EMF5 Day 1 |Olga Rotko: Cultural Differences in Academic Discourse: Implications for EAP Teachers| Talk summary

Posted: March 12, 2015 in Conferences
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Olga Rotko did an very interesting session on how cultural differences play out in academic discourse. I don’t work at university, but I still really enjoyed the insights into cultures and the examples that she shared.


  • International writing styles (contrastive rhetorics)
  • Differences between Russian and American academic discourse

International writing styles

  • Semitic languages (Arabic, Hebrey, etc). These languages use a lot of metaphors and prefer long-winded descriptions to short ones.
  • Oriental (Japanese, Korean) etc avoid stating things directly (they start with explanations and then arrive at the main point. E.g. instead of saying ‘I feel homesick’ and then explaining why, speakers will first talk about their life in their motherland and only then conclude I feel homesick).
  • In English the rhetoric is traditionally linear, explicit and takes the reader straight to the point. English text employs a lot of discourse markers

Problems begin when a style is used with an audience that expects a different style. E.g. the English way or organizing a workshop is to provide an intro and a summary: Here’s what I’m going to tell you about > telling you about this > here’s what I’ve told you about.  However, a Russian audience might feel patronized.

How to address this?

Very often this is simply a matter of awareness. E.g. Petric, ‘Contrastive rhetoric in the writing classroom: a case study’.  Experiment: Petric asked the s/s to write an essay and identified that they didn’t use topic sentences. She then explained the principles of English essay writing explicitly and over 90% of the students produced the second essay ‘the English way’.

In Olga’s university they used the same approach (pre-test writing > explaining the theory > writing #2). Pre-test stage allowed, when some of the students started dismissing the information as ‘obvious’, to refer them back to their original piece of writing and demonstrate to s/s that in fact they did not adhere to those ‘obvious’ rules.

Differences between Russian and American academic discourse

Russian or Easter European rhetoric:

  • The topic is stated in the beginning. However, it may not be stated as explicitly as in English.
  • Russian discourse is deliberately complex – this is seen as a mark of intellect
  • No text organizer devices (it doesn’t feel like the writer cares about the reader)

Russian vs British. What is considered ‘simple’ greatly differs in those cultures. For instance, when Olga was creating a talk together with a colleague from Britain, here are the simple titles that they produced for exactly the same material:

  • Teaching Phraseological Paronyms: Ways to Tackle Confusable Idioms at Secondary and Tertiary Levels vs 
  • Do certain idioms and phrasal constructions confuse your students? Let’s talk (a) about (b) through (c) round it!

Of course there are exceptions, even among scholars.  For example, Judith Butler, a person considered to be one of the ten smartest people on the planet, got a prize for bad writing. Here is the sentence she got it for!


A similar example from an ELT publication: This is no place to enter into the subtleties of glottodidactic lapsology (meaning, ‘I’m not going to discuss what error means in teaching languages).



Reader-writer responsibility

  • Again, in different languages and cultures the expectations are different: for Russians, explaining the terms is patronizing. For the English, this is expected.
  • The use of ‘I’. In Russian we use ‘we’. But when writing for international audience about something she had been researching for eight years (and hence confident using ‘I’), Olga was advised to rephrase ‘I’ with Research on the typology of phraseological paronyms reveals that…
  • Explaining the methodology (in Russian, often omitted as the reader knows how this is done; in English explaining the methodology is a must).

A summary of the talk: It’s important to remember that all of these rhetorical approaches are valuable. But we need to be aware of the differences and think about the audience we’re writing for.


  1. Adi Rajan says:

    I’m so glad you were able to write up a summary for this talk. I caught some sections of it but the connection really wasn’t very good so I couldn’t follow along. I was fascinated by those diagrams Olga shared about how writing styles differ across languages and cultures. Did you happen to catch where she got that reference from? I recall her mentioning someone’s name and then she said nineteen seventy something.

    • olyasergeeva says:

      Hi Adi,
      This particular talk wasn’t broadcast, so I think the talk you caught a glimpse of was another talk on the same subject, probably the plenary by Vera I. Zabotkina (Essential skills for academic success). Re your question, are you on facebook? If yes, I’d get in touch with Olga Rotko – I’m sure she’ll have interesting references to share.

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