English as a Second Language
The recommendations made so far in this manual should help you in assisting any writer, whether she be a freshman working on a Paradise Lost paper, a senior working on his Honors Thesis on Thomas Hardy, or an international student. The international student, however, will require some special attention. This page is intended both to sensitize you to the fundamental differences involved in working with writers for whom English is a second language (ESL), and to make some particular suggestions for helping the writer to understand these differences and so to improve his writing.
When assisting ESL writers, you should remember, first and foremost, not to take anything for granted. When working with a writer who is American, you can (usually) assume that he knows what a thesis sentence is; that he understands the basic idea of the paragraph; that he will place a topic sentence at or near the beginning of each paragraph, and that he understands (at least in a general way) the rules governing plagiarism.
However, with an ESL writer, none of these principles can be assumed. The values we have as regards writing, argument, structure, and intellectual property are not universal. On the contrary: they differ from culture to culture, making the process of writing a paper for an American academic audience extremely confusing for the ESL writer. Accordingly, when you assist these writers, you should keep some of the following differences in mind.
Why do we write? The purpose of rhetoric varies from culture to culture and is influenced very much by the culture's current politics and political history. Countries with very strong central governments are often plagued by severe censorship. Rhetoric which challenges authority is therefore dangerous and socially unacceptable; rhetoric which praises authority fills the newspapers, books, and airwaves. In these kinds of political situations, only one kind of rhetoric is socially sanctioned. All other purposes are suspect. Writers coming from cultures like these often have trouble creating argument because they believe it might threaten them or insult their readers.
You may need to talk with ESL writers about how discourse works in America. For us, rhetoric is not necessarily a means of praising or vilifying our culture. Rather, it is a means of praising, and vilifying, and anything in between. In other words, Americans are permitted to have their own opinions. Indeed, we are expected to have our own point of view. Accordingly, we are encouraged, in classrooms and outside of them, to come to terms with what we think and value, to define our differences, to use rhetoric to engage others in a dialogue - a "dance," if you will - of differences.
We say a "dance" of differences, because most American rhetoric, while encouraging individualism and focusing on difference, does play by the rules. When one writes for the American academy, one is free to say what she wants to say, but one must also follow certain discourse conventions: appropriate voice, structure, style, and so on. In short, the admiration of tradition and convention are very real and present forces in both our culture and our rhetoric. Accordingly, American rhetoric almost always carries on a dialogue between individualism and conventionalism. Both must be honored and dealt with adequately before an essay will be deemed effective by an American audience.
In finding a purpose to write, then, the ESL writer must look for a topic which invites individuality. He must understand that it is essential for him to take a stand - to determine what his own personal views are. He must also figure out who he's talking to - and by this I do not simply mean that he must determine who his audience is, but also that he must determine what the ongoing dialogue is concerning his topic, what the authoritative and culturally accepted notions are, and how it is that he is going to position himself among all these other voices. In short, he must be cautious in addressing this country's values and at the same time take risks.
It probably comes as no surprise to you that different cultures think in different ways. Western ways of thinking and writing are very different from Eastern or Middle Eastern ways of thinking about - and writing about - an intellectual problem.
In the West, we tend most often to think and write in ways that are linear. In other words, we admire writing that "gets to the point." We want our writers to "be straight" with us. We don't want "to be thrown for a loop" - that is, we don't want to be confused by someone who has "gone off the track" - and we can't endure (in fact our formal system of logic condemns) circular thinking.
Compare this way of thinking and writing with those found in other cultures. In Mid-Eastern cultures, writers often digress. Indeed, the more eloquently and more cleverly one can digress, the more respect is given his prose. Consider, too, Eastern ways of thinking, in which a writer might walk around and around an idea, observing it from many perspectives, getting closer and closer to his subject in every circle, without ever really "nailing it."
But why should a topic be "nailed?" And why aren't digressions a valuable asset to any intellectual inquiry? Is it possible that our linear ways of thinking and writing overlook some very useful ways of approaching a topic? Our values as regards linearity (and other aspects of writing) are not universal. They are relative, peculiar to our culture. Who is to say which way of thinking and writing is better? Certainly not anyone on our staff. Still, it's our job to train these writers, who are entering a Western educational institution, to write in ways that this institution deems acceptable. And so we need to explain to ESL writers why we do things the way we do.
This task isn't always easy. Let me share a story with you that changed the way I taught writing to ESL writers. Years ago, I had a Korean student who had come to America to study engineering at a prestigious university in the mid-west. His English was very limited - so limited, in fact, that it took him two years to pass the university's English requirement. I met this student late in his first year at the university. He was in my writing class, where I was teaching students how to use certain organizational strategies: compare and contrast, process analysis, cause and effect. One Friday, after a class in which I had taught and then assigned a cause and effect essay, this student approached me to talk.
"Sorry. Cannot write cause and effect essay," he said to me, smiling broadly. I took him literally, thinking that he had declared to me some lack of confidence or ability. "But of course you can!" I responded, smiling just as broadly, launching in to one of my pep talks. He listened patiently to all I had to say, and then responded, "No. You do not understand. Cannot write cause and effect essay. Cause and effect: a bullsh-- Western construct. Is no cause. Is no effect. Things happen. That's it."
Did I abandon my task of teaching this student to write cause and effect essays? No. With my help he wrote an essay that approximated the sort of essay that I (and later, many of his other teachers) were looking for. But I did come to teach these essays differently, with a sensitivity to the notion that many of the simple principles that I take for granted are neither universal, nor "true". They are simply matters of convention - a habit of mind.
In order to write effective American English prose, then, the international student will have to do more than simply master vocabulary and grammar. He will also need to learn the conventions of American English rhetoric. As an ESL tutor, you will be helping him to understand these conventions. Accordingly, we've listed a few conventions that our tutors often assume are absolute but that in fact differ widely from culture to culture.
- Thesis Sentences: The thesis sentence, as we know, is a sentence which announces to the reader the stance which the writer has taken on a particular subject. It may also include what is sometimes referred to as an essay map: the part of the thesis sentence that organizes the idea for the reader. In American academic discourse, the thesis is most often placed at the end of the introduction. However, not all cultures require their writers to use thesis sentences. In fact, in some cultures, these kinds of sentences would be an offense. After all, why would a writer want to announce to his audience what he is going to say, and then put his audience through the rather dull process of hearing him say it? Doesn't the writer trust his readers to determine the point of the essay for themselves?
- Topic Sentences: In English, the topic sentence most often occurs at or near the beginning of each paragraph. Every native reader of English knows this; it's why, when we cram for a quiz on material we haven't read, we skim the first sentence of every paragraph, hoping to put together the gist of the argument. However, in some cultures, the topic sentences are often the last sentence of every paragraph. In these cultures, paragraphs are structured so that they build towards the argument point. The difference here is profound.
- Concise Style: In English, we like sentences that are lean and mean. We like nouns and verbs and are suspicious of other parts of speech - in particular we distrust adjectives and adverbs that seem to us to inflate prose that is really rather weak. We grow impatient when writers use three or four words where one would have done just as well. Writers who have been raised speaking other languages sometimes find English, well, lacking. Where are the lovely adjectives? Where are the complex digressions? Don't these people love their language at all? Feel free to remind these writers that yes, we love our language, but for different qualities. Try to show them how beautiful a simple, balanced sentence can be.
- Plagiarism: Some ESL writers come from countries that are not capitalist. In these countries, ideas are not owned, but shared. Imagine how foreign a concept plagiarism must be to writers like these! In a capitalist society, everything is potential capital. Everything can be owned. Even ideas. Writers need to understand that they cannot steal (or borrow) ideas from other scholars without acknowledgment. Teach these writers that citing sources is a courtesy to other scholars - who will want to know where they got their information so that they might learn more about the subject at hand. (For more on plagiarism and citing sources, see Sources.)
From the Home Office in Baker comes the following top ten list of common ESL errors. 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 writers for whom English is a second (or third, or fourth) language.
Number One: Articles
Articles are perhaps the most persistent problems for non-native speakers of English, especially for Asian or Russian writers, whose languages don't use articles. Occasionally, European speakers will exhibit some difficulty with articles as well: in many languages, every noun requires an article, and it is unclear to some speakers when articles should be omitted. A Native English 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."
The basic rules for articles are not hard to explain: countable nouns require articles; uncountable nouns generally do not. Reference to a concrete noun generally requires a definite article; reference to an abstract noun usually requires an indefinite article. What complicates the matter is that article use depends often on context, both grammatical and in terms of a sentence's meaning. For example, "Society disapproves of smoking," is one context, while "The society of non-smokers lobbies hard to take away smokers' rights," is another.
What makes this 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 say "I have a cold," but then say "I have pneumonia"? Why not say "I have a pneumonia?" And 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.
Number Two: Prepositions
This is a second area of error that is almost exclusive to ESL 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. Beginning 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: an ESL 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.
Number Three: Infinitives
Another category of error common to ESL writers is incorrect use of infinitives. You will find that ESL writers will pattern their English sentences after sentences in their native languages, where often many rules (including the rules for infinitives) differ from the rules we use in English. Therefore, you will have writers composing sentences like, "I wouldn't mind to have a BMW." There are categories of verbs that call for the infinitive, and other categories that 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!
Number Four: Using the Wrong Parts of Speech
ESL 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. This is common when one is learning a foreign language (those of you learning German, French, Italian, etc. surely make the same kinds of mistakes). Be patient: usually pointing to the word in question is enough to make the writer hit himself in the head, utter some word that you don't understand, and provide the proper word for himself.
Number Five: Agreement
Subjects and verbs must agree, tenses must agree, and so on. While this category of error is not exclusive to ESL writers, agreement errors are especially likely to plague ESL papers.
Number Six: Verb Tense and Forms
ESL writers will have problems with choosing the proper tenses; they will also be confused (as are our native speakers) by irregular verbs, such as lie and lay.
Number Seven: Active and Passive Voices
Most writers understand that they ought to avoid the passive voice. But ESL writers often hide behind the passive voice as a way of not taking responsibility for ideas and sentences that they aren't sure about.
Number Eight: Sentence Structure/Sentence Boundaries
ESL writers (even more so than native speakers) often have trouble learning the boundaries of the English sentence and so are prone to fragments, run-ons, and 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.
Number Nine: Punctuation
Everyone has this problem, but ESL writers are plagued by it. Often, a writer will punctuate a sentence according to the rules of his language: a Russian will always place a comma before the word "that," for example, simply because it's done that way where he 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.
Number Ten: The Touchy Matter of Style, or "We Just Don't Say It That Way Here"
For advanced ESL writers, the most persistent problem is one of style. It is difficult to catch a language's music and subtle rhythms. Again, avoid the temptation of simply saying, "We don't say it like that!" Engage the writer in a discussion about language (when time allows). You may, in this discussion, teach her something about the beauty and delicacy of your own language (and, incidentally, you may learn something about the beauty and delicacy of hers).
Finally, we'd like to offer a few guidelines to follow when tutoring the ESL writer:
- Don't dominate the session. This advice may sound tediously repetitive by now, but it is easily forgotten in an ESL tutoring session. ESL writers often struggle with spoken English and are sometimes shy about asking you to repeat things or raising their own concerns. Moreover, many ESL writers are acculturated to defer to the teacher and her authority. Remember: the silent but cheerful nodding of an ESL writer may mask a terrible frustration with the writing process. The writer struggling to convey simple ideas in English is often highly qualified in her own culture, and an eloquent writer in her own language - making the struggle with English all the more acute. I once had an ESL tutee who could not write a perfect English sentence, yet was a teacher of literature and an author of two textbooks in Chinese.
The sense of inadequacy that comes with moving from a culture in which you are fully literate to another where you are not can result in a profound disjunction between the inner and outer selves. Be sensitive to the frustration this can cause.
- Don't "fix" it. If you ever feel the urge to "fix" a phrase or smooth a transition - and you will! - it will very likely happen with an international writer. For instance: you'll have only twenty minutes of tutoring time left, every sentence in the paper needs to be restructured, and you are frustrated at trying to explain the fundamental rules of the language that you have always used intuitively. (Why exactly DO we use articles? What IS a rhetorical question, and what are its advantages/ disadvantages? Why DO we bother with thesis sentences?)
"Fixing" problems may make you a happy tutor and the writer a happy tutee, but it will not help the writer in the long run. You will only encourage her to depend on you, and doom yourself to proofreading her papers for life. Help the writer understand why a grammar rule is the way it is, or why we bother organizing our written thoughts into paragraphs. It is admittedly difficult, often impossible, to explain the ins and outs of our language's structure and our written conventions. If you can't find an explanation, admit it, and share in the writer's frustration over the complexity of our language. Laughing always helps.
- Don't fake it. I once overheard a tutor tell an ESL writer that, to determine where a comma should go, one must read an essay out loud and place a comma wherever he stopped to take a breath. The writer, who was Chinese, objected: "I do not breathe as you do," he told his tutor. "Well... then...." the tutor said, flustered, uncertain as to what to do next. Well, well. The moral of the story is never pretend that you know what you don't know. If you don't know something, say so. Engage another tutor in the debate, or go to the grammar books on the shelf and ask the tutee to help you find the answer. Your authority will not be undermined; in fact you will have more actively drawn the tutee into the learning process.
- Don't try to be Super Tutor. You are a writing tutor - you are not responsible for the writer's English-speaking life in general. Do your job to the best of your ability. Remember that learning a new language - playing with it, feeling confident in it - is a slow process. It may be a while before you see results. Don't let that discourage you. You are more valuable than you realize.
- Do prioritize. The overriding issue you are likely to face with ESL writers is where to start. How to reconcile the big picture with the nitty-gritty? Should you focus on the single paper at hand, or start with the basics of American writing in general? Should you spend most of your time on argument, or should you focus on grammar, which is bogging the paper down anyway? You can't do it all, and no matter how wonderful a tutor you are, many things will be left unsaid. Give yourself time to decide what is most important, and what is better left for another day. And don't forget to ask the tutee what his priorities are! He may have very definite ideas about what he wants to accomplish in the tutoring session.
- Do make the session a two-way process. As with all tutoring sessions, there is a direct correlation between the amount of time that an ESLwriter talks and the ability of that writer to internalize the issues at hand. By engaging the writer, challenging him, asking questions, and refusing to let nods of the head suffice as response, you will be minimizing the likelihood of treading the same ground in future sessions.
- Do use the resources we have. We have several resources for ESL writers, including the ESL page on our Writing Materials for Students Web site. We also have drills and handbooks in the Center that will be helpful when working with ESL writers. Also, we have tutors working every term who had lots of experience tutoring ESL students. If you have questions or concerns, or would like to refer a tutee to an experienced tutor, please feel free to do so.
When faced with an ESL paper, the first thing a writing assistant should do is to determine whether or not the paper is indeed an ESL paper. Don't assume that convoluted sentences or sloppy grammar indicates a writer for whom English is a second language. Instead, look for signs that these mistakes are indeed ESL mistakes. For example, if the paper is plagued by article errors, the writer is probably ESL. 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 ESL 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 an ESL writer, sometimes it seems silly not to 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 ESL writers. You might also want to point out and to name recurring errors - articles, tenses, and so on - remarking on these errors in the margin notes and in the summary comment.
Finally, if an ESL writer is having trouble mastering a clear and coherent style, choose a paragraph and suggest how it might be rewritten, modeling for the writer how to re-fashion his sentences, and encouraging him to do the same throughout the paper. Make yourself available for one-on-one conferences, or recommend a trip to RWIT.
Last modified: Tuesday, 12-Jul-2005 11:25:56 EDT
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