What Is Contrastive Rhetoric?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Contrastive rhetoric is the study of the ways in which the rhetorical structures of a person's native language may interfere with efforts to write in a second language (L2). Also known as intercultural rhetoric.

"Broadly considered," says Ulla Connor, "contrastive rhetoric examines differences and similarities in writing across cultures" ("Changing Currents in Contrastive Rhetoric," 2003).

The basic concept of contrastive rhetoric was introduced by linguist Robert Kaplan in his article "Cultural Thought Patterns in Intercultural Education" (Language Learning, 1966).

Examples and Observations

"I am concerned with the notion that speakers of different languages use different devices to present information, to establish the relationships among ideas, to show the centrality of one idea as opposed to another, to select the most effective means of presentation."
(Robert Kaplan, "Contrastive Rhetorics: Some Implications for the Writing Process." Learning to Write: First Language/Second Language, ed. by Aviva Freedman, Ian Pringle, and Janice Yalden. Longman, 1983)

"Contrastive rhetoric is an area of research in second language acquisition that identifies problems in composition encountered by second language writers and, by referring to the rhetorical strategies of the first language, attempts to explain them. Initiated almost thirty years ago by the American applied linguist Robert Kaplan, contrastive rhetoric maintains that language and writing are cultural phenomena. As a direct consequence, each language has rhetorical conventions unique to it. Furthermore, Kaplan asserted, the linguistic and rhetorical conventions of the first language interfere with writing in the second language.

"It is fair to say that contrastive rhetoric was the first serious attempt by applied linguists in the United States to explain second language writing. . . . For decades, writing was neglected as an area of study because of the emphasis on teaching spoken language during the dominance of audiolingual methodology.

"In the past two decades, the study of writing has become part of the mainstream in applied linguistics."
(Ulla Connor, Contrastive Rhetoric: Cross-Cultural Aspects of Second-Language Writing. Cambridge University Press, 1996)

Contrastive Rhetoric in Composition Studies

"As work in ​contrastive rhetoric has developed a more sophisticated sense of such rhetorical factors as audience, purpose, and situation, it has enjoyed an increasing reception within composition studies, particularly among ESL teachers and researchers. The theory of contrastive rhetoric has begun to shape the basic approach to the teaching of L2 writing. With its emphasis on the relations of texts to cultural contexts, contrastive rhetoric has provided teachers with a practical, nonjudgmental framework for analyzing and evaluating ESL writing and helping students see the rhetorical differences between English and their native languages as a matter of social convention, not cultural superiority."

(Guanjun Cai, "Contrastive Rhetoric." Theorizing Composition: A Critical Sourcebook of Theory and Scholarship in Contemporary Composition Studies, ed. by Mary Lynch Kennedy. Greenwood, 1998)

Criticism of Contrastive Rhetoric

"Although intuitively appealing to writing teachers and popular among ESL writing researchers and graduate students in the 1970s, [Robert] Kaplan's representations have been criticized a great deal. Critics have asserted that contrastive rhetoric (1) overgeneralizes terms such as oriental and puts in the same group languages that belong to distinct families; (2) is ethnocentric by representing the organization of English paragraphs by a straight line; (3) generalizes to the native language organization from the examination of students' L2 essays; and (4) overemphasizes cognitive factors at the expense of sociocultural factors (such as schooling) as a preferred rhetoric. Kaplan himself has modified his earlier position . . ., suggesting, for example, that rhetorical differences do not necessarily reflect different patterns of thinking. Instead, differences may reflect different writing conventions that have been learned." (Ulla M. Connor, "Contrastive Rhetoric." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from Ancient Times to the Information Age, ed. by Theresa Enos. Routledge, 2010)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Contrastive Rhetoric?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-contrastive-rhetoric-1689800. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). What Is Contrastive Rhetoric? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-contrastive-rhetoric-1689800 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Contrastive Rhetoric?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-contrastive-rhetoric-1689800 (accessed March 21, 2023).