February 2012 Update
English as a Second Language in the Writing Studio
Writers who don’t speak English as their first language make up a sizable chunk of Vanderbilt’s population, from first-year undergraduates to PhD candidates and professors. According to the English Language Center, a teaching program helping English as a second language (ESL) speakers master the language, ESL students number around 1,200 of 10,000 total Vanderbilt students. Although these writers have programs dedicated to helping them become fluent in both writing and speech, the Writing Studio often consults with ESL students as they labor on coursework. Like any other writer, they feel the draw of another pair of eyes, another mind, and an attentive ear focused on their paper. Unlike other students, however, ESL students face unique challenges and experience unique rewards as they navigate the campus writing culture.
The students in my consultations have hailed from around the globe, from sub-Saharan Africa, to East Asia, to the Caribbean, and even as far away as Canada. In my short time at the Writing Studio, I have personally consulted with speakers of half-a-dozen languages and have witnessed or listened to examples of consultations with native speakers of a dozen more tongues.
As a student of language, these sessions are exciting to me. As an observer of culture, I notice that consultations with people from elsewhere or who speak another language reveal the assumptions inherent in my own culture. As a person interested in other people, these writers often strike me as especially interesting people. And as a consultant for the Writing Studio, ESL students have always seemed to be eager, self-aware, and hopeful writers. They are often aware of their difficulties in writing and eager to improve on them or at least hear a new perspective on how to deal with their issues.
Sometimes I feel out of my depth when trying to explain why a particular grammatical construction happens in a certain way. But this is almost always an opportunity for learning. Despite my coursework in linguistics, my first semester in the Writing Studio I didn’t know the specific reasons why I use articles like “the” or “a,” except the old standby: “when it sounds right.” After all, using a word like “a” rarely adds meaning to a sentence, but we crave it so that things sound and look right. But once I realized that this is one of the most common problems for ESL students, I looked into the reasons why we use particular articles. It’s easy to tell someone to use “a” for singular nouns beginning with consonants like “hat,” but more difficult to say why it’s “an herb” instead of “a herb.” As one of my fellow consultants explained after he investigated the issue—“the main reason we use articles is because of the sound.” Knowing that “herb” begins with a vowel sound and not a hard “h”-sound goes a long way to helping students choose the correct article of “an” instead of “a.” Now that I know the many specific reasons we use articles instead of simplifying the correct usage as “sounding right,” I can give students a blueprint for addressing which problems they consistently make. This is only one of the many things I’ve learned from ESL students’ issues.
But ESL problems aren’t just mechanical. Sometimes they’re not even problems as much as stylistic standards. Different cultures often construe argumentative conventions in completely different ways. In English we tend to front-load academic papers with a thesis in the introduction. We share our argument before we’ve made our argument. In contrast, French academic papers may never have a thesis statement. In Chinese academic papers, citation can be superfluous, while American papers that fail to cite their sources may violate an honor code.
The cultural and linguistic misunderstandings can abound, but one of our most understated aids to ESL writers is that we show them that they’re better at communicating than they think they are. Often sessions begin with a shy hello and an apologetic introduction of the writer’s problems and goals. But by the end of 50 minutes, I always find something praiseworthy in my consultation. Sometimes I’m shocked by the clarity of language as ESL students convey complex ideas. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised—translation often requires us to master our ideas before we put them into writing.
At the Writing Studio we are trained and capable of detecting many of these differences, but also sensitive to the nuances of arguments across different cultures. Often, seeing other ways of arguing helps clarify the argumentative tricks in our writing bag. Knowing another strand of argument helps us demonstrate why certain argumentative techniques work and certain ones don’t, not just for ESL students, but for English speakers as well.
A few of our regular ESL clients, especially at the graduate level, have published in English. Books, lab reports, and articles have been clarified, sharpened, and polished in our sessions. But these tangible results are not the only positive outcomes. Often ESL writers are so appreciative they email consultants after a session to thank them again. That kind of payoff inspires us to keep our efforts up and makes us all feel like real collaborators in the long-term development of writers. The difficulties of crossing linguistic boundaries tend to make us appreciate when we successfully communicate more than we otherwise would.