Respect for L2 Writers

I don't like to admit this, but I have a bachelor's degree in a foreign language. German, to be exact. The reason I don't like to admit it is that after four years of college study, including one study-abroad experience in Austria and one in Germany, I never became fluent in German; and after decades of not speaking or reading German, I've lost my L2 skills almost entirely.

The textbook ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors has made me think back to my own struggle to master a second language. Just for kicks, I found a website,, with "Immersive Stories For Language Learners," and spent about an hour working with a short story in German. I read the story twice, picking up the basic idea pretty accurately but missing some vocabulary and verb tenses. Then I read an English translation of the story and was gratified by how much of it I'd understood properly.

After reading the story and translation, I stayed on the website and went through a series of exercises for study and practice. I ended by taking several quizzes until I was able to pass them all with 100% accuracy. It felt pretty good to have the language start coming back to me, but it was also daunting to know that there was absolutely no way I could converse or write effectively in German at that point, other than saying, "Hello. I'm pleased to meet you. What's your name?"

My little exercise gives me great admiration for anyone who attempts to function in a second language. I want to get through ESL Writers in its entirety as soon as possible and read it again many times. One thing my reading has made clear to me is that writing center tutors would do well to learn something about the structure of the native language of the ESL writers they work with. (Preposition ending a sentence! I know.) Knowing about the writer's native language would help the tutor understand transfer errors and difficulty with articles. Even if the tutor knows nothing of the writer's native language, one thing is for sure: L2 writers deserve large amounts of patience and respect from writing center tutors.


  1. I echo your admiration of people who have the courage to learn another language. I have often thought about acquiring a 2nd language, but fear has kept me in the thinking stage and not the doing phase. Knowing that it takes several years to become fluent has had two different effects on my internal struggle of the topic. First, several years to learn a language gives me plenty of time before I would expect to be fluent—the pressure is off! Second, several years is a long time to stick with learning anything—the pressure is on!

    I do agree that the more we know as tutors the better we can collaborate with student writers. It’s a daunting task to consider knowing the grammar of every writer who comes in the writing center, but I’m sure there are some basic principles (in groups of similar languages) that could inform us as tutors.

    Good luck on refreshing your German. Ich bin sicher, Sie werden auf lange Diskussionen sehr bald Durchführung werden! (Ya gotta love Google Translate.) ;-D

  2. Seeing your post about learning a new language has me thinking of my future experience with the language I am learning. I am learning Russian and plan to continue taking classes past the 2020 level. I expect to write papers in Russian and I'll admit, I am a little intimidated to think about how my future instructors will correct my papers.

    As a tutor, learning a new language has benefited me. I am more patient with ESL writers and when I look over papers, I focus more on the higher order concerns. I agree with Holly-- the more we know, the better we can collaborate!


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