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Tutoring ESL: The Cultural Quagmire
Joseph Wilk
April 2002

For some, an English as a Second Language (ESL) session is the Disneyland teacups: a delightful, spinning romp through a ride that is no more threatening than any other.  For others, it is Space Mountain: a gut-wrenching descent that sends shivers through their spine without an afterthought.  One of my first plunges arrived when a Japanese student handed me a paper with an introduction similar to the following sample (as it appears in Writing Clearly: An Editing Guide): "After five weeks of studies at this university, I learned many skills from English 25 course.  One of the most important is writing term paper.  I would like to write something about my term paper right now" (Lane xxi).  My naive self decided that I could easily attack all of the errors I saw.  The errors seemed so elementary that I figured I could easily discuss the issues with the student.  However, I soon learned otherwise.  My only previous interactions with people born of another language were in restaurants, so I could sense a severe communications gap.  I struggled in my explanations; little headway was made in the paper.  Although the severity decreases sharply as ESL students become integrated into the English language tradition, effective communications can, at times, be difficult--even for experienced tutors at the grad student and professorship level.  Many cultural factors plague important aspects of ESL communications in the writing center.  Understanding those differences helps in formulating beneficial principles of communication with undergraduate, beginning ESL students and adding a small communications adjustment to one's repertoire.

 Due to the lack of a shared linguistic knowledge base, ESL students enter into each session with stark differences in the educational, rhetorical, and cultural contexts of their language from what a tutor might expect.  New language learners require both acquisition and learning in order to attain a language.  Acquisition entails subconsciously incorporating of linguistic forms through reading and listening.  Learning requires consciously assimilating rules and forms through study and instruction.  To varying degrees, ESL students can be deficient in either.  They may be lacking the ability to utilize proper sentence structure or might not be able to produce the necessary idiomatic phrases or collocations.  Moreover, rhetorical models are quite diverse.  For example, the Spanish rhetorical model provides longer sentences, more abstract thinking, more interactions between the reader and writer, and obscure logical connections between sentences.  In some cultures, one would be considered rude or abrupt to announce one's point immediately.  Other cultures may even find it insulting to the reader's intelligence to explicitly state the point any place within the essay.  These differences have implications for the base of communication with the student.  James Hendrickson states:

because beginning and intermediate [ESL] students have presumably internalized the foreign language system to a lesser degree than have advance learners, their limited linguistic repertoire is often insufficient to allow them to locate and find solutions to their errors (147).

Basing sessions entirely on Socratic dialogue may often fail because of its heavy reliance on shared assumptions and patterns of language. 

To build these shared assumptions and patterns, initial communications should be within a didactic context.  This may translate to informing the student as to what constitutes a nonessential clause, describing a professor's expectations of the English rhetorical structure, or merely telling the student that it is indeed possible for somebody to "put on" a show.  However, the tutor does not need to be an infallible bastion of knowledge.  Saying "I don't know" to the student and directing him or her to an ESL editing guide can help foster the student's self-editing capacity.  The tutor is free to work collaboratively with the student once a shared base is built.  The tutor may communicate collaboratively by simply asking the student to apply a principle they have learned to a grammar error.  As an effective ESL communicator, tutors may need to recognize their role as cultural/rhetorical informants as well as collaborators.

 Also, incongruent cultural norms factor heavily in communication with ESL undergraduates.  Cultural differences in body language as well as attitudes and preferences can stifle session discourse.  Cultural differences may drive a wedge of discomfort between the student and tutor.  Such a wedge could severely restrict the ability of the tutor and student to communicate effectively.  The acceptability of degrees of physical proximity and eye contact differ between cultures.  The American body language pattern does not incorporate touching; it altogether tries to avoid bodily contact.  However, Latin American cultures interact at a much lessened distance.  One might imagine a scenario in which a Latin American student moves into a familiar range, only to look in astonishment as the tutor retreats.  As a result, the student might feel that the tutor was cold and distant--withdrawn and unfriendly--and react in accordance with those feelings.  Conversely, a tutor may be unnerved and rendered unable to communicate by a seemingly hostile glare from an Arabic student.  That hostile glare is a distinguishing characteristic of the Arabic culture; Arabics are prone to look at each other intensely.  Preferences and stigmas within certain cultures also have a stifling effect on communications within an ESL session.  Many Asian students respect their tutors to an inordinate degree because their culture places a high value on expertise.   As a result, those Asian students might consider questioning their tutor a rude gestureˇquestioning authority is forbidden.  In addition, Chinese students place great importance on the notion of "saving face," or avoiding embarrassment.  This also limits their desire to communicate with their tutor.  Being misunderstood may be perceived as a serious blow to their honor.

Tutors can make slight adjustments in their communications repertoire to elicit positive responses from their students.  One does not have to know every single cultural norm to be effective.  A tutor's best bet is to take body language cues from the writer.  Try to sit down first and allow the student to establish comfortable body positioning.  In terms of cultural preferences, encouraging the student to speak up or ask questions may often be enough to signify that the tutor is not an inapproachable authority; eliciting questions may be as simple as using encouragement to overtly signify that questions are appropriate.  Also, if the tutor takes responsibility for comprehension problems through speech (i.e., "I'm sorry, I am having trouble understanding what you just said."), the necessity of "saving face" may be temporarily dispelled.  The ESL student can feel free to communicate impulsively.  Though cultural differences can quell communications, a tutor can foster discourse through slightly modified behavior.

The burden of acquiring a new and difficult language can be overwhelming, especially early in the process.  This burden is severely amplified by the tempting fruit that dangles in the proverbial "Garden of Eden" that characterizes the ideal session: the temptation to address too many issues in one session.  ESL students must face the hurdle of reading and writing in a different language; tutors would be ill-advised to overwhelm the student with a great deal of commentary.  The student should not be expected to absorb such a large quantity of information in one sitting.  Making too many suggestions at once might be a detriment to the student's confidence level.  The manner by which error-prone writers try to tackle their own errors suggests the way to approach the sessions; Carol Severino writes:

If students have phrasing, grammar, and mechanical problems, often the case with inexperienced writers and non-native speakers of English, they will work on editing and proof-reading, but systematically so they are not overwhelmed by their mistakes and so they themselves participate in the process of identifying and correcting these problems (13).

This strategy of systematic editing indicates that effective communications is best achieved by limiting the topics covered within the session.  That approach not only helps the ESL student absorb the information presented to him or her, but also allows the student ample time to collaborate on fixing errors. 

The driving force behind limiting is prioritizing.  Prioritizing can fall along a global/local distinction.  This distinction is based on the assumption that errors that impair the work's intelligibility should be of higher concern than errors that do not.  Also, one may decide to focus on errors that stigmatize the ESL writer or offend native English speaking audiences the most.  These errors entail problems with countable/uncountable nouns, articles, verb tenses, modal forms, run-on and fragmented sentences, prepositions, or word choice.  The lure of attacking many issues at once and the intellectual drain that language learning writers experience creates a suffocating communications environment.  Topic limitations, achieved through prioritizing, can offset the effects of that environment.

 Ultimately, the primary cultural barrier to communication is inherent within the notion of ESL: that for these students English is not the primary language.   In some circumstances, cultural interference stems from the way native and non-native speakers attach meaning to words.  As a result, the tutor and student become unable to communicate properly.  For example, Americans equate the words "okay" and "why" with an affirmation and an information request, respectively.  However, to a Greek American, "okay" is merely used as a passive, indifferent response; "why" denotes that one is refusing compliance with a perceived request.  A Greek student might respond "okay" or "why" to a string of explanations; this may cause the tutor to experience much confusion and chagrin when the student does not.  This interference extends to other words as well.  With Taiwanese students, introducing a sentence with the word "so" may signify a new topic, as opposed to a summarization (as Americans interpret it).  In turn, Americans might begin a new series of thinking with the word "now," whereas their Taiwanese counterparts might still frame the new information under the previous topic.  Another language problem one might encounter with an inexperienced ESL student is a lack of fluency in conversational dialect.  Most ESL students can be expected to have undergone formal English instruction, so they are aware of the basic tenets of vocabulary and English mechanics.  Therefore, one may use grammar terminology in referring to errors.  However, ESL students without adequate real-world practice in English may often lack internalization of the subtleties of the English language: discourse structures, collocations, and idiomatic phrases, and obscure vocabulary.  Entry-level ESL students' unfamiliarity with these facets of the English language can make tutor discourse incomprehensible; this can lead to confusion when these aspects are introduced in a session.  Conversely, these problems may also manifest in the comprehension of the student's speech.  An Asian student may appear to be "rambling on" during a tutorial, but only because their discourse structures necessitate that they do not express their point until later.  Problematic compensation for issues such as poor vocabulary has been demonstrated by Russian non-native speakers.  When having trouble communicating, Russians students tend to avoid uncomfortable topics, speak vaguely, use circumlocution, speak in improper words, phrases, or idioms.  These trends, which extend to ESL students of other nationalities, strongly disrupt the tutor's capacity to understand the student's point.

A tutor might have to consciously alter his or her traditional communication patterns in order to overcome these deficits.  Close observation is a key to interpreting and dispelling cultural interference.  Paying close attention to facial expression and body posture helps to accurately assess the meaning of words like "yes" and "okay."  Tutors can facilitate understanding in ESL students by slowing the pace of their speech, stressing key words, pausing before key words, repeating possibly misunderstood phrases with a different vocabulary, and actively checking the comprehension of the student.  Using diagrams to convey concepts can help break the barrier between languages by representing grammar in physical, concrete terms.  In addition, requesting clarification from the student or repeating the student's words back to him or her helps the tutor confirm his or her comprehension.  The difference between primary languages between the tutor and his or her ESL student can impair communications unless the tutor makes an active adjustment to his or her speech patterns and protocol.

 Ultimately, cultural differences between ESL students, particularly the entry-level variety, and their American tutor counterparts are damning to communications.  The lack of a shared linguistic knowledge base, incongruent cultural norms, the burden of assimilating large amounts of foreign information, and discrepancies in fluency can severely limit communications with ESL students.  Utilizing some of the presented prescriptions for overcoming these obstacles may help tutors engage in more smooth and more productive sessions.


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