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Esther Breuer, former PhD student

The Influence of L1 on FL Academic Writing

When analysing the academic papers of German students of English, it often happens that students whose spoken English approaches the level of a native speaker nevertheless tend to produce errors when writing. This tendency gets stronger the more complex the subject of the paper is. Letters or emails to friends are nearly free of errors, but academic papers can be nearly unintelligible to native English readers. A reader who shares the writer’s native language, on the other hand, does not have any problems understanding the text.

In my dissertation, I analyse this phenomenon using de Bot’s model of the bilingual speaker, which I modify with Jackendoff’s parallel architecture. Aspects of writing and aspects of the genre academic writing will be included in the model. I assume that the FL writer’s working memory is overloaded when writing an academic paper. This is due to the complexity of the task: the content, the demands of the genre academic writing, the demands of a foreign language, the psychological pressure of having to fulfil a task which is going to be checked by a professor (in the case of students) or an academic audience, etc. In order to be able to cope with the task, the workflow in the writer’s language faculty does not take the direct path from conceptual structure to phonology/orthography and syntax in the target language, but makes a “detour” via the native language. I suggest that this occurs because the microplanning of the message is influenced by the writer’s native language. A kind of “node-switching” (code-switching in sub-substructures of the message) takes place.

In order to examine this hypothesis, I study a group of German students of English philology. The group is tested in different writing tasks: an easy English text, German writing in order to make sure that they know how to structure and write an academic paper, and a complex English essay. The errors are analysed with reference to the model of the bilingual academic writer. Additionally, an attempt is made to find out about the student’s attitude towards English as a written language, their estimation of the quality of their own texts, and their view on how the genre academic writing ought to be fulfilled, generally. A later test will check whether the errors were simply a matter of missing competence or were a result of the working memory overload. In order to analyse how the mistakes took place, the writing process of a number of writers is monitored via software and questionnaires.

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