Thursday, November 19, 2009

Buenos Aires...and Writing

Entering the classroom, the typical noises of students hits me. I quietly take my corner seat, smiling inwardly at the high school flashbacks flooding my mind. The teacher walks in, greeting the class with a quick hello and asking each student about their winter vacation. This scene could take place anywhere, but for me it is the beginning of August in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where English is a foreign language.
This summer, I traveled to Buenos Aires, took a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course, and taught/observed English classrooms in high schools and businesses. Buenos Aires has an obsession with learning English, which can be seen by advertisements posted along streets, slid under doors, and even found on the subte (subway) steps.
As a Writing Center consultant at Texas A&M University, I was excited about teaching this skill in a foreign setting. I quickly learned that my students did not share my sentiments. In the high school classroom, I could insist they complete the assignment or receive bad marks. In the business setting, when students were twice my age, it was harder to obtain their compliance if they did not feel like reaching the word count I generously assigned. Time after time, I was told that their primary goal was to sound more native-like when speaking. What they failed to realize was that their written efforts allowed me to assess their overall level and progress. It was much easier to notice trends in their language if I could reference a writing sample.
One perennially troublesome area with second-language grammar is the use of prepositions. I had classes where students would be conversing in a semi-fluent manner, and I would be intellectually engaged in the conversation. Then they would forget or misuse a preposition. Few errors of such tiny proportions so brutally disown a fairly competent foreign language speaker. What is especially disheartening is the manner in which prepositions have to be learned – rote memorization. Sometimes they make sense. For instance, being in or on the floor clearly sends a different image to your native English thinking brain. It was easy to tell students that “in the floor” means part of your body is literally in it. But how do you explain the idiomatic uses associated with transportation, such as in the car and on the bus? What image does this send: “Greg is on the car”? A native English speaker thinks he is on the physical, outside structure of the car. But Greg is on the bus, and by that I mean inside. Many times I simply had to say, it is just correct, as my students sighed in frustration.
I found that my students loved rules. Phrasal verbs were a difficulty with my business students. Again, the random assignment of prepositions to certain meanings made reviewing them a necessary evil. I gave contextual examples, and successful sentences seemed to involve something they might tell their children. For instance, one student was talking about how he “pointed about” a system malfunction. When correcting, I said he might “point out” to his kids the chores they have. I cannot emphasize enough the effectiveness of tailoring the lesson around a context purposeful for the student.
In another class, we reviewed writing complaint letters. I began with basic vocabulary and then read a poorly constructed complaint letter requesting a refund. It was informal, as well as digressed largely from the point. While the students easily recognized the unprofessional attitude, I had to lead them into the discussion about how certain information was not useful to the matter at hand. This reminded me of Robert Kaplan’s diagrams about different writing styles throughout cultures. He found that Spanish writing tends to digress from the main point in a way that sharply contrasts the direct, linear style of English.
To address this issue, I simply asked the students to define their purpose. This applies to all writers who struggle with sticking to their topic, and the process is quite simple. Does the information presented further the topic? clearly contribute to what the company needs to know? if so, how? When the student responds confidently to that question, I am satisfied that information being included supports the purpose. With that, I also had to explain the cultural differences in writing style. My students’ tendency towards digression was not incorrect, it was simply not correct in the context of English business writing.
Though I was equipped with a TEFL certificate, the act of teaching really provided the most accurate instruction. This deeper understanding of how culture affects students’ needs translates directly to Writing Center work. Many unspoken norms constitute “correct” writing, and my understanding of these will help me to explain these differences to students during consultations.

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