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.
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.