By Brooke Schultz
Washington College students proved that culture and writing are deeply connected during their presentation at the Maryland Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) conference on April 1.
As a component to his role as the chair-elect of the Higher Education Interest Section (HEIS) of Maryland TESOL, John Hepler, director of the Office of English Language Learning, is required to hold a faculty preparation session each academic year. This year, he asked senior Yeuyi “Angela” Qin, junior Amorn Chitkittiwong, and sophomores Girija Ganeshan and Marah Tarawneh to help lead the discussion.
The subject of the round-table session was “the influence of a person’s first language has on their second language writing,” Hepler said.
The students discussed the differences in their countries versus the U.S. when considering plagiarism and the use of citations, infusing imagination into critical writing, and communication between professors and international students.
“I asked them to participate…because I knew from speaking with them that they would be able to articulate the subject matter eloquently and effectively at the round-table session. All four students present themselves professionally; moreover, I knew they would be comfortable speaking in front of a room of strangers,” Hepler said.
Hepler had worked with them all as a former instructor and current employer, and had seen their work on projects over the past academic year.
Ganeshan was one of the students who helped translate the office’s webpage into Hindi and Tamil, in addition to other students’ translations of the page into Arabic and Chinese.
She said that her experience is quite different from the other three students on the panel. She explained that English is actually one of the national languages in India, along with Hindi, and that 10 percent of the population speaks English.
“In fact, when I went to school, I would start English alphabets first and then Hindi,” she said. “I was exposed to English, [but] it is totally different from American-English. I’ve been writing in a different style and I’ve been speaking in a different style.”
Qin talked about traditional Chinese writing style and what she struggled with when she first began writing academic papers in the U.S.
“I think the big takeaway for the audience was to understand writing styles varies among cultures,” she said. “Now they have a better idea with communicating with their students, and helping them with adapting to American academic writing.”
Chitkittiwong discussed the influence of Thai on his education in the U.S., especially considering rhetoric. For instance, he said that some students don’t like to argue their ideas, which goes against what professors want and expect here. He also touched on the concept of plagiarism across different cultures.
“As far as I remember…[the four students] don’t think of much as plagiarism. I know, it’s a big deal in this country. But back there [in Thailand], it’s like you submit something in public, you’re done….If you want someone to respect your work, you put a price on your paper.”
Tarawneh discussed the difference in Arabic writing traditions and English.
“We started to talk about the traditions in general, then went more in specific and talked about differences on the sentence and structure level. We also talked a lot about the concept of ownership and plagiarism. In addition, we addressed topics related to communication between the professor and the student and the impact of that in their performance in writing assignments.”
Earlier this semester, on Feb. 21, the group held a similar session at WC for administrative staff and faculty members across departments in the Hynson Faculty Lounge.
“While all had experience interacting with non-native English speaking students, second language writing was not their field of expertise. Therefore, we had to include a short video explaining the topic to help them understand how writing in another language could be influenced by a person’s native language as well as their previous educational experiences,” Hepler said.
“The professors at WC had questions about how they can serve the international students better and our suggestions to help bridge the gap in communication between the students and the professors,” Tarawneh said.
“I was really impressed how dedicated the professors are, they were eager to find a good way to help their international students with writing,” Qin said. “I am grateful for what they are doing as an international student myself.”
At both events, Hepler said that the responses to presentation were positive.
“I received complimentary emails and thank you cards from WC faculty,” he said. “At the HEIS event, the students received a standing ovation from the attendees. It was a very gratifying experience, to say the least. From the comments I received from participants at both events, I believe they appreciated the first-hand explanations and personal observations that the students shared at both sessions. While it is fine for me to speak at a podium for an audience of my peers, I think involving students in the process benefited everyone present at both sessions.”
Chitkittiwong thinks that it is good that faculty, especially at WC, got to hear from students about the differences in education.
“Everyone is different – people from New York are different from people from Utah; people from California or South Carolina – they’re all different. But, in the end of the day, they have to work together and the thing that made them work together is understanding,” Chitkittiwong said. “Understanding is the most important – no matter what you are, no matter where you’re from.”