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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Unexpected ESL

I’ve come to appreciate ESL students on a rather selfish level. Yes, I recognize that the nonnative speaker undergoes significant hardship in learning the language and academic norms. But I have latched onto something in ESL tutorial sessions that makes my job as a consultant not only more fun, but also more challenging.

You see, in my experience, ESL students know more about the mechanics of English grammar than do native speakers. This undoubtedly comes from studying the complicated language on such a small scale, whereas native speakers take their grammar for granted.

Anyway, to get to the point, the very last consultation I had this semester was with an older lady who was from somewhere in the Ukraine. I found this out quickly because her paper was an ethnography on the Bolshevik republics before and after the dissolution of the Soviet union. It was such a complicated topic and the paper was nearly 20 pages long. The sentence structure in the paper was incredibly complicated, despite the fact that the writer and I could barely converse one-to-one. The most amazing thing about this essay, however, were the tiny grammar mistakes (most of them were problems with articles and singular/plural agreement with verbs etc.)

And here, finally, is my point. I was forced to explain the trouble with her sentences in a completely scientific way. There wasn’t any room for ambiguous language because it seemed as if the writer had read Rhetorical Grammar 14-15 times, she was just a little forgetful on the subject. So together we completely rehashed the scientific lingo behind the grammar. It was really nice to be able to work with a student who was very receptive and knowledgeable. But the situation put me in check, having to remember every little detail and defining characteristic of the writer’s sentences.

Has anyone here encountered something similar, where someone who you generally don’t expect to challenge your knowledge ends up bolstering it? It really caused me to rethink my role as not specifically a tutor, but someone to just bounce ideas off of. The student had all the knowledge she needed, but just wanted someone like me (or you, perhaps) to say it aloud with her, to reconfirm her notions. Maybe this, as tutors, is all we’re searching for, too.

1 comment:

  1. Jim~ I agree with the comment you wrote, “…ESL students know more about the mechanics of English grammar than do native speakers.” In fact, the instructor for the ESL grammar class at our school reiterated your comment to me just last week.

    In my Mentoring Writers class, we have recently started the section on ESL tutoring sessions. I have not tutored on my own yet—I’m still acquiring the skills. Apparently, the majority of students who use our center are ESL students. I think I was told that about 60% of our writing center patrons are ESL students.The observations you’re writing about are something that I’ve contemplated for the past few weeks. I have been brushing up on explanations regarding English grammar rules lately myself for that very reason. The ability to articulate an understandable description of the rules will really come in handy.

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