June 3, 2014

Shifting Boundaries between English as a Second Language (ESL)

Many scholars have written about the uncertain and shifting boundaries between English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and composition programs at colleges. When they first began to proliferate in the United States during the mid-twentieth Century, ESL programs and main-stream composition programs either viewed their missions of teaching language and teaching writing as respective, separate and apart, or at least perceived the necessity for a divided house in differences of methodology. Since then, perspectives on this relationship have evolved, but they have evolved in more than one direction. Most of the contention seems to pivot on the student’s transition from one program to another, the effects this transition has on the student, and the way that either ESL or college writing programs respond to those effects.

At one of end the spectrum is a camp inhabited by many practitioners, albeit few contemporary theorists, who view the mastering of academic writing for the English Language Learner (ELL) as a hierarchical process beginning with internalization of granular structures and terminating with native-like composition practices. This camp tends to hold a rather specific idea of what constitutes native-like usage, considers errors to be evidence of insufficient mastery, and equates errors of language use with errors in writing practice. Within this paradigm, it is the purpose of an ESL program to prepare ELLs to operate within composition programs in a fashion indistinguishable from Native English Speakers (NESs), and then, in turn, it is the mission of the composition program to instruct and assess ELLs and NESs without differentiation. Here, the transition from one program to the next is a gateway, one which closes once the student has traversed it.

Not very many of the people who hold to the view outlined above are bilingual. Or if they are bilingual, they have never faced the challenge of using their second language for rigorous academic or professional purposes. And their first language is almost invariably English. My first language is English, but I learned German in college, took classes at a University in Germany, and worked there for three years of my life. Germans complimented me all the time on how good my German was, which I noticed was pretty much what they said to anyone who was learning it as a second language. No one ever said I never made mistakes. No one ever expected me not to. No one ever corrected my grammar unless I said something evidently different from what I meant. I wrote papers for my college classes. I got Bs on them. My professors pointed out that the German in my papers was far from perfect, but their feedback made it clear that the Bs were for the content of the papers, which was fair, because the content could have been better. Perhaps I was fortunate in that case to be attending a university situated directly on the German-Polish border, where roughly half of the students were not German, possibly predisposing professors to be open-minded about language. But that hardly seems like an extreme case in a world where most people are bilingual.

It’s a simple fact. A majority of the world population is bilingual or multilingual, and research has shown that bilingual individuals are more prone to tolerate and accept differences in the ways that others use language. They look for meaning, not for errors. So maybe it’s just because I’m one of them, but my sympathies lie with the camp at an extreme opposite to the one described at the beginning of this post, whereby I contend that language instruction and writing instruction both need to change in ways that respect and leverage pluralistic attitudes towards language and communicative approaches towards writing, changes which will prepare not only ELLs but all students to live and write in the world which is actually coming to pass, and prepare them to make it better in the process. There lost of people who say it better than I could, but one of the strongest arguments comes from Jay Jordan. The way we look at it, the transition from ESL to college composition and beyond isn't a gateway, it’s a shift in orientation where the student begins accumulating new competencies for communication, and where the learning of language continues unabated.

I expect that the convictions of many who follow this blog fall somewhere in between the two perspectives outlined here. Whatever the case, it’s a conversation that ESL programs, composition programs and writing centers need to have, and which they need to have with each other, because the students who depend on us need us to be sure what it is that we are teaching them. Please comment.

Gunnar Jaeck is a writer and teacher. He is a tutor at the PCCC Writing Center, and has taught English and ESL in public high schools, universities, community programs and libraries. He holds masters degrees in TESOL and creative writing. His fiction has appeared recently in Used Gravitrons and Infinity's Kitchen.