can the sentence be a semantically cohesive one: Since pollution has become a serious problem, we should take steps to control it.
3. Choice of Diction
G. Leech recognizes seven types of meaning in his Semantics written in 1974: conceptual meaning, connotative meaning, social meaning, affective meaning, reflected meaning, collocative meaning and thematic meaning. He collectively calls connotative meaning, social meaning, affective meaning, reflected meaning and collocative meaning associative meaning, which refers to mental connections that arise when conceptual meaning comes to mind.
Chinese and western cultures are different in folk custom, thought pattern, value and geographical situation. That may result in different associative meanings of a rational concept. Therefore, the failure in telling the differences will give rise to unsuccessful communication.
In both English and Chinese, animal names are frequently applied in the description of certain features of man or things for the sake of vividness and concreteness. However, not many animal names have the same or similar associative meanings in the two languages. One of the most typical examples is the contrast between “dragon” and “龙”, which denote the same imagined creature but mean greatly differently. Since the ancient times, “龙”, which embodies “power”“ authority”“talent”and “good luck”, has been taken as the totem of Chinese nation. It has far-reaching influence on Chinese culture and has become an indispensable part of it. The emperors were called “真龙天子” since they were believed to be the sons of the heaven; common people’s great ambitions for their children is termed “望子成龙”. Above all, the Chinese, abroad and at home, call themselves the descendants of “龙”, that is “龙的传人”.
Quite opposite, dragon, the English counterpart of “龙”, is defined as a large fierce animal with wings and long tail, which can breathe out fire; what’s more unacceptable for the Chinese is that in BritishEnglish dragon is a synonym of the woman who behaves in a fierce and frightening way.
As a result, no matter how dragon is respected in Chinese culture, once it appears in English writings of theChineseESL learners, derogatory comprehension will be inevitably worked out, which is definitely contrary to the writers’ original intention.
4. Use of Passive Voice
Chinese is a left-branching language which makes sentences from subordinate clause to main clause, that is, from old information to new information. Such a rhetorical habit may partly account for the deficiency of passive voice in Chinese students’ writings. For example:因为风太大，我们必须推迟比赛。“风太大”is the old information, and “推迟比赛”is the new. Due to the negative transfer of their mother tongue, Chinese learners are likely to work out the following translate: Because of the strong wind, we must postpone the competition.
English, on thecontrary, is a right-branching language. Within a sentence, the main information is usually put at the beginning in the main clause to achieve eye-catching purpose and the minor information in the following subordinate clause. Therefore, English writers are much better at using passive voice which is used to prepose and emphasize themes. Hence, a better and acceptable translate is: The competition must be postponed due to the strong wind.
Apart from the above discussion, in English, subordination is more frequently used, while Chinese prefers coordination. That also can be a reason for the deficiency of passive voice in Chinese writings. For example: The boys were shouting outside, and violently they broken down the gate. Such a coordinating expression is more often used in Chinese. To be native, a subordinating expression in passive voice is a better choice: The gate was violently broken down by the boys who were shouting outside.
5. Application of Figures of Speech
Figure of speech is an artistic use of language as a result of language development and improvement, for the purpose of understanding as well as emotional resonance in the process of communication. Many figures of speech are used in both English and Chinese. They are of the same tenors but with different words and phrases being employed for vehicles.
In China, bamboo shoots are used to compare to the things that appear quickly and in large amount. While in the Great Britain, where the geographic condition and climate are quite different from that in China, bamboos are not found but mushrooms. Hence, in English, mushroom is the vehicle, while its Chinese counterpart “bamboo” may result in confusion even nonsense.
Literature figures are frequently use in the figure of comparison as vehicles in both English and Chinese. In Chinese, he who returns kindness with gratitude is called wolf, an evil character in a well-known Chinese fable: Mr. Dongguo and the Wolf. The wolf killed Mr. Dongguo who saved him when he was in great danger. While in Aesop’s Fables, snake takes the same part, who took a deadly bite of the farmer who put the snake in his bosom when it was almost frozen to death. Therefore, the Chinese proverb“子系中山狼，得志便猖狂”is “To put the snake in your bosom is just like to forgive your enemy” in which snake takes the place of“狼”（woof）.
Similar examples are also found in the use of synecdoche. For example, Chinese and English have different vehicles for “livelihood”. In English, the most frequently used dinnerware “fork and knife” and the indispensible food “bread and butter” are the substitutes for “livelihood”. In China, “bowl” is the most popular container of food, which is supposed to be held in hand when people take meals. As for Chinese, if one has a bowl in hand, his “livelihood” is ensured. However, it must be perplexing for native English speakers to associate “livelihood” with “bowl”, since bowl is a much less important participant of the European cuisine.
Chinese and western cultures are so different that the loves of Chinese may be the hates of English. In western countries, “old” is a taboo, which is rarely used to modify a person. So in their cultures old people are euphemistically called “senior citizens” to avoid being offensive. However, in China, where the old are well respected and cared, “old” is not a taboo. Put in front of one’s family name to address him\her, it shows the friendliness and intimateness between the two sides of the conversation, e.g. 老王. When “old” goes after the family name, the addressee’s rank and honor are clearly highlighted, e.g. 王老.
Rhetoric is indispensible for writing of all kinds. In the process of writing, foreign language learners are usually suffering the interference of their mother tongue rhetoric. How can we solve the problem of drawing the output of the foreign language learners as closely as possible to the target language? Firstly, a contrastive study on the differences between the two languages, especially cultural differences, is necessary. It requires the intensified inputs of the target culture to shorten the social and cultural distance. Besides, the authoritative corpus is suggested to be imitated to lessen the negative influence exerted by mother tongue.
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