Perfection and the “One Big Grammar Mistake” Syndrome: A Shift in Philosophy

Every time I am in a foreign country where I don’t know the language or culture, I immediately end up wanting to climb into a UPS shipping box and overnight myself straight back to my home in Texas. Back home, I know I can effectively speak and write in English (which ironically is my second language), and I don’t have to feel embarrassed every time I open my big, foreign mouth.  Struggling to formulate simple sentences is embarrassing. Staring blankly back at someone who is trying to explain something to me that seems so simple and yet is so complicated is humiliating. Having my grammar corrected every other word is enough to make me want to be mute for the rest of my life.
Let’s have a change of scenery and fast-forward to a typical day in the writing center—it’s your next session as a peer consultant is with an international student. You give a little sigh because you already know what’s nextall of the sudden you are listening to student struggle to formulate simple sentences. As you explain a one of those simple yet oh-so-complicated concepts, you see the client staring blankly back at you. As you read their work, you realize that every other word has some sort of grammar mistake.  Does this sound familiar?
                At some point in time during our years of schooling, we have all had to learn a foreign language, and we all struggled to communicate. According to “Being a Linguistic Foreigner: Learning from International Tutoring,” tutors can reflect on their own struggles of learning a foreign language and use these reflections to enhance sessions with international students. When we place ourselves in the shoes or our clients, our patience and compassion towards the students rises. Many of our international clients struggle with the same feelings of insecurity and frustration that we experienced, but we shouldn’t allow these feelings to affect whether or not international students use our services on a regular basis. If we, as tutors, can break down the barrier or frustration and humiliation that exist between a client and his/her paper, we can build a personal connection that allows the student to feel more comfortable during the session.
We also need to make a conscious effort to stop looking at these students’ papers as one big grammar mistake—if our attitude towards the paper changes, then our attitudes toward international students will also change. And when a student is comfortable in a session, he/she stops feeling judged or inadequate. Once we reach this stage collaboratively with our client, then the learning process goes beyond the perceived cultural differences to a more focused approach; we can focus on our mission of making better writers and communicators instead of making perfect language speakers.  Besides, if our language teachers had stopped believing on us when we made mistakes, would be have ever learned a second language? Being the motivator and source of encouragement for an ESL student is one of the best perks of our job, and we get to watch the circle of language evolve and continue.

Works Cited
Bergmann, Linda S., Gerd Brauer, Robert Cedillo, Chloe de los Reyes, Magnus Gustafsson, Carol Perterson Haviland,Brady Spangenberg. “Being a Lingusitic Foreigner: Learning from International Tutoring.” ESL Writers A Guide for  Writing Center Tutors. 2nd Ed. Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers Inc. 2004. 195-207. Book.


  1. A change in philosophy is always something to strive for, especially when dealing with never-stagnant language!

    Hey, so what about the flipside?

    What about the international student's perception of the writing center (any non-repeat customer's perspective for that matter)?

    How could a university (faculty, ahem, included) help writing consultants do what we have been trained and continue seeking to do?

    Thanks and Gig 'em,

    Texas A&M University Writing Center


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