Walk a mile in their shoes

IMG_0264In her articleVictoria Grefer asks the following question:

Today’s question is, how do you write? Do you love long, artistic, experimental and flowing sentences, full of dependent clauses and prepositional phrases? Do you love to walk around an idea and show it from various angles and viewpoints before you move on to the next thing? Or do you prefer things short, simple, precise, and direct?

I already briefly touched upon my writing style here, in a post describing my blogging habits. Although one’s blogging habits and one’s writing style are clearly not one and the same thing, I believe that these concepts may overlap to a certain extent.

Any habit is defined as a recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition. One’s writing style, on the other hand, refers to the manner in which an author chooses to write to his or her audience. It reveals both the writer’s personality and voice, but it also shows how he or she perceives the audience. So while a habit is a routine of behavior that tends to occur unconsciously, one’s style is a matter of choice. 

I’m not sure, though, that I’ve chosen my writing style absolutely voluntarily. Being a non-native speaker of English, the way I write is inevitably influenced by my limited L2 repertoire. So although I mostly produce short, simple sentences and my writing sometimes suffers from under-lexicalization, it’s not always my deliberate choice. My struggle to make a point in an L2 simply forces me to play it safe and, often subconsciously, to avoid structures which may hinder communication between me and the reader.

As Victoria Grefer points out,

The more complex I make a sentence, the more room I feel I have for a stylistic error that will confuse a reader.

My no frills style is partly a result of language limitations which probably differ from those a native speaker has to deal with. These limitations can be painful and depressing at times. The truth is, though, that they constantly push me out of my comfort zone, and, in a way, they also help me feel relatively safe. I could easily start blogging in my mother tongue, but then I would have no excuses to justify my linguistic and stylistic errors.

I suppose that one’s writing style also reflects one’s reading preferences. In other words, I write the way I like other people to write – not because I think it’s the right way but because such texts are easy for me to decode.

This brings me to the L2 classroom. Our students often grapple with limitations much more serious than those I’ve described above. At low levels, they have to get by with a very restricted vocabulary and a narrow range of grammar structures. They might not know how to work with dictionaries and thesauri effectively. In other words, although they probably have a lot to say, they don’t have an effective means to communicate their message. This may be a source of bitter frustration and some may even want to give up writing at some point.

The frustration will probably increase if a student prefers a poetic style in their L1, for example, but feels he can’t use it when writing in the L2. Thus, whatever he produces will look insufficient and imperfect in his eyes. The other extreme would be a student who uses an embellished style at all costs, even when it’s absolutely inappropriate and incorrect. Such as student will probably be scolded and punished by low grades anyway. This will eventually discourage her from playing with the language or even make her dislike writing completely.

Before you start scolding and punishing your student for poor writing, try writing yourself. Try what it is like and what it takes to produce a coherent text in a foreign language, or in any language, for that matter. I recommend that you look your fears and limitations straight in the eye first and see how your students might feel.

To wind up my post, below are a few inspiring bloggers who write for teachers who wish to help their students overcome those fears and limitations:

Josette LeBlanc 

Chrysa Papalazarou

Chuck Sandy

Anne Hendler

Malu Sciamalleri

Anna Loseva

Maria Theologidou

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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13 Responses to Walk a mile in their shoes

  1. Maria Theologidou says:

    I love the idea of urging teachers to become writers themselves, so that they can gain insight into their students’ writing struggles. Those of us who blog understand the feelings of stress, frustration and discouragement often associated with our writing endeavors. All these experiences though become valuable lessons blogger-teachers should share with their students. Sharing your mishaps, exposing your flaws and celebrating your failures with your kids (as part of your learning journey) encourages them to give their writing voice room and time to develop.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for your support, Maria! I second every word of your comment. By the way, you might want to know that I have expanded the list of inspiring bloggers by one name. 🙂 I hope the list will keep growing in the future and that it will serve as a resource for teachers who wish to help their learners improve their writing skills. Should you (or anybody who’s reading this) have any suggestions, I’m all ears.

      Like

  2. paulwalsh says:

    Hi Hana,

    Great post. First of all, I wouldn’t think of your L2 as a handicap – some of the best English prose stylists EVER are non-native speakers e.g. Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov. Personally, after being forced to read the long, decorative sentences of 19th century English fiction a la Dickens at school, I’m a big fan of short, punchy American literature (e.g. Annie E. Proulx).

    Secondly, we’re been trying to get teachers to write for our ‘Teacher Stories’ project – http://teacher-stories.com/ – and it’s not been easy. Even though I’ve met dozens of English teachers over the years who either do write, or say they’d love to write, it’s been hard to actually get people to submit work.

    If anyone is interested, just go to our website and take a look – we welcome submissions from ALL teachers – NEST and NNESTs!

    Maybe you have a story to tell, Hana?

    Like

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi Paul,

      Yes, I often keep reminding myself of Joseph Conrad and I’m in awe of his literary style and language proficiency. While Nabokov was trilingual from an early age, Conrad didn’t speak English fluently until he was in his twenties. The fact that he finally became proficient enough to become one of the greatest novelists in English is very encouraging and motivating for learners of any foreign language. It’s also interesting to mention that despite his writing qualities, Conrad had probably never achieved a native-like pronunciation and always spoke with a marked accent. This corroborates the conclusions of the L2 acquisition research saying that although some adult second-language learners reach very high levels of proficiency, pronunciation tends to be non-native.

      Thanks for the link to the ‘Teacher Stories’ project. I hope that bloggers and non-bloggers reading this will visit your website and contribute their stories.

      Like

  3. Chrysa says:

    Hana, I quite understand the limitations you mention in your post, but let us think and hope that limitations exist only to be overcome; by us and our students alike. “Writing is thinking on paper” (William Zinsser) and “writing is not the destination; it’s the journey” (Mikhail Bahtin) are two quotes that really resonate with me. I enjoy reading your posts. They’re diverse, authentic, honest, reflective and with a sense of humour at times which is not an easy thing at all. Thank you very much for adding me to this list. Some wonderful ideas shared here. Best, Chrysa

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Chrysa, it’s an honor for me to have your name on the list. You are doing a great job with your blog, bringing creativity to the fore. Anyway, thanks for the heads up. I love the quotes.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Hana,
    Your comments here reflect my belief that anyone wanting to teach languages should periodically have a go at learning one themselves, or at least learning something. For example, I used to get really frustrated with my students for not doing their homework until I realised how difficult it was for me to find time to do my own homework 🙂
    On another note, your “limited L2 repertoire” would put many of the L1 writers and speakers I inow to shame. And I wasn’t entirely sure what “under-lexicalisation” until I just learnt it from you! 🙂
    Sandy

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks, Sandy. To be completely honest, I google a word or two when writing my posts to look more sophisticated 🙂 Seriously, I like what you say about the need to constantly learn in order to be a good (more compassionate?) teacher. Things are always easier said than done. Take those irritating backseat drivers who always know best until they sit behind the wheel themselves. On the other hand, if you keep telling somebody Try! It’s easy! (because you find it easy), you may well discourage them in the end. So, balance is the key, I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree with Sandy 🙂
    Also, I have students who feel that they need to produce incredibly complex sentences in order to demonstrate their fluency. The problem is that these sentences can become unwieldy and far too long, with too many clauses and ideas crammed into one sentence.
    I had to explain to one student that when I suggested that one of her paragraphs should be rewritten using shorter sentences, it wasn’t because I was correcting the work of a learner but because native speakers shouldn’t write like that either if they want to be sure that the reader will understand their points.
    As a learner, I know of the frustration that comes from not being able to express an idea as articulately as I could in my native language. I believe that learners should be encouraged to experiment with language and not always to play it safe. However I think there is also a danger that students put too much pressure on themselves by trying to make their writing more complicated than it needs to be.

    Like

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Kirsty. Yes, sentence complexity can be a problem. In Czech, we use commas to separate individual clauses and phrases much more than you do in English. I must admit that I haven’t fully grasped all the rules concerning the use of commas in English yet. I noticed that some writers use them as they please and it is common that they omit punctuation in places where I consider it absolutely essential. Anyway, as we use commas more in Czech, we can afford to produce much longer sentences without making them hard to understand. Czech learners of English then tend to use equally long and complex sentences in English writing (often forgetting basic rules of word order completely) without realizing, as you pointed out, that this is not natural. By the way, the use of semicolon is something my intermediate students can’t grasp at all. As far as playing it safe vs. experimenting, I agree that balance is the key.

      Like

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