In English language study, there’s a popular set of diagrams that teachers like to use with their students. These diagrams are meant to show the difference between the structure of written English and the structure of other written languages. I love the general idea of this diagram. I think it’s very helpful to visually picture the “flow” of writing. Visualization like this can really help you refine your writing skills.
Still, I find this diagram, popular as it is, to be kind of… wrong. Take a look at the image, and see if you can guess why I disagree with it.
You can probably see the problem. Non English writing structure is shown in spirals or uneven zig-zags, while English writing is portrayed as… a straight line. The creator of the diagram, a native English speaker, has failed to notice that written English is not straightforward. At least, not any moreso than any other language.
This diagram probably overstates the complexity of non-English languages too. Is Semitic (Middle Eastern) writing really an abrupt series of drops and forward thrusts? Is Oriental (East Asian) writing a dizzying spiral? Are European and Russian writing styles structured like winding roads with abrupt sharp turns? Certainly native speakers of these languages wouldn’t see their writing in these confusing terms.
The diagram above sends unhelpful messages to a lot of ESL students. I was reminded of this recently while working with a native Japanese speaker in a tutoring center. She had just gotten a very low mark on an English language essay on the Eiken exam. (The Eiken is an English proficiency exam similar to the TOEFL.) As she talked to me about her failure, she was very hard on both herself, and her entire culture. Referencing B. Kaplan’s famous diagram, she said that Japanese people do not write—or think—as logically as English speaking people. Not true!
The truth is that every writing style in every language is logical—and each one has its own logic. When you write in your own native language, you’ll write most effectively if you can understand the logic of writing patterns in your language. And when writing in English, you also need to understand written English’s logical pattern. The straight line above is too simple to reveal English’s pattern. And the other patterns are too complicated—the twists and turns above make it hard to see that every language has a predictable writing style, with rules that can and should be followed.
So how should a diagram of your native written language or a diagram of written English look? Well, everyone probably has a different picture in their heads. Creating your own picture can help you understand the structure of writing on a very deep level. So here’s a thought exercise for you: draw a diagram of what you personally picture when you think about your own language’s written patterns. You may need to read some essays in your own language to get a clear mental image. After you diagram your first language, make a own diagram of written English for comparison. (Try reading some five paragraph essays to develop a picture of written English in your head. You can find some good examples here.)