“Dear Pro.”, an Examination of the Format Used in Chinese Students’ E-mails


E-mail has become a widely used medium of communication in the academic and business communities. As language educators, we need to ensure that learners acquire successful language skills in these contexts. This study investigates the format used by Chinese university students when writing e-mails in English to their professors. Most of the previous research has been concentrating on the content and communicative functions (e.g. Al-Ali and Sahawneh, 2008; Biesenbach-Lucas, 2005) rather than on the overall structure of e-mails. The general layout is however the first impression the recipient gets when they receive, an e-mail, so it is essential that L2 learners adopt an appropriate format. The analysis examines the punctuation, paragraphs, title, ""openings"" and ""closings"" of 130 e-mails sent to one professor, by undergraduate students with advanced English language skills, from one of China's top universities. Despite the prevalence of formal greetings, expected in a high power distance culture like China (Hofstede, 2001), the results show considerable variation among students, who have not acquired enough socio-pragmatic competence (e.g. when sending an attached file) and generally combine formal greetings with emoticons or inadequate punctuation marks. Furthermore, a lack of consistency in the use of openings and closings is noticeable, indicating that some students are still uncertain about how to organize their communication (e.g. modelling greetings on the teacher's). With the development of smart phones, the trend to overlook e-mail formatting is becoming even more prevalent; it is crucial to teach the fundamental communication techniques which can be applied to different settings.

Author Information
Marianne Collier, Tsinghua University, China

Paper Information
Conference: ACLL2013
Stream: Language Learning

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