Scrap or repair English as a second language in College?



Clifford Adelman’s recent essay featured by Inside Higher Ed, “The Continued Coming of Second Language Students,” put both a smile and a frown on my face. I know that kind of display does not count as a formal or sufficient response in the field of education, so let me be more specific.

I smiled because as an English professor and someone who is fluent in three languages–English, Swedish, and German–I recognized all too well the typecasting (notice I did not say “stereotyping”) of students. Observations such as those made by Adelman of the students in his ’70s classroom are necessary if we are to truly understand and help students whose first language is not English become better writers and speakers of English. To ignore the culturally-induced posture, which may come across as posturing to some Americans encountering students from other countries, would be to lose out on an effective piece of the puzzle in how to teach English to this diverse population that appears to be categorized most frequently under the term of “English as a second language” or “non-native speakers,” the latter a strange term evoking Tarzan films and cannibals on remote islands.

The gathering of information relevant to improving the teaching of students as presented and suggested by Clifford Adelman is a useful step in the right direction, though as a “liberal arts type,” someone who is not trained formally in the teaching of English to non-native speakers, I tend not to be able to make use of what I read in charts or what I refer to as “boxes.” This is not criticism aimed at those who take the scientific approach to the study of language acquisition or anything else they are mapping and putting into spread sheets. As an English teacher, I simply cannot make much practical use of this documentation.

I have intuitively known and employed in the college composition classroom methods to teach students whose first language is not English. Like some other teachers, I am able to recognize the nationality of students when offered their writing samples, which unfortunately have come to me mostly in the form of some kind of “exit” exam for a class designed for “international students,” yet another label. As someone who speaks several languages, I am able to relate to students and address in a very non-scientific way practical, hands-on ways for students to write standard American English (and yes, this is a challenge also for many American students whose native language is English).

What I am getting to (not necessarily “at”) is this: I do not think that we can train teachers who do not speak multiple languages to offer effective instruction in English to students whose first language is not English. This is where a modified version of Clifford Adelman’s observation of his foreign students in his ’70s classroom enters again. I recently interviewed Maud Adams for a feature article (yes, that’s Maud Adams who starred in the title role of the James Bond movie Octopussy and was one of the James Bond “girls” in The Man with the Golden Gun) and I asked her, “What is it like to act speaking Swedish as opposed to speaking English, for you?” Adams, who by the way studied German, English, French, and Latin, and speaks Italian from working in Italy, addresses the difficulty both students of foreign languages and teachers of foreign languages (yes, I am referring to English) face: “Not easy. I first spoke with a Swedish/English accent, as that’s how I was first taught and I also had married an English fellow. An accent is, of course, another limiting factor unless the part calls for it. Also, so much emotional memory is attached to language.”

It is especially this observation of emotional memory being attached to language that teachers of students whose native language is not English must be aware of. The mention of accent and acting further point out that speaking and writing in English for many of these students is just that, a performance. Add to that the burden of anxiousness associated with receiving a grade for their performance and it becomes even more obvious to me that teachers, if they are to be very effective coaches of English as a second language, must have had experiences in the arena (yes, arena) of language similar to that of their students. “Training” as an ESL teacher is simply not enough.

So what are solutions to the teaching of English as a second language? Getting rid of the label would be a helpful start and just refer to the teaching of English. Do not separate the students whose first language is not English from the students of the “mainstream” English composition classroom, which has many American students who have difficulties writing prose in English. And be aware that some “non-native” students whose first language is not English will write better essays than students born and reared in the good ol’ U.S.A.

I can’t think of a better solution than having teachers who speak several languages and students who speak several languages engaging in the study of English composition together. This just might make freshman English composition more exciting for everyone and effect a paradigm shift, if you’ll excuse the technical jargon.