The interpersonal function in written discourse: a comparative study of English and Italian undergraduate writing
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This study is a comparative analysis of university student writing in English and Italian (the native languages of the students). The main research issue investigated here relates to the differences and similarities in student writing across languages when the same text -type is produced within comparable situations. Cross -linguistic and cross -cultural variation in encoding and transmitting knowledge and in the way critical enquiry is conducted can be an area of potential difficulty when languages and cultures come into contact. Comparative analysis is a tool for investigating, explaining and, possibly, avoiding some of the potential errors and misunderstandings that may arise in cross -cultural communication. In particular the study focuses on writing conventions used by English and Italian native speaker students when writing about literature for their university courses.The data are texts of argumentative prose about literature (in the students' mother tongue) written for university examinations during an undergraduate degree course. The linguistic analysis focuses on discoursal devices related to the interpersonal metafunction. The fundamental hypothesis underlying the study is that the devices more centrally related to this metafunction can offer insights into the writing conventions adopted by the students. Whereas the interpersonal metafunction as the focus of analysis is a concept derived from Halliday, the actual linguistic analysis of discoursal features draws on different approaches to discourse study because the framework of analysis had to be flexible enough to encompass the investigation of two different languages and there was no standardised method of analysis for the present type of research. The linguistic areas focused upon are: person markers, `impersonal' and passive structures, modality, evaluative strategies (Politeness Theory), metadiscoursal features, devices establishing an overt link between writer and reader, rhetorical prominence and its effects on discourse.The Italian and English corpora of data (chosen to be representative of the text -type and the context of language production) have been manually analysed and tagged. The study is qualitative and descriptive (not normative): quantitative observations only contribute to identifying tendencies within a qualitative analysis. The findings have yielded tendencies and insights rather than clear -cut answers to the research questions, and the linguistic investigation itself has opened several potential areas for further research.The data show that the same argumentative text -type has a similar function in both sets of data, but the encoding of discoursal features indicates that the relation between the main participants (students and examiners) and that between the participants and the literary topics differ cross -linguistically. The English students show a more direct approach to the subject matter and the addressee than do the Italian students. This influences both the linguistic encoding of the argumentative mode in the two sets of data and the conventionalised projection of discourse roles in the students' texts. The study shows that awareness should be raised of the potential problems which might occur at the discourse level when students are asked to use unfamiliar writing conventions or have to write in a foreign language setting.