The Language of Writing

“No one is a native speaker of writing.”

This truth researcher Paul Kei Matsuda quotes in his article, “Teaching Composition in the Multilingual–Second Language Writing in Composition Studies” is something that resonates with me as its something I have come to realize through my own experience as both a graduate student in a Writing Studies program and a graduate assistant in my university’s Writing Center. English as most speakers of the language conceptualize it by no means captures the language’s true complexity and adaptability. More, promoting English as some kind of “ideal” language ignores not only the rich complexity of other languages and their integration abilities the but also the ability of English itself to continuously evolve to meet the communication needs of its interlocutors. Suresh Canagarajah in their article, “The Place of World Englishes in Composition: Pluralization Continued” explores how allowing second language learners to “mesh” English (SWE, specifically) with their first language benefits language acquisition and proficiency overall. But, again, more than that, allowing variants of English to have a place in formal or academic writing provides perspective, develops voice, and enriches communication as it develops proficiency in these other variants via exposure to them.

The ideas that 1) English is pluralized and 2) that grammar is ideological are not totally new but are certainly concepts becoming more apparent as our society becomes more global. Odds are, each and every one of us knows someone who is a second language learner. (Maybe it’s you!) More, we probably know someone who is bilingual/ multilingual–by that meaning this person has fairly balanced proficiency in all the languages they speak. Personally, I know my mother who can speak 3 languages (English, Spanish, & French) and my boyfriend who grew up speaking Russian at home and English at school. Interestingly, he did not develop much ability to write or read in Russian until taking classes in the language in high school. Anyway, the point of mentioning this is that most of us are familiar with persons for whom English is not their first language and so most of us are probably familiar with the variants of English that can and do arise. And, if you have somehow managed to evade interacting with a multilingual person in your daily life up until this point, I’m fairly certain you’ve been online where the pluralization of English is on show for all to see. To be honest, I consider the kind of English I use when I’m online to be its own dialect, separate from how I speak on a person-to-person basis. There are enough conventions I and probably many other follow/abide by when interacting online that they constitute their own variant.

How online interactions between interlocutors specifically affect English is something Canagarajah touches upon in their work and something I found to be interesting. Basically, online spaces become places where second language learners can negotiate and really actualize their own learning. Again, I work in the Writing Center on my university’s campus and I see students attempting to negotiate the standards of English all the time. It’s very clearly displayed in their work–places in the writing where the language takes an unexpected detour or communicates an idea via its organization on the page that is new, unexpected. So, this negotiation Canagarajah highlights is something that occurs whether or not a specific place is provided for it. Online, these negotiations are valuable learning moments for second language learners but, in university Writing Centers, I’m sorry to say these explorations often lead to disappointment. SWE is the variant that rules academia with an iron fist–that will slam down hard on unsuspecting students.

Now, while Canagarajah is pretty adamant that the kind of framework that would silence these kinds of negotiations is one that needs to be dismantled from the inside out, Matsuda seems more moderate in his approach to the situation. This may be because Matsuda’s work is more focused on how to best teach second language learners to use SWE and Canagarajah is definitely more interested in providing other variants of English the same legitimacy as SWE has in academic writing. It’s important to emphasize that distinction of purpose. Still, I believe both researchers provide meaningful insight into the specific challenges second language learners face when entering the sphere of higher education. Matsuda seems sensitive to the standard in place and so structures his ideas around how to best assist second language learners find fluency in the dominant variant. He’s not trying to promote radical change. And, for me, I found much of what he discussed to be relatable. As a Writing Studies scholar, I want to find and explore ways of overcoming the monolingual paradigm. But, as a gradate assistant in my university’s Writing Center, I also have a responsibility to assist in SWE proficiency. I perpetuate this system I am also seeking to overcome. This sort of tension is more downplayed in Matsuda’s work than in Canagarajah’s.

For me, stifling someone’s writing in any sort of way is taboo. More, it silences a valuable voice. I appreciate how Canagarajah also seems to touch upon that. I don’t believe they ever explicitly mention voice but I get this sense of it being promoted in Canagarajah’s work. Like, when they say negotiations of English are indicative of “rhetorical independence” and “critical thinking.” To me, those are fancy ways of saying voice. On the idea that Canagarajah’s work argues for the importance of voice in writing, I think there is much to be said.

One of the main reasons I believe I found these articles to be so engaging is not only because I have had such intimate interactions with the work of second language learners but also because I feel so strongly about voice and about protecting its ability to be and its right to have space in writing. Second language learners are often disadvantaged when it comes to making this argument because the monolingual paradigm is so pervasive and so resistant to change despite being so capable of adjusting. English, if nothing else, is so adaptable to the needs of its interlocutors and so easily appropriated when it does fall short. Integration and infusion are entirely possible if the language opens itself to their possibilities. I, for one, am open to listening to new voices and for learning proficiency in variants of English–who knows what I’ll be able to say through them that I may not have been able to communicate until this point?

~Till next time~

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