Digging into “English-only”: Writing, L1s, L2s, and Proficiency

I’ve spent most of my professional life as a teacher of writing. The first time that I was dropped into the classroom, it was an English as a second language (ESL) composition class. I was nervous. I felt underprepared, a familiar feeling for new college teachers. I mean, only the week earlier I had been handling merchandise flow at Wal-Mart as a merchandise supervisor—the only supervisory position I’ve held with no real supervision. Since I was such a new and untested teacher, I did what any worried young professional would do, I began to research best practices for what I was doing. This is how I kind of fell into second language (L2) writing research.

I ended up diving into the published research on L2 writing and even began carrying out some of my own—my master’s thesis was on idea generation in L2 writing. It was through this process that I began to find purchase for my first misgivings about English-only educational policies. It started when I found Lurong Wang’s article, “Switching to First Language Among Writers with Differing Second-Language Proficiencies.” In this paper, Wang looks 8 Chinese-speaking students studying in Canada; half of them are intermediate speakers of English, the other are advanced speakers. What he found was that those lower-proficiency speakers would use Chinese far more often while they were writing than their higher proficiency pairs. This, on the surface, appears to be a relatively intuitive finding. However, when other studies have dug deeper, like Wenyu Wang and Qiufang Wen or Daphne van Weijen and her colleagues have done, they found that the ways that these two proficiency groups use their L1s are very different. What seemingly remains constant across all skill levels, however, is that the L1 can offer a very powerful tool for coming up with ideas to write about, and to explore one’s thoughts about content.

There can be many reasons for this. For example, if a multilingual person is writing about an experience that they’ve only ever had in their home country—say bartering—they’ll more easily recall and parse that information in the L1. Meanwhile, experiences that they’ve only ever had in their L2 say planning the structure of an academic essay, will be more easily recalled in the L2. So, why take away this vital planning tool with English-only educational policies? It would be like requiring someone to push a wagon full of rocks up a hill in heeled dress shoes as opposed to sneakers. Sure, you can do it, but you’ll spend more valuable energy doing.

Also, we cannot deny that multilingual individuals—and I would argue here that includes highly proficient ESL students studying at English-medium colleges and university—regularly make use of all their linguistic tools when communicating. We expect and accept it when it comes to oral communication, so why should we exclude from the writing classroom? It’s denying them access to a very powerful cognitive resource. And, doing so can have negative academic impacts.

Now, the pushback here is often that allowing the L1 to creep in can lead to so-called “deficient” English because translations are not perfect. True, off-the-cuff translation can be problematic. I’ve made several translation errors in Chinese. However, if we teach students how to use their L1s as a resource and not to view them as a hindrance, we can work with them to improve their translation skill. Now, little can be done if the student isn’t motivated to learn. We can’t help them if they’re using Google or Baidu translate at 2:00 am the morning before an assignment is due. Also, we can’t deny that multilinguals bring with them a fresh approach to the English language and can introduce new expressions through the strategic use of their linguistic resources. Ha Jin talks about this in his chapter “In Defense of Foreignness.” Let me give you an example. I was once proctoring college writing placement exams for international students. One student, a young Chinese woman, was writing about whether young children should be given access to computers and the unfiltered internet. She felt that they should not and said that one reason very young children should not be given this degree of access is that they are like “fresh pieces of white paper.” Now, the equivalent English expression is to “be a blank slate.” But, that doesn’t have the connotation she was going for. To be a blank slate suggests you have no pre-existing knowledge or experiences, and anything that was there has been meticulously cleaned away. Her expression, “fresh pieces of white paper” carries with it a connotation of innocence that I don’t think we see with the blank slate. It’s also an expression that is heavily encoded in cultural significance for her as a Chinese speaker of English. To have comprehensive English-only educational policies strips away the ability to strategically deploy the L1 in ways that might enhance learning and communication. It also, in some respects, hobbles multilingual students. There are, of course, other issues like identity, but I’ll return to those tomorrow.

Source Articles

van Weijen, D., van den Bergh, H., Rijlaarsdam, G., & Sanders, T. (2009). L1 use during L2 writing: An empirical study of a complex phenomenon. Journal of Second Language Writing, 18(2), 235-250.

Wang, L. (2003). Switching to the first language among writers with differing second-language proficiency. Journal of Second Language Writing, 12(3), 347-375.

Wang, W., & Wen, Q. (2002). L1 use in the L2 composition process: An exploratory study of 16 Chinese EFL writers. Journal of Second Language Writing, 11(2), 225-246.

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