Have you ever tried to put yourself in someone else’s shoes? You know, walk a mile…
I ask because it seems the filter through which we see the world is limited to our own biases until something jolts us just enough to look to the left or right. I’ve tutored adults learning English, usually with limited or no English; they were my first jolt. This week I watched three videos called Writing Across Borders. They were about college students from other countries, learning to write according to American English standards. This was another jolt.
I considered this a jolt, not because I personally did not understand this was an act that took courage on an international student’s part, but because of the rigidness of some professors. Not that I am suggesting the standards be lowered. I think there is a level of comprehension and ability to convey thoughts that a student definitely needs to be able to express. However, the lack of instruction on how to do such is often left undone.
An example from the video was of a woman from China explaining she did not understand the need to cite sources. Telling her not to plagiarize accomplishes little when consideration for where she is coming from a culturally has not been explored. As the student pointed out, she comes from a communist country where everything belongs to everyone, using others words is a part of writing.
Just because someone from another country attends an American school, doesn’t mean they instantly know how everything works just because their feet are walking the halls. I highly doubt Americans would adapt any better if the roles were reversed.
This week, to go along with the videos, I also read Tutoring ESL Students: Issues and Options by Muriel Harris and Tony Silva. This article was about how to prioritize errors, and meeting needs of the ESL student.
One of the comments that I thought fit with the videos was “…we also have to be aware that we might make unconscious judgments about others based on our expectations about such behaviors.” This was said in the context of looking for patterns in a student’s work, and how worthwhile it may or may not be.
I need to say, though, while I give this article leeway in using ESL (English as a Second Language) instead of ELL (English Language Learners) because it was written in 1993; I personally do not like ESL. For me, using it takes on a superiority complex that is false. It is Americans who are not fluent in other languages. Though this is beginning to change as we catch up with the rest of the world. Most other countries learn three or more languages; English is merely one of many for them.
Which brings me back to colleges, professors, and writing centers. We do a disservice to students (American or International), and our universities, if professors do not take a few steps in an International students shoes and try to understand what cultural differences may need further explanation. Universities could also improve on this as they integrate International students. Finally, it does a writing center no service to send frustrated ELL students to their doors, who only want grammar help because a professor expects American articles to be included correctly in every sentence. After all, would we remember to remove them if we were attending a university in Russia?