Teaching Writing in a Multilingual Classroom

I thought I’d post up my response to a question posed during the Language and Diversity practicum offered to the instructors of the expository writing courses taught at UMass-Amherst: “How do we as teachers of writing/composition benefit by having L2 and/or multilingual students in our classrooms.” The answer was only supposed to be a paragraph-long (hence the apologetic tone) so I deleted things like “speakers of multiple languages draw from a wider range of experiences and outlooks” and tried to concentrate on things more easily overlooked. Let me know what you think — it would be nice to keep adding to the list. Outside of “foreign” language programs, this country / universities in the U.S. tend to treat multilingual students as “issues” and “problems”, as if multilingualism is some kind of thing to work out and monolingualism is preferable! Here is where I started…

This question has triggered a lot of thought and “journal” writing. I’ll take “the fifth” on how many pages were filled in my little notebook/drawing pad (and “the fifth” as a term/concept shows us how language carries political references and cultural values… oh dear, here I go….), but I realize that we’re all reading too much as it is and will spare you the long winded response. “Anyways” (another word that carries all kinds of interesting meanings that L2 speakers will often perceive – the connections between “any” and “ways” and the constant utterance of “anyways” or “anyway” as bridge/point of changing the topic may be overlooked by the “native speaker”), it’s probably more effective to just jump into a few examples from the College Writing 112 course…

One semester I started out with “what the hell is ‘the self’ anyways?” Multilingual students were able to compare the word “self” (we’re inquiring into the “self”/ “selves” for unit 1) as used in different language systems and they showed us as a group how that concept changes. “Self” could be “inner being” and its endless labyrinth of meanings in English, and in Yoruba it can be “Ori”, implying a connection to one’s destiny, one’s inner potentiality, and “inner head.” So the multilingual students become the teachers of “self” and we see through the many languages how a concept like “self” shifts between cultures. That blows open endless discussions on “the self” and how to inquire into it.

On our discussion of “language”, multilingual students were also able to explore the word that signifies a “method of communicating” and brought in some fascinating observations on how the Latin root “langue” implies “the tongue” — that language is connected to speech and not necessarily to “movement” or “life-force” or “spirit” as it is in other language systems.

Those two brief examples show us how language and perception and philosophy are intricately tied. Also, language conjures up a whole range of contexts (we see it in “I’ll take the 5th on that one”) that point at “different” social constructs that can be compared in a classroom. By tapping into the different ways of perceiving a text/phenomenon (by looking at concrete words or by exploring open questions like “the contexts that make me”) our classroom becomes much richer.

One last thing: L2 students bring in different approaches to creating things like a thesis statement/arguable claim/whatever we call it. For example: in U.S. universities it may be acceptable to start with “This paper will look at ….” Try starting off with “El presente trabajo analizará…” in Cuba and you will see a red circle around the introduction with something like “no” written next to it. Our approach to writing and our methods are linked to aesthetic sensibilities and values and those are cultural as well: the multilingual student in 112 classes is a great reminder of that. How do we benefit from that? I guess we see that to enforce some kind of “you must start a paper by doing x,x, and x”-rule is actually preventing some students from exploring a topic in the way they want to. It can become, in some situations, a cultural imposition that will NOT benefit the student. Also, by embracing multiple approaches to something like an introduction we learn more about the different options we have as writers. That’s all for now.

More to come….

Jacob Dyer-Spiegel @ http://www.lenguamente.com  (2008)

a GREAT international program and scholarship site

Back to school means less time to post good leads for all of you trying to study abroad or get funding to do research abroad. But… I did find a really good site that offers QUALITY links and information @ the University of Michigan: http://www.internationalcenter.umich.edu/swt/study/studyabroad1.html

If you know of any good programs or scholarships/grants, feel free to post a comment. There is a lot of $ out there for study abroad/work abroad/volunteer abroad/research abroad. It is just a mater of finding it and applying. Most deadlines for Fall/Spring, 2008-9 are between now and 3/1/08…