One of my biggest learning challenges this year has been figuring out how to help writers for whom English is a second language. These are students who have completed English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and classes but who are not completely fluent in English. They are fluent in their native languages–Serbian, Ukrainian, Jamaican Creole, Polish, Spanish, Japanese, Turkish, Korean, and Hindi—but their English includes non-standard idioms, expressions, and mechanical errors.
Interestingly, I can converse with these students almost perfectly. They may have accents, but I have an accent too. With the help of eye contact, vocal inflections, and gestures, we can understand each other easily. I’ve enjoyed fascinating conversations with many students this year about cooking, culture clashes, technology, and schooling. But when it comes to writing, the communication begins to break down.
The most common types of English errors from second-language writers include missing articles, missing or misused prepositions, and variations on irregular nouns and verbs. I can understand why these are tricky for those still learning the finer points of English. Of course, I also see errors in tense, sentence formation, spelling, and punctuation, but native English speakers frequently make these kinds of errors too.
So I find myself wrestling with how to separate the second-language issues from the other composition concerns. In other words, as I look at a student’s writing, I try to understand what its strengths would be if it were written in the student’s native language. Even when the writing is somewhat garbled, I can usually tell if the thoughts are organized, developed, and focused. In many cases, the writing includes significant amounts of explanation, detail, and even some humor.
I’ve always believed that clear writing represents clear thinking, and unclear writing represents unclear thinking. For a second-language English writer, I’m not sure that’s true. His thinking might be completely clear in his native language, but his lack of facility in English muddles that clarity in the version I’m seeing. Like I said, the clarity isn’t completely obliterated; it’s just muddled. But it might be perfect in his native language.
When working with students in our writing center, I usually begin by asking how I can help them. Many second-language writers say, “Tell me all of my mistakes. I want to write in English perfectly.” So how do I help these motivated but sometimes frustrated students move forward as writers?
First, I look for patterns in their errors. I learned this diagnostic practice from Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations back in the 1970s, and it’s served me well for several decades. For example, if I can point out to a student that she is missing articles in several places, she will frequently say something like, “Oh, yes. In my language we do not have articles, so I make that error.” Then we can go from there. Of course, I’m limited by my understanding of my students’ native languages, but they usually are expert enough to help me help them if I point out a consistent error pattern.
The second approach is to urge simplicity of expression. I frequently see students who write complex sentences to convey sophisticated ideas, but that complexity increases the likelihood that a sentence’s grammar wheels will come off. So, I suggest that the writer break down the complex idea into shorter, simpler chunks that he can manage linguistically. My hope is that as he becomes more adept at manipulating shorter, simpler sentences, he will eventually develop the ability to manage more complex sentences. Learning to walk before trying to run seems like good advice, but it also feels a little condescending to ask writers with big ideas to practice simplifying them.
The third aspect of my approach with these students is to be sure they know what they are doing correctly. My feedback always includes commentary about the depth of their ideas and the quality of their development, in addition to my focus on their mechanical issues. If we concentrate only on negative aspects of a student’s writing, she will frequently overgeneralize and think, “I’m a bad writer.” On the other hand, if we can let a student know that she has good ideas but is still learning some linguistic nuts and bolts, we can hope that eventually her mechanical abilities will catch up to her high-level thinking, with the result being complex ideas expressed in clear, correct English.
Am I on the right track? I’m grateful for any suggestions you have for helping students at this level of development as English-language writers.