Linguistic diversity in the classroom (part 2): Multilingualism and academic writing

In my previous post, I presented my approach to balancing two competing needs: (1) preparing students who speak ‘nonstandard’ English to succeed as academic writers and (2) creating an environment that promotes respect for linguistic diversity among my students while making small steps toward countering language privilege. Specifically, I talked about how I apply this approach to African American English (AAE) speakers in my academic writing classes.

In this post, I want to describe this same approach for working with another group who have considerably different needs: multilingual students, specifically those who have learned English as a second (or third, fourth, etc.) language. In this post, I’m going to refer to these students as L2 English users, writers, and speakers. By this I mean that these writers have learned to use English as an additional language after their first and primary language (regardless of whether it is the second, third, fourth, fifth, or whatever language).

Defining the L2 English writer: learners or users?

Trying to discuss the situation that L2 English writers find themselves in is in many ways more multifarious than trying to discuss AAE speakers’ needs in the academic writing classroom. The reason for this is that while AAE speakers are first language (L1) speakers of English (even if their English differs from ‘standard’ English) that possess all of the linguistic competence that any L1 user has, L2 English speakers have a broad range of English proficiency ranging from beginners who struggle with basic communication to highly proficient bilinguals who use English effortlessly when communicating about familiar topics. I’ll generalize about this spectrum by saying that there are those L2 English writers who are English learners and those who are English users.

To clarify this learner vs. user distinction, it’s helpful to think about the situations of L2 English speakers that I encounter in my academic writing classes (and that you’re likely to encounter if you teach in similar contexts). The first thing to consider is the length of time the student has been using English and the range of purposes for which he or she has been using it. On the one hand, there are students who, prior to beginning their studies at my university, have only ever studied English as an academic subject in their home countries. For example, many Saudi students have studied English as a foreign language particularly in high school and this is the primary way that they have interacted with English. On the other hand, students from countries like India, Nigeria, and the Philippines have usually used English for a variety of official, academic, and casual purposes throughout their lives. Likewise, I often have students who immigrated to the United States in late childhood or adolescence. For both groups, their length and range of exposure to English is usually much more extensive than that of, for example, most of my Saudi students.

This length and range of exposure usually impacts L2 English speakers in two ways. The first way is that their ability and confidence in using English fluently for academic purposes is usually quite different. L2 English writers with a great deal of experience with English are usually far less limited by the range of ideas they can express and instead tend to focus on what they want to express. Conversely, L2 English writers with less experience are often concerned with producing whatever writing they can. For these students, who I would call “English learners”, writing a sentence or a paragraph in English requires a great deal more effort than it would for their “English user” peers (whether L1 or L2 English speakers).

In addition to a difference in fluency and confidence, English learners and English users may identify with English differently. While English learners will almost certainly view English as a foreign language they have yet to master, L2 English speakers who are English users may view themselves as legitimate users of English (rightfully I maintain) whose linguistic differences (for example, their ‘nonstandard’ accents) do not signal a need for them to continue learning English but are instead another type of linguistic diversity (similar to AAE). For example, Indian or Nigerian students may view themselves as speaking Indian English or Nigerian English. Latino/a students may view themselves as speaking a number of different possible varieties like Chicano English or Nuyorican English.

So complex is this situation, that in many cases Indian English, Nigerian English, Chicano English, Nuyorican English, or some other English variety (historically influenced by a second language) may be rightfully considered the student’s first language. That is, it is the case that rather than speaking Indian English as a result of the interference of a different first language (for example, Hindi), many Indians speak Indian English as their first language. As a side note, this calls into question whether I should even be referring to Indian English (or any of the others) as a form of “L2 English”. For now I will choose to do so with the recognition that many Indian English speakers (and speakers of the other previously mentioned varieties) do use the variety as L2 not L1, but I hope you’ll keep the possibility of Indian English (or any other so-called L2 English variety) as L1 in mind.

L2 English users then even if they don’t refer specifically to these technical varieties may view the differences between their English and ‘standard’ English as a matter of diversity not a lack of language ability on their part. This is in sharp contrast to English learners who will likely view differences between their English and ‘standard’ English as an indication of a lack of English ability on their part.

The distinction I have drawn between learner and user is often not entirely clear even within an individual student, who may assert user status at one moment but later seem to identify as a learner. In addition, even highly proficient bilingual English speakers may identify as life-long learners of English.

When deciding how to approach students as English learners or users, I usually consider the length of time they have been exposed to English and the nature of the course I am teaching. In an academic writing class, in which L1 English speakers are enrolled, I generally approach the L2 English speakers as English users so as to put them on a level similar to their L1 English-speaking peers. In a class where the focus is more explicitly learning English as a second or foreign language (and the class is not open to enrollment from L1 English speakers), I would more likely treat students as English learners. I will continue to draw on the distinction between English users and learners as I describe my approach to teaching L2 English writers.

Linguistic diversity in spoken English

Having L2 English writers in an English composition class greatly increases the amount of variation in how the English spoken in class discussion sounds. In general, I attempt to handle communication difficulties with L2 English-speaking students in a manner very similar to how I previously described I handle these situations with AAE-speaking students.

One unique issue that I have observed with L2 English-speaking students is that student-student communication can be much more difficult in the sense that L1 English-speaking students are sometimes more likely to dismiss their L2 English-speaking peers by positioning the L2 English speaker as learner and saying things like “they can’t speak a word of English” (a phenomenon I discussed for L2 English speakers as instructors). Basically, L1 English-speaking students (and even some more proficient L2 English-speaking students) may be unwilling to uphold their end of the communicative burden with their L2 English-speaking peers. I think the best thing to do when this occurs is to establish classroom rules for student-student dialogue (either unilaterally as the instructor or in a more democratic fashion). Some useful rules I’ve developed include:

  1. If you did not understand something, please ask even if it seems rude.
  2. When asking someone to repeat or rephrase what they have said, use I-statements that place the blame for communication difficulty on you. For example, say “I did not hear what you said” rather than “You didn’t say that clearly”.
  3. If you’re asked to repeat yourself, try not to become offended. Instead, repeat and, even better, rephrase without indicating that you are frustrated by the other person. Try to assume that the other person is making a good faith effort to communicate.
  4. Before disagreeing with something someone has said, it may be best to check that you have understood it. State in your own words what you believe the other person has said in order to find out whether you have understood.

As someone who regularly works with many L2 English speakers, I am occasionally better at understanding them than my L1 English-speaking students. As a result, I sometimes step in to help students communicate. However, when acting as mediator, I check with the speaker whose message needs to be rephrased to check that I have in fact communicated what he or she intended. I do this to try to maintain both the speaker’s control over his or her meaning-making, as well as, in cases where the speaker is an L2 English speaker, to try to avoid the all too frequent assumption that the ‘problem’ is simply the L2 English speaker’s lack of English.

The question of grammar instruction

The issue of how to deal with grammar in the writing of L2 English writers is a complex one and the subject of a vast amount of research and writing (some of which I recommend below). Here I just want to address how the linguistic diversity that L2 English writers bring to the academic writing classroom can complicate the way you might choose to approach writing instruction particularly when the focus of the lesson is on grammar.

In particular, English learners’ and English users’ (whether L1 or L2 English speakers) grammar needs are usually quite different. For English users, academic writing instructors usually focus on either the ways written academic English differs from spoken English, such as the avoidance of contractions, or ways in which writing in general differs from speakings such as rules for punctuation (for example, how to avoid sentence fragments, comma splices, or run-on sentences) or distinguishing between homophones (for example, knowing the difference between to, too, and two).

While these issues may constitute the bulk of grammar instruction necessary for English users, English learners have very different needs. In fact, having often learned English in a very explicit manner, by for example learning individual grammar structures and memorizing vocabulary words, English learners will probably find the grammar issues necessary for English users rather simple to master. Unfortunately, the issues facing English users are far more complex and involve very basic aspects of English grammar such as the use of articles (that is a, an, and, the) or verb tense, aspect, or agreement (that is all of those -ed, -en, -ing, and -s endings). The rules for these facets of English have been mastered by most English users (even if there is some diversity in how they use them), but you may find trying to describe these rules very difficult as they are extremely complex (and often people fail to recognize their complexity, assuming for example things like “past tense is used for things that happened in the past; present tense is used for things that happen in the present”, as I pointed out previously this is not really the case).

It’s not my intention to create a resource for pedagogical grammar issues. I intend instead simply to raise your awareness to how linguistic diversity in your classroom may necessitate a different approach and even a different knowledge set. If you find that you have English learners in your classroom, it would be a good idea to start gathering resources for helping them with grammar issues, because the difficulties they face will be extremely different than what you may be used to if you tend to teach primarily English users. For a good place to start gathering resources, Alexandria Lowe reviews several online grammar and academic writing resources for advanced learners here. You might also consider exploring a pedagogical grammar textbook such as one of these to help you gain a more explicit understanding of the way that English grammar works. You already have a well-developed tacit understanding of course. The point here is simply that making this understanding explicit to students can be difficult. Books such as these might be helpful in developing this ability:

If you’re interested in other issues having to do with responding to L2 English writers’ grammar, check out these book recommendations:

Advantages of being a multilingual writer?

It’s unfortunate that the most salient aspect of L2 English writers’ writing is their grammar. As a result, we often unfortunately talk about being an L2 English writer as a disadvantage. However, multilingual academic writers have distinct advantages over their monolingual counterparts.

One such advantage that the L2 English writers in my classes are often reluctant to use has to do with their ability to use resources and research available in the other languages they can read and write in. For example, a student from South Korea has the ability to read newspapers from Korea along with scientific studies undertaken and published by Korean researchers in Korean. This may give her access to information and perspectives that other students seeking to write about topics like the Korean war or the Korean education system cannot access.

Strangely, my L2 English-speaking students often assume they are not allowed to use these sources in their English writing. This is not an entirely misplaced assumption since students should not rely entirely on non-English sources to write in English. The reason is that their audience (which we know are English speakers many of whom probably do not speak Korean) will probably want to have access to some of the sources directly. However, I encourage students to utilize sources in their first language (or another language they know well) if they can answer the following question with a “yes”. Does the source offer information, opinions, or first-hand expertise that would not be found in English language sources on the same topic? Local newspapers covering local events in the student’s home country are a good example of a source that is not likely to be matched by an English language source.

Far from being something students should avoid, I view the use of such sources as the student’s successful use of a major advantage that he or she may have: literacy in another language.

I should note, however, that not all L2 English speakers are literate in their L1 or another language besides English. If you are teaching students who have a great deal of formal education in their L1, they will more than likely be literate in that language. However, many times this may not be the case. For example, when working with L2 English speakers who have had limited or interrupted formal education (for example because they were refugees), you might find that they are not literate in their L1.

The multilingual voice

As English has spread throughout the world through colonization and more recently through efforts to teach English as a foreign language, the number of different varieties has increased. The most well-known varieties are those spoken in affluent former colonies of Great Britain: especially US English and Australian English. However, as I’ve already mentioned other former colonies like India and Nigeria both have recognized English varieties.

What is perhaps most striking is the emergence of other varieties of English in places where it has not had a historical function. For example, because English has been a compulsory subject in China, a huge number of Chinese students have been required to gain some level of proficiency in English. As a result, some scholars have begun to speak of an emerging variety of English: China English. A group of undergraduate students at the University of Hong Kong created this blog to provide some basic information about this emerging variety of English. Perhaps the most well-known feature of China English are new words coined by China English users. Sheng Jim has collected some of these here. They include words like “democrazy” and “freedamn”, which are clearly not ‘errors’ in the sense of being unintentional. They cleverly express a clear political point of view. Indeed, I find them strikingly similar to many of George Orwell’s Newspeak neologisms.

The question for academic writing instructors is of course where do we draw the line between what is acceptable creative use of English by L2 English writers and what is unacceptable in academic writing? I think when students are attempting to make a political point then the inclusion of words like “freedamn” and “democrazy” are not only acceptable, they are particularly apt (even if they will require a footnote to be accessible to an audience unfamiliar with China English). However, for most other situations this question is one that is quite controversial among instructors and researchers. If I could identify one aspect that I think is most critical in attempting to answer it, it would be to consider who the audience of this piece of academic writing might be and whether the student’s intended meaning will be understood by that audience.

One final issue related to the multilingual student’s voice is code-switching. Code-switching refers to the use of more than one language in a conversation or, in this case, in a piece of writing. We might say that written academic English has some small amount of code-switching. For example, Latin phrases or abbreviations like “e.g.” (exempli gratia = for example), “i.e.” (id est = that is to say), or a priori (from something earlier) are somewhat common in a lot of written academic English. However, these represent a very static form of code-switching. The phrases are well-known, and nowadays people rarely borrow new Latin phrases into English. However, in certain contexts, L2 English writers might wish to include words, phrases, or sentences from other languages they know. I encourage this because I think it’s an excellent way for multilingual students to cultivate their voices. However, I do insist that students be aware of their audience. When using terms from their language they need to consider that most of the time the audience is unlikely to be familiar with these terms and so a footnote or a prose explanation will probably be necessary. In addition, I believe it’s a good idea to provide some type of argument as to why the non-English phrase is preferred over an English translation. For example, I recently had a student who preferred to use the German term Bildung (roughly “education”) in an essay. I believe her use of the term was successful because she made it clear that the German term, Bildung, refers to a broader idea of education including moral development that she believed English speakers are unlikely to associate with the word “education”. Hence, she effectively answered the question “Why not just say education?”

Final thoughts

Having discussed two groups of students who use English in a manner that differs from ‘standard’ English, I hope that I have provided some guidance on how to approach such a situation in a way that both helps to educate these students about ‘standard’ English while also encouraging and respecting their languages and voices. Of course, there’s quite a bit more that could be said about this topic, and I invite you to add any other suggestions you might have in the comments.

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Posted in Human migration, Language and education, Linguistic diversity
2 comments on “Linguistic diversity in the classroom (part 2): Multilingualism and academic writing
  1. englishwhiz says:

    Reblogged this on English Writers' Language Self-Help and commented:
    “So complex is this situation, that in many cases Indian English, Nigerian English, Chicano English, Nuyorican English, or some other English variety (historically influenced by a second language) may be rightfully considered the student’s first language. That is, it is the case that rather than speaking Indian English as a result of the interference of a different first language (for example, Hindi), many Indians speak Indian English as their first language. As a side note, this calls into question whether I should even be referring to Indian English (or any of the others) as a form of “L2 English”. For now I will choose to do so with the recognition that many Indian English speakers (and speakers of the other previously mentioned varieties) do use the variety as L2 not L1, but I hope you’ll keep the possibility of Indian English (or any other so-called L2 English variety) as L1 in mind.” –Quoted from the post.

  2. englishwhiz says:

    A very insightful post. The blurred distinction between English as L1 and L2 in case of varieties like Indian English has been captured very well. In India, it is still being debated whether the “weirdness” of Indian English is really “a matter of diversity not a lack of language ability”. In this context, the distinctions you are making in this post are very relevant.

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