Multilingual Writers

The recommendations made elsewhere on this website should help you in assisting any writer, whether she be a first-year student working on a Writing 5 paper, a senior working on an Honors Thesis, or an international or multilingual student. The multilingual student, however, will inspire you to read and respond to her writing in new ways. We offer these materials to make you aware of the challenges facing multilingual writers.  We also hope that you will come to see the ways these writers can enhance your understanding of how English is evolving globally.  

Cultural Difference and Its Impact on Rhetoric: An Overview

Different cultures construct arguments differently.  Consider: most writers educated in the United States will have been exposed to the principle of building an argument upon the foundation of a thesis sentence.  These writers will also be familiar with the idea that paragraphs tend to be shaped by topic sentences, which very often appear at the beginning or the end of the paragraph.  They will also understand (at least in a general way) the basic principles of intellectual property.

However, these values regarding writing, argument, structure, and intellectual property are not universal. On the contrary: these values differ from culture to culture, potentially making the process of writing a paper challenging. Accordingly, when you assist these writers, you should be aware of rhetorical differences.

Different Rhetorical Conventions

In order to write effectively, international or multilingual writers will - like all writers - need to learn how discourse is practiced in a new community. As a tutor, you will be helping writers to understand and practice this discourse. As you do, it's important to remember that your way of composing an argument is informed by certain values and conventions.  You'll want to be able to explain these conventions to your tutees, but you'll want to listen to them as they talk about their values and conventions as well.  Their ways of constructing an argument have value and can be quite informative.  Indeed, as you discuss discourse and all of its complexities with your multilingual students, you'll learn as much from them about how arguments work as they will from you.  As discourse becomes increasingly global, rhetorical conventions co-habitate in interesting ways, changing the way we communicate.  

Here are some interesting points of discussion.  

  • Thesis Sentences: The thesis sentence, as we know, is a sentence which announces to the reader the stance which the writer has taken on a particular subject. It may also include what is sometimes referred to as an essay map: the part of the thesis sentence that organizes the idea for the reader. In American academic discourse, the thesis is most often (though not always) placed at the end of the introduction. However, not all cultures require their writers to use thesis sentences. In fact, in some cultures, these kinds of sentences seem insulting. After all, why would a writer want to announce to his audience what he is going to say, and then put his audience through the rather dull process of hearing him say it? Doesn't the writer trust his readers to determine the point of the essay for themselves?
  • Topic Sentences: In English, the topic sentence most often occurs at or near the beginning of each paragraph (and sometimes right at the end). Native speakers know this; it's why, when we cram for a quiz on material we haven't read, we skim the first and last sentence of every paragraph, hoping to put together the gist of the argument.  But certainly there are other ways of organizing material - some more organic, or more liberating. Why not consider these?
  • Concision: Many English stylists prefer shorter sentences. They like nouns and verbs and are suspicious of other parts of speech - in particular they distrust adjectives and adverbs that seem to inflate prose that is really rather weak. Some readers in fact grow impatient when writers use three or four words where one would have done just as well. Writers who have been raised speaking other languages sometimes find English, well, lacking. Where are the lovely adjectives? Where are the complex digressions? Don't these people love their language at all? Without disparaging their conventions, show them how beautiful a simple, balanced sentence can be.
  • Plagiarism: Some multilingual writers come from countries in which ideas are not owned, but shared. Imagine how foreign a concept plagiarism must be!   Writers need to understand that they cannot use ideas from other scholars without acknowledgment. Teach these writers that citing sources is a courtesy to other scholars - who will want to know where they got their information so that they might learn more about the subject at hand. (For more on plagiarism and citing sources, see Sources.)

Common Errors: The Top Ten List

From the Home Office in Baker comes a list of errors commonly made by multilingual writers. Some of these errors you will find in the writing of native speakers of English, but some (such as articles and preposition problems) are particular to multilingual writers.  While we believe that these errors are relatively insignificant - they don't, after all obscure meaning - they are also errors that many multilingual students may want to discuss with you.  Accordingly, we list them here, so that you can enter these conversations sufficiently prepared.  

Number One: Articles

Articles are perhaps the most persistent problems for writers whose first language doesn't use articles. Other writers are used to languages in which every noun requires an article, and it is unclear to them when articles should be omitted. On the other hand, a native speaker (even a young one) will never have trouble with articles: we know at some fundamental level when to use or to omit "the," "a," or "an."

To understand how articles are used, a writer must be able to distinguish whether the noun an article modifies is definite (specific) or indefinite (general). This depends on context.  An indefinite noun represents something that is one out of many (its particular identity is unknown): a dog, some students, some air.  A definite noun is something of which we know the particular identity: the dog, the students, the air.  All definite nouns come with the definite article: THE.  Indefinite nouns come with an indefinite article (A or AN) if they are singular and countable (a dog). Indefinite nouns that are plural (students) or uncountable (water) do not take an article.

Since usage is very context-specific, the difficulty lies in determining whether a noun is definite or indefinite and why this is so.  Consider: "Mr. Kim, President of Dartmouth College, urged the students to find a passion that would inspire them to great deeds in the benefit of humanity."  It's not easy to explain the article usage in a sentence like this!  After all, President Kim could also "urge students" and still be grammatically correct!  The choice he makes depends on his intent. 

Making the problem even more difficult to explain is that some article use is idiomatic, or requires a lot of grammatical analysis in order to be understood. For example, why  do we invite someone out to dinner, not out to the dinner, or adinner? (Though we will always invite them out for meal, not simply meal.)

You will do a lot of intellectual sweating attempting to help writers with articles, and you will be tempted to pass off most of what is hard to explain as idiomatic. Resist this temptation! Perhaps the usage is idiomatic, but an attempt to explain and to understand the finer points of grammar can be useful for your tutees - and for you as well.

Number Two: Prepositions

This is a second area of error that is almost exclusive to multilingual writers. While some New Yorkers will wait on line (instead of in line, like the rest of us), for international writers the problem of prepositions is much more serious. Novice writers will have trouble understanding why it is that sitting by the table is different from sitting at the table; more advanced writers will have trouble wrestling with the difference between being concerned with something, as opposed to being concerned by something.

Typically those prepositions used to express abstract thoughts will be particularly meddlesome: a multilingual writer may be able to visualize the difference between being on the water and in the water, but less able to see the difference between dwelling in and dwelling on a particular idea and emotion. Unfortunately, most preposition usage is simply that: a matter of usage. The best you can do is to explain differences to the writer, and to hope that she will take your explanation with her into her next paper or her next conversation with a native speaker.

Number Three: Infinitives

Another category of error common to multilingual writers is incorrect use of infinitives. These writers may be crafting their English sentences after sentences in their native languages, where often many rules (including the rules for infinitives) differ from the rules of English. These writers will compose sentences like, "I wouldn't mind to have a BMW." Some categories of verbs call for the infinitive, and some do not. If you are unsure about these categories, look them up with your students in any of the handbooks sitting on the RWIT shelves. In explaining the rule to the writer, you might learn something yourself.

Number Four: Using the Wrong Parts of Speech

Multilingual writers will sometimes confuse parts of speech, using an adjective where they want to use a noun, or a verb where they want to use a gerund, or an adverb where they want to use an adjective. 

Number Five: Agreement

Subjects and verbs should agree, tenses should agree, and so on.

Number Six: Verb Tense and Forms

Some languages do not indicate tense via the verb.  Verb tenses can therefore prove challenging.

Number Seven: Active and Passive Voices

This problem troubles all writers.  Remember:  passive isn't wrong.  In fact, sometimes it's useful.  But use it purposefully.  The actor-action principle often yields better, more emphatic sentences.

Number Eight: Sentence Structure/Sentence Boundaries

Multilingual writers sometimes have trouble learning the boundaries of the English sentence and so may produce run-ons or convoluted prose. Going back to the basics will help these writers: explain to them the simple sentence, the means of coordination and subordination, and, perhaps most importantly, the limits of the English sentence. Often the idea that is expressed beautifully in Spanish, German, or Russian will break the back of the English sentence. Encourage the writers to be kind to their sentences. Help them to judge what an English sentence will bear.

Number Nine: Punctuation

Everyone has this problem, but the patterns of punctuation errors may be related to the writer's native language.  For instance, a Russian will often place a comma before the word "that," simply because it's done that way where she comes from. If you notice persistent punctuation errors, talk with the writer about her native language. You may find the root of the problem there, and solving it will be that much easier.

Number Ten: The Touchy Matter of Style, or "We Just Don't Say It That Way Here"

For advanced multilingual writers, the most persistent problem is one of style. It is difficult to catch a language's rhythms and music. Again, avoid the temptation of simply saying, "We don't say it like that!" Engage the writer in a discussion about language. You may, in this discussion, teach her something about the beauty and power of your own language.  And you will certainly learn something about the beauty and power of hers.

Your Role as a Tutor: Some Advice

Finally, we'd like to offer a few guidelines to follow when tutoring the multilingual writer:

  • Don't dominate the session. This advice may sound tediously repetitive by now, but it is easily forgotten in tutoring sessions. Multilingual writers who struggle with spoken English are sometimes shy about asking you to repeat things or raising their own concerns. Moreover, many of these writers are comfortable deferring to the teacher and her authority. Remember: the silent but cheerful nodding of a multilingual writer may mask a terrible frustration with the writing process. The writer struggling to convey simple ideas in English is often highly qualified in her own culture, and an eloquent writer in her own language - making the struggle with English all the more acute. I once had a tutee who could not write a clear English sentence, yet she was a teacher of literature and an author of two textbooks in Chinese. The sense of frustration that comes with moving from a culture in which you are fully literate to another where you are not can be profound.  
  • Don't "fix" it. You may feel the urge to "fix" a phrase or smooth a transition in a multilingual writer's essay. Perhaps you have only twenty minutes of tutoring time left, every sentence in the paper is proving challenging to understand, and you are frustrated at trying to explain the fundamental rules of the language that you have always used intuitively. (Why exactly DO we use articles? What IS a rhetorical question, and what are its advantages/ disadvantages? Why DO we bother with thesis sentences?)  "Fixing" problems may make you a happy tutor and the writer a happy tutee, but it will not help the writer in the long run. Help the writer understand why a grammar rule is the way it is, or why we bother organizing our written thoughts into paragraphs. It is admittedly difficult, often impossible, to explain the ins and outs of our language's structure and our written conventions. If you can't find an explanation, admit it. 
  • Don't fake it. I once overheard a tutor tell a multilingual writer that, to determine where a comma should go, one must read an essay out loud and place a comma wherever he stopped to take a breath. The writer, who was Chinese, objected: "I do not breathe as you do," he told his tutor. "Well... then...." the tutor said, flustered, uncertain as to what to do next. Well, well. The moral of the story is never pretend that you know what you don't know. If you don't know something, say so. Engage another tutor in the debate, or go to the grammar books on the shelf and ask the tutee to help you find the answer. Your authority will not be undermined; in fact you will have more actively drawn the tutee into the learning process.
  • Don't try to be Super Tutor.  Do your job to the best of your ability. Remember that learning a new language - playing with it, feeling confident in it - is a slow process. It may be a while before you see results. Don't let that discourage you. You are more valuable to your tutee than you realize.
  • Do prioritize. The overriding issue you are likely to face with multilingual writers is where to start. How to reconcile the big picture with the nitty-gritty? Should you focus on the single paper at hand, or start with the basics of writing in general? Should you spend most of your time on argument, or should you focus on grammar, which is bogging the paper down? You can't do it all, and no matter how wonderful a tutor you are, many things will be left unsaid. Give yourself time to decide what is most important, and what is better left for another day. And don't forget to ask the tutee what his priorities are! He may have very definite ideas about what he wants to accomplish in the tutoring session.
  • Do make the session a two-way process. As with all tutoring sessions, there is a direct correlation between the amount of time that a multilingual writer talks and the ability of that writer to internalize the issues at hand. By engaging the writer, challenging her, asking questions, and refusing to let nods of the head suffice as response, you will be minimizing the likelihood of treading the same ground in future sessions.
  • Do use the resources we have. We have drills and handbooks in the Center that will be helpful when working with multilingual writers. Also, we have tutors working every term who had lots of experience tutoring multilingual students. If you have questions or concerns, or would like to refer a tutee to an experienced tutor, please feel free to do so.

Writing Assisting the Multilingual Writer

When faced with a paper written by a multilingual writer, the first thing a writing assistant should do is to determine whether or not the writer is indeed multilingual. Don't assume that the presence of error indicates that the writer's native language is not English. Instead, look for signs that these mistakes are indeed common multilingual mistakes. For example, if the paper contains article errors, the writer is probably multilingual. Odd use of prepositions is another sign that the writer isn't writing in her native language.

Writing assistants often ask how they should deal with multilingual issues on a paper. Much of our training instructs our staff to be facilitative. We tell you not to correct error when you see it. And yet, with a multilingual writer, sometimes it seems unhelpful not to mark the error or make the correction. What is the right thing to do?

When in doubt, consider how your professors mark your papers in your foreign language courses. They probably mark errors without always naming them, indicating that something is wrong but leaving it to you to figure out what. This strategy works well with multilingual writers. You might also want to point out recurring errors - articles, tenses, and so on - remarking on these errors in the margin notes and in the summary comment.  But do keep in mind:  the most important aspects of a multilingual writer's paper are the ideas.  If you are distracted by the writer's linguistic differences and are always marking these differences as errors, you will miss the opportunity to address her ideas.  Multilingual writers are writers, first and foremost.  Address their work accordingly.