The issue of bidirectional transfer of language skills has attracted L2 researchers for the last two decades. The main concern is whether language skills are interdependent and transferable across languages. This is important as a way to approach better language instruction. However, studies investigating this issue have often been conducted in a context where L2 was the dominant language. This tends to be problematic because there is an overlap between the concept of cross-linguistic transfer or influence and the concept of first language attrition.
The purpose of the present study is to investigate the possibility of backward transfer of writing rhetorical structures from L2 English to L1 Indonesian as a result of L2 instruction in a tertiary Indonesian EFL context. The study was motivated by Cummins (1996, 2000) who states that conceptual knowledge of literacy is interdependent and transferable across languages when its mediating factors (effective instruction, appropriate exposure to the learned language, and high motivation to learn the language) are achieved by L2 learners. My study specifically compared and described the presence of argument-counterargument structures in the L1 and L2 essays composed by Indonesian and English major students in first- and third-year of their tertiary study (English 1st-year, N = 44; English 3rd-year, N =45; Indonesian 1st-year, N = 50; Indonesian 3rd-year, N = 50). A number of factors potentially affecting transfer were examined. Measures were obtained of the students’ English proficiency, writing skill, and writing experience. The types of writing instruction they had received previously were also surveyed.
Three research questions were addressed in the study: (1) Do Indonesian EFL students’ L2 writing rhetorical structures transfer when they write in the L1?; (2) Do the students’ argument structure patterns in their essays affect the participants’ overall writing quality?; and (3) Do L2 proficiency, L2 writing skills, and writing experiences in general affect the patterns of L2 to L1 transfer?
The study found some evidence of backward transfer in the use of argument-counterargument structure from English to Indonesian among third-year English majors deemed to be ‘skilful’ writers of English. The majority of these students supplied argumentcounterargument structures in both their English and Indonesian essays. With respect to the relationships of essay argument structure and the overall essay quality, the analysis found that the suppliance of some rhetorical aspects in the Indonesian and English essays and the participants’ length of study explained the overall quality of essays in both languages. Although differences were found in the groups compared, the presence of rhetorical aspects such as Problem, Refutation, Evaluation, Subclaim, and Justification sections affected the students’ Indonesian and English essay quality. It was likely that language developmental factors and the types of writing instruction received in the students’ Indonesian and English classes contributed to backward transfer possibility. Therefore, the results of the study tentatively supported Cummins’ Interdependence hypothesis (IH) and Threshold hypothesis (TH). As expected, L2 English proficiency was the most important factor predicting transfer effects.
In terms of pedagogical implications, the results of the study suggest that argument-counterargument structure is cognitively demanding especially for lower-proficiency learners. Therefore, explicit instruction on how to elaborate this dialogic concept of rhetorical structure may be needed for English L2 learners in Indonesia as they might also have a different concept of writing rhetorical structure from English as influenced by their cultural academic tradition. In addition, developing learners’ L2 proficiency to achieve at least intermediate level is advisable for L2 writing teachers before the learners commence an English academic writing course, as this might help them benefit from their previous writing knowledge received either through L1 or L2 through cross-linguistic transfer in improving their Indonesian and English writing.