The recommendations made elsewhere on this website should help you in assisting any writer, whether she be a first-year student working on a Writing 5 paper, a senior working on an Honors Thesis, or an international or multilingual student. The multilingual student, however, will inspire you to read and respond to her writing in new ways. We offer these materials to make you aware of the challenges facing multilingual writers. We also hope that you will come to see the ways these writers can enhance your understanding of how English is evolving globally.
Different cultures construct arguments differently. Consider: most writers educated in the United States will have been exposed to the principle of building an argument upon the foundation of a thesis sentence. These writers will also be familiar with the idea that paragraphs tend to be shaped by topic sentences, which very often appear at the beginning or the end of the paragraph. They will also understand (at least in a general way) the basic principles of intellectual property.
However, these values regarding writing, argument, structure, and intellectual property are not universal. On the contrary: these values differ from culture to culture, potentially making the process of writing a paper challenging. Accordingly, when you assist these writers, you should be aware of rhetorical differences.
In order to write effectively, international or multilingual writers will - like all writers - need to learn how discourse is practiced in a new community. As a tutor, you will be helping writers to understand and practice this discourse. As you do, it's important to remember that your way of composing an argument is informed by certain values and conventions. You'll want to be able to explain these conventions to your tutees, but you'll want to listen to them as they talk about their values and conventions as well. Their ways of constructing an argument have value and can be quite informative. Indeed, as you discuss discourse and all of its complexities with your multilingual students, you'll learn as much from them about how arguments work as they will from you. As discourse becomes increasingly global, rhetorical conventions co-habitate in interesting ways, changing the way we communicate.
Here are some interesting points of discussion.
From the Home Office in Baker comes a list of errors commonly made by multilingual writers. Some of these errors you will find in the writing of native speakers of English, but some (such as articles and preposition problems) are particular to multilingual writers. While we believe that these errors are relatively insignificant - they don't, after all obscure meaning - they are also errors that many multilingual students may want to discuss with you. Accordingly, we list them here, so that you can enter these conversations sufficiently prepared.
Articles are perhaps the most persistent problems for writers whose first language doesn't use articles. Other writers are used to languages in which every noun requires an article, and it is unclear to them when articles should be omitted. On the other hand, a native speaker (even a young one) will never have trouble with articles: we know at some fundamental level when to use or to omit "the," "a," or "an."
To understand how articles are used, a writer must be able to distinguish whether the noun an article modifies is definite (specific) or indefinite (general). This depends on context. An indefinite noun represents something that is one out of many (its particular identity is unknown): a dog, some students, some air. A definite noun is something of which we know the particular identity: the dog, the students, the air. All definite nouns come with the definite article: THE. Indefinite nouns come with an indefinite article (A or AN) if they are singular and countable (a dog). Indefinite nouns that are plural (students) or uncountable (water) do not take an article.
Since usage is very context-specific, the difficulty lies in determining whether a noun is definite or indefinite and why this is so. Consider: "Mr. Kim, President of Dartmouth College, urged the students to find a passion that would inspire them to great deeds in the benefit of humanity." It's not easy to explain the article usage in a sentence like this! After all, President Kim could also "urge students" and still be grammatically correct! The choice he makes depends on his intent.
Making the problem even more difficult to explain is that some article use is idiomatic, or requires a lot of grammatical analysis in order to be understood. For example, why do we invite someone out to dinner, not out to the dinner, or a dinner? (Though we will always invite them out for a meal, not simply meal.)
You will do a lot of intellectual sweating attempting to help writers with articles, and you will be tempted to pass off most of what is hard to explain as idiomatic. Resist this temptation! Perhaps the usage is idiomatic, but an attempt to explain and to understand the finer points of grammar can be useful for your tutees - and for you as well.
This is a second area of error that is almost exclusive to multilingual writers. While some New Yorkers will wait on line (instead of in line, like the rest of us), for international writers the problem of prepositions is much more serious. Novice writers will have trouble understanding why it is that sitting by the table is different from sitting at the table; more advanced writers will have trouble wrestling with the difference between being concerned with something, as opposed to being concerned by something.
Typically those prepositions used to express abstract thoughts will be particularly meddlesome: a multilingual writer may be able to visualize the difference between being on the water and in the water, but less able to see the difference between dwelling in and dwelling on a particular idea and emotion. Unfortunately, most preposition usage is simply that: a matter of usage. The best you can do is to explain differences to the writer, and to hope that she will take your explanation with her into her next paper or her next conversation with a native speaker.
Another category of error common to multilingual writers is incorrect use of infinitives. These writers may be crafting their English sentences after sentences in their native languages, where often many rules (including the rules for infinitives) differ from the rules of English. These writers will compose sentences like, "I wouldn't mind to have a BMW." Some categories of verbs call for the infinitive, and some do not. If you are unsure about these categories, look them up with your students in any of the handbooks sitting on the RWIT shelves. In explaining the rule to the writer, you might learn something yourself.
Multilingual writers will sometimes confuse parts of speech, using an adjective where they want to use a noun, or a verb where they want to use a gerund, or an adverb where they want to use an adjective.
Subjects and verbs should agree, tenses should agree, and so on.
Some languages do not indicate tense via the verb. Verb tenses can therefore prove challenging.
This problem troubles all writers. Remember: passive isn't wrong. In fact, sometimes it's useful. But use it purposefully. The actor-action principle often yields better, more emphatic sentences.
Multilingual writers sometimes have trouble learning the boundaries of the English sentence and so may produce run-ons or convoluted prose. Going back to the basics will help these writers: explain to them the simple sentence, the means of coordination and subordination, and, perhaps most importantly, the limits of the English sentence. Often the idea that is expressed beautifully in Spanish, German, or Russian will break the back of the English sentence. Encourage the writers to be kind to their sentences. Help them to judge what an English sentence will bear.
Everyone has this problem, but the patterns of punctuation errors may be related to the writer's native language. For instance, a Russian will often place a comma before the word "that," simply because it's done that way where she comes from. If you notice persistent punctuation errors, talk with the writer about her native language. You may find the root of the problem there, and solving it will be that much easier.
For advanced multilingual writers, the most persistent problem is one of style. It is difficult to catch a language's rhythms and music. Again, avoid the temptation of simply saying, "We don't say it like that!" Engage the writer in a discussion about language. You may, in this discussion, teach her something about the beauty and power of your own language. And you will certainly learn something about the beauty and power of hers.
Finally, we'd like to offer a few guidelines to follow when tutoring the multilingual writer:
When faced with a paper written by a multilingual writer, the first thing a writing assistant should do is to determine whether or not the writer is indeed multilingual. Don't assume that the presence of error indicates that the writer's native language is not English. Instead, look for signs that these mistakes are indeed common multilingual mistakes. For example, if the paper contains article errors, the writer is probably multilingual. Odd use of prepositions is another sign that the writer isn't writing in her native language.
Writing assistants often ask how they should deal with multilingual issues on a paper. Much of our training instructs our staff to be facilitative. We tell you not to correct error when you see it. And yet, with a multilingual writer, sometimes it seems unhelpful not to mark the error or make the correction. What is the right thing to do?
When in doubt, consider how your professors mark your papers in your foreign language courses. They probably mark errors without always naming them, indicating that something is wrong but leaving it to you to figure out what. This strategy works well with multilingual writers. You might also want to point out recurring errors - articles, tenses, and so on - remarking on these errors in the margin notes and in the summary comment. But do keep in mind: the most important aspects of a multilingual writer's paper are the ideas. If you are distracted by the writer's linguistic differences and are always marking these differences as errors, you will miss the opportunity to address her ideas. Multilingual writers are writers, first and foremost. Address their work accordingly.
Last Updated: 11/29/12