Welcome back, everyone! My apologies for the delay – we lost power due to the high winds on Thursday and Friday, which pushed my writing schedule back much further than usual. I had no idea that a telephone pole could snap in half like uncooked pasta, but you know what they say, right? Ravioli, Ravioli, give me the formuoli (except the formuoli is the power to my house).
This week, I’d like to discuss a subject that has long been one of my passions: teaching writing to English as a Second Language (ESL) learners. Ever since I worked at the Albright College Writing Center as a writing tutor (which I did for five years), I’ve loved working with international and ESL writers because I was interested in their process. Being bilingual myself – あ—、知らなかったの? – I’ve always wondered what it was like to have to translate words and phrases into English due to its notoriety for being difficult to non-native speakers.
I can’t even begin to imagine the hardships my students go through to become fluent speakers and proficient writers of English, especially since I’m a native speaker who struggles with what I like to call “making words good” myself. However, I’ve noticed that because I’m a native speaker who is bilingual, I’m better able to examine the writing of my students who do not speak English as a first language. Instead of focusing on minute mistakes in grammar and sentence structure, I can look past it to make sure my students have the “whole picture” bigger concerns taken care of first.
I think many teachers tend to get caught up in small-order concerns when working with ESL students because they don’t immediately consider their students’ cultural backgrounds and how those backgrounds affect speech and writing. Paul Kei Matsuda further affirmed these thoughts in Naming What We Know section 4.6, as he notes, “writing teachers cannot assume that what were once considered errors are indeed errors; they may reflect language practices perfectly acceptable in some parts of the world… teachers who use writing as a part of their instruction must develop an understanding of the nature of language, principles of language development, and language features situated in various contexts of use” (69). Matsuda also calls for teachers to be more understanding of the ways in which language works both in English and beyond it, which will help teachers be more effective when helping their ESL students sharpen their writing skills. A teacher’s ability to acknowledge the diversity of language not only among their students, but also within other forms of writing, is a crucial aspect to learning how to communicate with multi-national and multi-lingual audiences (an ethical concept with which we’ve been wrestling all semester).
So, how can teachers be more understanding and accommodating of their ESL writers? Matsuda and Matthew J. Hammill suggest in “Second Language Writing Pedagogy” that having students “use translation as a strategy for drafting… especially if they already have substantial knowledge of the subject matter in another language” is one of the best resources when used at the word level for technical terms (273). I was pleasantly surprised as I read this article since this strategy is one that I’ve been using since I started tutoring in 2014. One of my Chinese international students, Amy, was an amazing writer! But sometimes she would have trouble figuring out the English translation of what she needed to say, especially when it came to textual analysis. So, I told her that if she knew the words in Chinese, to just write them like that and leave them there instead of trying to translate it with the rest of the paper. Then, during our sessions I would have her explain the word/phrase in context to me, and together we’d come up with a few different English meanings on the spot. She’d then choose the translation she thought fit the best and put it in place of the Chinese, and we’d move on to the next spot. Amy knew that I spoke Japanese and understood what it was like to not “get” the translation right on the first try, and so she was happy that I encouraged her to use her native language so we could figure out the meaning together. Sometimes we even discussed the benefit of leaving the Chinese in and writing the translations in an aside, which she mostly used for idioms when she did creative writing.
My point is, I was able to work with Amy and teach her how and when to use her native language in a paper, as well as how to work on translation based on the overall concept being communicated, rather than focusing on the direct meaning/translation. With this strategy, she was able to improve her writing process to the point where she didn’t really need me, but liked to come in for “help” anyway because she enjoyed the conversations we had about language since I was able to accommodate her. In return, I learned how to work with other international students by using this same process and adjusting it based on how much help they needed and in what areas.
The more teachers are willing to accommodate their students and understand them at a cultural level, the easier it will be to create lessons and activities that help them improve their writing without taking away their culture’s influence to force them to use “proper” English. If the English language is okay with stealing words and phrases from Greek, Latin, French, and German and making them commonplace, then it needs to accommodate the cultural linguistic differences in other languages, too.
With the number of ESL students on the rise, it is important that teachers incorporate strategies that ESL students can understand in order to make sure they’re being well-educated like they deserve.
Until next time.