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)


  1. Wow Jacob I'm glad you brought up this issue. I work at the writing center at Mount Holyoke and as a writing and speaking tutor I face some of the issues you mention, too. I remember having discussions with my colleagues and reading some of the writing center literature on the effect of college paper writing as an "acculturation process", where rules of good writing have been set and assumed as universal (some professors even assume that there are "general rules" of writing that students somehow just realize and figure out on their own. The triumph of one way/standard of writing not only does not recognize the value of multilingualism but also privileges "white writing" (as bad as it sounds) in a way. For example imagine a student writing in spoken soul or Spanglish in academic papers (not referring to creative writing here), an analytical essay or even a lab report. While the instructor may have the power to just give the student a bad grade, what is the role for us, as intermediaries? Do we advocate for the student's voice whatever it is but expose them to potential dangers of standing up against an institution? Do we help students “conform” to a standard which was set up without their voice and identity in mind and may end up perpetuating their marginalization? There is definitely a middle ground in between, but where exactly does it lie in every tutoring session? In this respect I really think Gloria Anzaldua and Sandra Cisneros challenge the dominant, “acceptable” way of writing. Institutional standards of writing do change, but who is to instigate this change? Do they lie in the power of the scholars or do they lie in the students of changing demographics whose writing “with accents” actually can serve to reshape and enrich the US university academic English but may come at the expense of the students challenging the “norm”? I remember learning to write my first paper at Mount Holyoke, not having written any paper in my entire high school career in Beijing, China and the shock I had discovering that not arriving at my conclusion in the thesis statement does not serve to “walk the reader through my reasoning process in order to help them consider the validity of my position (as I put it)” but rather, wasting my time and not having a clear position. I happened to begin my first semester with a professor who denied that culture played any role in how a person wrote and who assumed that students somehow figure out how to write papers on their own. Well, at least from my experience working with students at the writing center it has not always been the case. Some of the native speakers/ domestic students aren’t even clear what college writing asks for (not to mention that the guidelines vary across discipline), which indicates that the rules of college academic English aren’t intuitive nor universal and there has been an institutional disconnect between high school and college English writing and there are different ways of writing and reasoning across cultures and none is more valid than the other out of the their context, sth unfortunately ignored or actively denied by some. And this raises the question of who should fill the gap…


  2. I think the point “Our approach to writing and our methods are linked to aesthetic sensibilities and values and those are cultural as well” should definitely be explored more. While colleges in the US tries to help student find “their own voice”, support their own argument, challenge authority, preferring reason and evidence over citing/regurgitating authority, this is not the value of writing or self expression in other cultures. This may be a loose generalization but I think the emphasis on reasoning and individual has a lot to do with the Reformation ideas of Luther eliminating the distance between the individual and Truth (in Luther’s case God) taking away any sort of external authority (be it the Church, be it scholars or experts) and the Lockean ideas elevating the individual above the society… Lets just say that not every culture’s idea of individual expression or on what makes sth true are the same, and this doesn’t necessarily mean one is better than another…More has to come!!


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