Orientation in narratives: Intercultural differences between native English and Chinese-English bilingual students

Author: Miranda Y.-P. Lee


This paper aims to explore differences in presenting picture-based narratives between two distinct language and cultural groups - native English students (ES) and native Chinese students (CS) whose L2 is English. It compares narratives in English L1, English L2 and Chinese L1. The degree of specificity and elaboration of ES and CS texts differs significantly in various aspects of orientation. ES texts are more specific in character identification, whereas CS texts are more specific in time orientation. The differences reflect the influence of L1 culture. Findings help raise writer's awareness of areas of differences when writing for readers of different cultures.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the IALIC/Subject Centre Pedagogical Forum, which was part of the 4th Annual Conference of IALIC (International Association for Languages and Intercultural Learning).

Background and Objectives

Comparative studies of narrative texts produced by different language and cultural groups have been extensively conducted in recent decades. Relevant studies such as Indrasuta (1988), Berman and Slobin (1994), and Berman (1999) have shed considerable light on the similarities and differences in narratives produced by English and other language writers.

A brief review of the above studies indicates that contrastive analyses of narrative texts between English as first language (L1) writers and English as second language (L2) of Chinese writers are still relatively scarce. In order to help fill this gap, the present study compares narratives written by English L1 students (ES) with those by Chinese students whose L2 is English (CS). The main objective of the study is to identify areas of similarities and differences in orientation of narratives between ES and CS groups in their English L1 and L2 as well as Chinese L1.

Sampling procedures: Materials

The present research employed picture-based narrative elicitation since picture-based narrative tasks allow the researcher to control for content and to see how subjects present the same thing in different rhetoric.

A series of eight pictures were arranged in order of events that make up a story in this research. The story is about some children playing in a park, as outlined in Table 1. The selection of a park story is mainly because going to a park is one of the typical activities in childhood for both ES and CS groups. They are very familiar with the setting and the activities of the characters in the “park story”. Therefore, it is believed that the subjects have no difficulty in understanding the story and in expressing it in their own words. Their writing, based as it is on common experiences, provides a valid basis for comparison.

  1. Two boys and two girls are playing in the park.
  2. Another boy suddenly rides across the flowerbed on his bicycle. The two girls are scared.
  3. The children look at the mark on the grass showing the path of the bicycle.
  4. The boy rips the flowers out of the ground.
  5. He then climbs a tree. The other children are angry with him.
  6. The boy starts swinging on a small branch of the tree.
  7. The branch snaps and he falls on the ground with his head hurt.
  8. The children are angry and push the boy out of the park.

Table 1. Outline of the ‘park story’ (pictures adopted from p. 62, Ng 1999).


Two groups of subjects were chosen for this study. They are 40 ES and 40 CS who are native Chinese speakers and are advanced English learners. The former group came to Hong Kong for a one-year student exchange program. They studied the first or second year of their undergraduate programs in their homeland, a fully English speaking country.

The CS group consists of the second year undergraduate students studying subjects of Humanities or Engineering at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University in which the medium of instruction is mainly English. They have been learning English as L2 for about 14 years.

The two subject groups had the following characteristics in common: similar age (ranging from age of 19;3 to 21;10), and similar level of education (first or second year of undergraduate study). The reason for choosing undergraduate students is that they are adults and relatively well educated. According to the findings of Berman and Slobin (1994) on adult narratives, adults have developed cognitive maturity which enables them to choose from the full range of linguistic forms and stylistic expressions they have learned. Therefore, samples collected from adult narratives can provide a reliable basis for a comparison of rhetorical expressions between different language and cultural groups.

Data collection

The ES group wrote the story in English while the CS group wrote in both English L2 and Chinese with a three-month interval between the two writing tasks, so as to avoid the possibility of translation from the English version to the Chinese one or vice versa. In total, 80 English texts – 40 from ES and 40 from CS – and 40 Chinese texts were gathered.

Time and spatial orientation

Both ES and CS groups provide information on the orientation of the story but their degree of specificity differs. More CS give specific information on time orientation than ES. 30% of CS offer a specific time orientation in both their English L2 and Chinese L1 texts, while none of ES gives a specific time in their texts. Compare example (1) from an ES with (2) in English L2 and (3) in Chinese L1 from CS texts:

(1) One day, Kitty, Felix, Matthew and Elaine decided to play hide-and-seek in their local park.

(2) Yesterday was the day of science study trip of Ben’s primary school.

(3) Chinese L1 text
Last - Saturday – one – group – children – at – park – play (transliteration)
Last Saturday a group of children played in the park. (translation)

The higher specificity in time orientation of CS texts than ES ones can be attributed to the Chinese cultural and linguistic convention. Time indicators are one of the typical devices for showing time in Chinese, unlike the case in English when tense markers are commonly used by the English L1 writers.

On the other hand, the specificity of spatial orientation is similar between the two groups. About a quarter of the samples provide specific spatial orientation, such as example (4) from an ES and (5) from a CS text below:

(4) The children are playing in The Wonderful Land.

(5) They went to Victoria Park to play in the afternoon.

Character orientation

Another remarkable difference in orientation of the narratives between the two groups is the introduction of the characters and their references. ES texts are relatively more specific in character identification.

Referring with names

There are one main character and four other characters in the story. On average about 80% of ES and 50% of CS refer to the characters with names. The difference between ES and CS groups is significant in referring to the four other characters. The number of ES is almost double of that of CS (Table 2).

Character identification ES
English L1
English L2
Chinese L1
Referring to the main character with name 33 (83%) 24 (60%) 21 (53%)
Referring to other characters with names 31 (78%) 14 (35%) 16 (40%)
Addressing relationships among characters 35 (88%) 9 (23%) 6 (15%)

Table 2. Character identification in ES and CS texts.

ES preference for naming the characters may reflect a cultural difference in narrative conventions, particularly in what is customary in storytelling to children (Berman 1999). On the other hand, CS texts are less specific in referring to the characters. More than half of them employ non-specific references, like “some children”, instead of giving names for the characters.

(6) Billy, Joey, Katie and Gemma were friends from school. At the weekends they often went to the park.

(7) Some children were looking at the flowers and some children were running. They were all played happily.

One interesting finding is made from the use of names in addressing the main character between ES and CS groups. More CS use negative label whereas only one ES uses them, as shown in example (8) below. 8 Chinese L1 texts, such as example (9), and 4 English L2 texts, like example (10), from CS address the main character with negative labels.

(8) Tommy the Terror is riding the bicycle.

(9) Chinese L1 texts
one – naughty – child – suddenly – rush – in (transliteration)
A naughty boy suddenly rushed in. (translation)

(10) A naughty boy came into the park.

The higher frequency in using negative labels by CS may reflect the Chinese cultural convention that strict discipline is imposed on children. Children need to be obedient and should not do anything harmful to others. Therefore, more CS consider the acts of the main character inappropriate and gave him a negative label. On the contrary, the western cultural tradition appreciates freedom and individual rights. Children have grown up in a more relaxing environment. ES, therefore, seldom give a negative label for the main character.

Addressing relationships

Similar to the findings from naming the characters, CS texts are shown to be less specific in addressing relationships among the characters, as exemplified in (11) and (12) from an ES and a CS respectively:

(11) The Appleton family decided to have a picnic in Stanley Park. Not wanting to go alone, they invited their neighbours, the Waltons, to join them.

(12) Jenny dated her best friend, Windy, to a garden near her home to play and appreciate flowers.

As indicated in Table 2, 88% of ES English L1 texts but only 23% in English L2 texts and 15% in Chinese L1 texts of CS address the relationships among the characters. This finding is consistent with that of Berman (1999) that English L1 writers tend to refer to the two characters as brother and sister. The writing convention of writer responsibility in English (Hinds 1987) can explain the differences in character identification. English writers, being aware of the concept of writer responsibility, provide sufficient information and fill the information gap for readers. On the contrary, Hinds notes that Chinese emphasizes reader responsibility. CS in this study adopt particular Chinese conventional rhetoric by offering less specific information in identifying the characters. They expect readers to think and interpret in their own way.

Additional background information about characters

The introduction to the main character of the story in this study also differs between the two groups. The background of the main character in the story is given in detail in many of ES texts, for example (13):

(13) Markus was a boy who would stick gum in little girls’ hair and put spiders in his teacher Mrs. Schmidt’s desk. All the children were very frightened of Markus and tried to stay far away from him.

(14) Some children are looking the pretty flowers, while some are playing happily in the garden. Suddenly, a boy is riding a bicycle quickly across the road in the garden.

Examples (13) and (14) are excerpted from an ES and a CS text respectively. ES elaborate their texts by adding extra background information about the characters. Elaboration of background information presents the plot-initiating event and marks the onset of a new episode in the narratives (Berman and Slobin 1994). On the other hand, CS narrate directly the story and restrict additional information given in both their English L2 and Chinese L1 texts.

Story background information

The higher degree of elaboration in ES texts also applies to background information about the story. 78% of ES in this study give background information on the story but only 55% of CS do so in their texts. Example (15) from an ES offers detailed background information:

(15) Not far away and not long ago there lived a man called Mr Green. Mr Green was a gardener and he worked at a nearby park called Pleasant View Park. The park was very beautiful because Mr Green enjoyed his job and worked very hard. He let all the local children play in the park. They were happy to be there and Mr Green was happy to see them happy. The only rule was the children weren’t allowed to damage the plants and flowers.

A new character – Mr. Green, the gardener, was introduced in this ES text. Most of ES texts provide additional background information on the park or to give reasons for the children to be in the park, which is not shown on the picture stimulus. On the contrary, CS texts provide a less detailed background.


This comparative analysis of orientation in English L1 and L2 as well as Chinese L1 narrative texts finds significant differences in the degree of specificity and elaboration between the two distinct language and cultural groups.

The degree of specificity differs in various aspects of narratives between the two groups. ES texts tend to be more specific in character orientation, by giving names to characters and addressing relationships among characters; while CS texts are more specific in time orientation, by employing time indicators.

ES texts are relatively highly elaborate, containing fine details in introducing characters and giving background information; whereas both English L2 and Chinese L1 texts of CS are less elaborate. The findings support Berman and Slobin’s (1994) argument that adults’ choice of the degree of elaboration relates to their distinct native language and culture, and also substantiates Indrasuta’s (1988) argument that native English writers perceive the functions of narrative as informing and entertaining. On the other hand, the concept of writer / reader responsibility has an impact on the degree of elaboration as well. Being influenced by the cultural convention of reader responsibility, CS avoid giving detailed, additional information and leave more room for readers to interpret the story in their own way. The findings help raise writer’s awareness of selecting rhetoric that is considered appropriate for the target readership.


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