Tag: language

Multilingualism: The Importance of Terminology

Brice Montgomery, Writing Consultant

Earlier this semester, in our Writing Center Theory and Practice course, the writing consultants had a conversation about strategies for supporting multilingual writers. Surprisingly for a room full of English students, we began the discussion at a loss for words, but after a few minutes, it stumbled forward in tentative fits and starts as we attempted to talk our way around the topic.

Many of us expressed discomfort about discussing language background with writers, and the general consensus was that it felt inappropriate to ask writers about their first language. In hindsight, it was, perhaps, telling of an impulse to conflate difference with deficiency. If we ask writers about their first language, the implication seems to be that it’s obvious the writer is using a second language.

So what?

Clearly, it does matter. Throughout the discussion, we found that multilingual writers often begin sessions apologetically, dismissing any (usually imagined) language errors before we can. Simply put, they are primed to be on the back foot when they enter a consultation, and it can be difficult to move the conversation to a more productive focus.

Writing center lore suggests that the first few minutes of a session are critical—They create the tone, establish rapport, and allow the writer and consultant to set an agenda together for the remainder of the session. With multilingual writers, however, the time before the session begins is of equal importance because, in many ways, it dictates our expectations for those initial minutes.

To return to the classroom discussion for a moment, another interesting trend emerged. In writing center consultations, we often stress specificity of language to prevent misinterpretation, but it was striking how quickly our discussion on multilingualism slipped away from this practice. We spoke about “native English speakers” as a kind of monolithic group, and “everyone else” was discussed in contrast, with different interchangeable terms pulling us in several different directions.

Each of the labels we tossed around the classroom evoked a set of unstated presuppositions:

If a writer is an “ESL student,” it positions them in such a way that any English first-language speaker acts as an authority. It also invites the question of when or if they will ever “graduate” to a degree of ownership over the language. 

Similarly, if a writer is a “non-native English speaker,” it places them in a perpetually fixed status of being an outsider. Regardless of proficiency, there will always be a kind of assumed inauthenticity to how they use English.  

Finally, if a writer is an “English L2 speaker,” the convenient shorthand of the phrase often neglects how contextually specific language usage is. If someone’s primary social language is English, is it really an L2?

The varying degrees of nativism in each term we used reflected an unstated ideology of language ownership, despite the fact that the global population of English L2 speakers greatly outnumbers English L1 speakers. This lack of a language “center” should be a comfort to both multilingual writers and their consultants. We meet on equal footing linguistically, despite potentially having different strengths and relationships with the language.

I would also suggest that our use of careless labels creates a barrier to authentic language use—Writers may focus so much on emulating “native” English that they don’t develop a writing process that accommodates their own preferences and needs. Unless a writer’s first language is consciously framed as a linguistic resource to draw from, it may easily be viewed as an interference or a disadvantage.

Most importantly, the pointed discourse surrounding language and identity in general is often internalized by those who hear it. Whether multilingual writers have been explicitly corrected by instructors for vague grammatical infractions or have absorbed the quiet undercurrent of harmful language politics flowing through the broader American culture. Writing Centers have an opportunity to offer a safe haven from these trends.  

Anecdotally, in several years of tutoring, I have yet to encounter a multilingual writer that has any sort of notable language-centric disadvantage. In fact, more often than not, they bring a unique set of metalinguistic and metacognitive skills to the writing process. If we do not recognize that writing in a second language is always a constructive act, we are unlikely to help writers incorporate those transferrable skills into their writing process. Instead, we are more apt to foster the idea that a writer’s intentions are inhibited or obscured—rather than facilitated—by writing in a second language.

Ultimately, my point is this—regardless of our willingness to acknowledge it, the language used outside a consultation becomes the explanation for what happens in a consultation, which in turn becomes the justification for how we approach future consultations. Writing centers are ostensibly built on the premise of peer-readership, egalitarianism, and a kind of grassroots advocacy, but if our language choices don’t reflect those values, they will ultimately be—at best—toothless gestures, and—at worst—a reinforcement of the insecurities some multilingual writers may already feel.

Looking Back and Forward from International Mother Language Day

Tristan DeWitt, Writing Consultant Tristan DeWitt

This past Friday, February 21st, the University of Louisville Writing Center celebrated International Mother Language Day. This celebration offered me the chance to interact with students from different cultures and languages who are members of the university community, which opened my eyes to how diverse our campus is. If you are unfamiliar with this day, like I originally was, it has a fascinating history worth researching.

This observance was established by the United Nations in 1999 to promote multilingualism and language diversity across the world. The history behind this day has its roots in the Bengali Language Movement – a movement that emphasizes the stakes associated with multilingualism. On February 21, 1952, demonstration were head at Dhaka University, in what was then East Pakistan, against the adoption of a new state language at the removal of their mother tongue, Bangla. This event resulted in the killing of demonstrators who gave their lives to preserve their language. This event also lead to Bangla becoming one of the state languages of Pakistan. Until the writing center event this past week, I did not know the significance of this day, but I now have an entirely new perspective on the importance of multilingualism. As someone who grew up speaking English in America, the cultural significance of language was not something that often occurred to me, particularly not the impact that a loss of language can have on a culture.

As we celebrated on Friday, I realized that the relevance of this day within the university community and is crucial. As a university with over 700 international students and 200 scholars, recognizing and understanding the need for language diversity becomes even more significant, as language is foundational in preserving cultural tradition and diversity. The United Nations states that “When languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression — valuable resources for ensuring a better future — are also lost.” These characteristics of language highlight the importance in preserving an encouraging multilingualism, especially within our university community.

Instead of seeing language as a barrier, the university allows us the opportunity to learn from other cultures through a variety of ways. Even though International Mother Language Day has passed, there are still a number of ways to interact with a diverse range of cultures on campus. The University of Louisville offers a variety of ways for students to connect with and learn from other languages, ranging from classes to clubs, such as the American International Relations Club, which is open to all students interested in multilingualism. There are also clubs like the Arabic Language and Culture Club and the Chinese Club, as well as events like the French Film Festival (showing films until 3/7!), which focus on particular languages and cultures. By participating in these clubs and supporting more language diversity on campus, we can help to create an environment that fosters and celebrates a variety of cultures, viewpoints, and opinions.

If you’re interested in finding a club, a list of UofL organizations can be found here.

If you would like to become more involved in the community, here are a few places to start:

Americana Community Center

Kentucky Refugee Ministries 

La Casita Center

Interfaith Paths to Peace 

ESL Newcomer Academy 


Commas Rule! Common Comma Rules and Tips

Hayley Salo, Writing Consultant

There are a ton of guides to comma rules, so I won’t spend this entire blog post rewording what those rules are. Instead, I’d like to take the time to go through the most common mistakes and discuss ways to identify, correct, and avoid them. This will require a bit of rule discussion, but bear with me.

Connecting Complete Sentences

There are multiple ways to connect complete sentences, and commas are certainly one of them! However, this is also where most comma mistakes are made, including comma splices and many run-on sentences. So, what’s the deal? Why is this part so hard?

Well, we tend to talk differently than we write; the pauses we make while speaking often do not match the pauses we grammatically require. Although this goes against the age-old advice of “read your work out loud,” it’s true! Reading your work out loud is a great way to catch comma mistakes that you are already familiar with, but it’s less effective at helping you catch the really tricky mistakes, including comma splices.

For instance, if we read the following sentence out loud, it sounds pretty normal:

Sally went to the store, and she bought an apple.

But so does this sentence:

Sally went to the store and she bought an apple.

The comma here is very hard to hear. Since the “and” tells us how the sentences are connected, it’s easy to assume that the “and” implies the pause, too. However, we need both the comma and the “and” for this sentence to be grammatically correct (Sally went to the store, and she bought an apple).

Since it’s hard to spot the missing comma while just reading an essay, it’s helpful to proofread one sentence at a time. Take the time to divide long sentences into two or more shorter sentences. Then, proof the punctuation by referring to the rules and recombining the sentence. The example above can be divided into two completely separate sentences:

Sally went to the store. She bought an apple.

Once we have the sentence divided, we can check the comma rules for how to connect complete sentences. We would see that we need both a comma and a connecting word, so we would know to combine the sentences into the following:

Sally went to the store, and she bought an apple.

This process of dividing sentences will become very important once the sentences get more complex.


Lists can be surprisingly difficult to proofread, and there are even two correct ways to punctuate the same list! Long, complex lists can be challenging because it’s hard for writers and readers alike to separate all of the ideas. As a result, dividing lists into shorter, simpler sentences is a great way to proofread. Let’s look at a simple first example before getting into a tougher one.

Correct: I like to walk, hike, and swim.

Correct: I like to walk, hike and swim.

Incorrect: I like to walk, hike, swim.

The first correct version uses the “Oxford comma,” which is just the optional comma before the “and.” The second correct version does not use that optional comma. The key here is that “and” is always required between the second to last and last list items, no matter how long or complex the list is.

As I mentioned earlier, we can divide lists into shorter, simpler sentences:

Correct: I like to walk. I like to hike. I like to swim.

This division makes it easier to see that “walk,” “hike,” and “swim” are all things I like to do. As a result, they are all part of the same list. But what happens when lists get more . . . listy?

Correct: I like dogs and cats, cake and cookies, and coffee and tea.

Correct: I like dogs and cats, cake and cookies and coffee and tea.

Incorrect: I like dogs and cats, cake and cookies, coffee and tea.

In the above examples, we have lists within a list. The primary list is things I like. We can see this more easily by dividing the sentence:

I like dogs. I like cats. I like cake. I like cookies. I like coffee. I like tea.

Very few people want to read that many short sentences. However, they are equally unlikely to want to read this long of a list:

I like dogs, cats, cake, cookies, coffee, and tea.

In long lists like these ones, readers are likely to remember only the first or last list items and tune out the middle ones. This is where our original example, with more than one “and,” comes in. We can simplify that list to a lesser extent:

I like dogs and cats. I like cake and cookies. I like coffee and tea.

Now it’s easier to see the categories of things I like: animals, food, and drinks. So, what we really have is a list of three things I like, but within that list, there are two-item lists arranged by category. Sounds pretty abstract, right? But it’s so much easier to see when it’s divided up like we did above. Once we know that we have lists within a list, it’s easier to know that we need an “and” between items in each two-item list, a comma between each category, and a final “and” between the second to last and last two-item list:

Correct: I like dogs and cats, cake and cookies, and coffee and tea.

Correct: I like dogs and cats, cake and cookies and coffee and tea.

Feel free to use or omit the Oxford comma.

Bottom line: lists can feel like a theoretical wormhole. Break them down into their smallest components and then carefully, deliberately, put them back together. We often write over-complicated lists in first drafts, so it’s up to us as later proofreaders to come back and fix them.

Optional Information

Generally speaking, optional information is separated from the rest of the sentence by commas. However, sometimes it’s hard to tell what is optional and what isn’t, which makes proofreading for comma mistakes very difficult. The trick here is to determine if the sentence’s core meaning changes when the information is removed. Let’s look at a few examples:

The dictionary, which is blue, is on the table.

“Which is blue” is grammatically optional; we can take that part of the sentence out and still have a complete sentence with the same meaning:

The book is on the table.

Nothing fundamental about this sentence has changed. We are still talking about the same book and the same table.

However, some writers and readers may not consider that information optional in certain situations. Take the following situation, which takes place in a library with a ton of books scattered around the floor, shelves, and table:

Sally: I need you to look up a word for me.

James: Where do I find the dictionary?

Sally: The dictionary, which is blue, is on the table.

James certainly does need to know that the dictionary is both blue and on the table in order to efficiently find the dictionary. However, it still isn’t the main point of the sentence. James could still find the same dictionary without that specification.

Commas shouldn’t be used when the “that,” “which,” etc. section really does affect the meaning of the sentence:

The dictionary that I own is in bad shape.

This sentence is talking about the physical appearance of my personal dictionary. If we take out “that I own,” we get something very different:

The dictionary is in bad shape.

This sentence implies that someone needs to do some serious editing and save our dictionaries! Not the same as our first sentence at all, so skip the commas.


When working with commas, try these tips:

  1. Read the sentence out loud to get a general feeling for what it is saying and how it is saying it.
  2. Divide the sentence into shorter, simpler sentences.
  3. Look up the rule for the kind of sentence you’re working on.
  4. Apply the rule and carefully recombine the sentence.
  5. Proofread similar sentences in the paper one after another to practice the rules and methods.

International Mother Language Day

Emily Cousins, Consultantemily-c

Last week, on February 21st, we hosted our first celebration of International Mother Language Day here at the U of L Writing Center.

I first found out about International Mother Language Day a few years ago, and I wish I’d known about it earlier. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) officially declared International Mother Language Day in 1999, and since then, countries worldwide have celebrated annually to promote multiculturalism, intercultural communication and linguistic diversity. February 21st was chosen for its historical significance, to commemorate the day in 1952 when university students in Bangladesh were killed by police while demonstrating for their rights to speak Bangla, their mother tongue. UNESCO is also committed to raising awareness about preserving endangered languages that are at risk of disappearing altogether. The 2017 theme was “Towards Sustainable Futures through Multilingual Education.”

In preparation for our event, we decorated using color printouts from an art series by Ella Frances Sanders featuring words in different languages that do not have direct translations in English (see her book here). We also set up a table with language trivia, and a poster on which participants could write in response to the question, “What do you love about your mother language?”


During the event, which took place from 2-4pm, nine student volunteers gave presentations about their mother language(s). The languages represented were Japanese, Mongolian, Korean, Bengali, Kazakh, Russian, Arabic, Spanish and Filipino. Presenters used Powerpoint, showed Youtube clips, played song recordings, and used the whiteboard to share about their mother languages. Audience members got a sense of what the languages sound like when spoken, as well as what the scripts look like in writing. The presentations were highly interactive, with participants inviting each other to practice saying different words aloud.


I found myself truly inspired that day, seeing each volunteer speak in and about their mother language(s) with such enthusiasm, and also watching members of the audience raising their hands, asking questions, requesting presenters to repeat things or write words on the board. It’s this type of openly curious interaction and dialogue that I think can partly give rise to a sense of community we talk about and think about—often, unfortunately, in the abstract. As I reflect on the event, I think it was successful not just because of the diversity of cultures and languages represented, but also, more importantly, because participants were so actively engaged, eager to teach others and learn new things.


At the Writing Center, we tutors are constantly learning from the writers we work with – but not always as much as we’d like. 50 minutes goes by pretty fast. The cultural exchange that we’d ideally hope to foster often gets sidelined in the face of a looming deadline. This is why I think all Writing Centers should observe International Mother Language Day every February 21st, to take some time to look up from our day-to-day routines and learn more about the cultures and languages of the students we work with. Writing from the perspective of a Writing Center tutor and someone whose mother language is not English, I think curiosity goes such a long way in creating truly inclusive spaces – and celebrating International Mother Language Day is a perfect opportunity to create such a space.

Thank you to all the student participants for their wonderful presentations, and to those who attended and contributed to making the event a success. I’d also like to extend a thank you to the International Center office and OASIS staff, who helped publicize the event.

See you again next year!