Tutoring with an International Background: Part Two

Editor’s note: for the first installment in this series, click here. Read on for excellent stories from Lara, Jimmy, and Nne!

NNE NWANKWO
Pursuing Political Science, Urban Affairs & Planning, and Creative Writing at Virginia Tech

As a Nigerian (from metropolitan Lagos), I grew up learning and understanding several languages at the same time. Nigeria is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, and more importantly, Lagos is the melting pot of the nation. As an Igbo girl, I learned Igbo growing up; and as a contemporary Nigerian, pidgin English is necessary to enjoyably engage in any conversation. As a Lagosian, Yoruba (no matter how little) is important to convincingly haggle with a hawker or to spit fire at a rude neighbor. Furthermore, as francophone nations of Benin, Cameron and Togo border Nigeria, French is the mandatory foreign language in schools. In fact, most contemporary Nigerian songs incorporate a mix of Nigerian pidgin, Yoruba and Igbo, and many times, other minority languages. Sometimes, the songs include French ad-libs also. Nigerian music is a direct representation of the average Nigerian’s speaking and writing patterns – a beautifully jumbled mesh of multiple languages.

This constant exposure to several languages meant that I had to learn how to intrasentially code switch and verbally express myself in these languages. Whether in an academic setting or in an open-air market, I developed the ability to relay my thoughts in different languages, or in a “creole” mix of as many of the languages as possible. Thus, I love what the knowledge of these languages has done for me in terms of self-expression, whether in writing or speaking. Igbo, Nigerian Pidgin and Yoruba are very creative and well-crafted languages, especially in comparisons. For example, some common expressions in Igbo would mean, “His behavior is uglier than the face of a vulture,” or “That place smells worse than a corpse.” Therefore, I find that when I’m speaking or writing English, I use a lot of figures of speech to convey exactly what I mean. By constantly honing this, I have gotten very good at forming lucid similes and metaphors.

When I think of common pitfalls I encounter whenever I write, I think the most prevalent is separating Nigerian Pidgin English from “Queen’s” English. A particular (and hilarious) issue for me is the word “worry.” In Nigerian pidgin, “Wetin dey worry you” technically means “Why are you acting up/acting silly.” So, when I’m writing an essay, I must be careful to use the word ‘worry’ in a manner that conveys concern for the person being spoken to, and not annoyance at the person’s behavior. Despite this, Nigerian Pidgin makes use of interesting English words. It features words like ‘vex,’ ‘palaver,’ ‘daft’ ‘perambulating’ or ‘yonder,’ amongst others. As this is so, when tutoring, I am able to suggest new words to my clients (that they often mostly find amusing).

As an international student and a Writing Center tutor, I find that upon initial meeting with students, they tend to have varied reactions to me. International students (especially those who are not from Anglophone nations) place a lot of trust in me as a tutor. They know that as a multilingual individual, I am aware of the difficulty of not only learning a new language, but also expressing oneself (through writing) in that language. I find that these students tend to place a higher level of trust in my coaching, and are appreciative of the manner in which I tutor. When dealing with ESL students, I am careful to be patient, and as thorough as possible in my explanations. I also make sure that I am giving them complete agency of their paper, and to not be condescending. I try to keep tutoring quite light-hearted and to try to create a cheeky relationship (even if on the issue of F-1 visas) because it is easier to tutor when connection has been created.

On the other hand, I find that many times, I have to ‘prove’ myself to some domestic students. It doesn’t happen frequently (and those who erroneously place me as being British give me utmost attention). However, that lack or reduced level of trust has definitely manifested itself from statements like “Your English is actually quite good” – although I am from an Anglophone nation, and my English is fluent and excellent, to “I don’t think you are pronouncing that word correctly” – I often have to explain that having a different accent means that words will usually be pronounced differently. Of course, I have to remind myself that these statements are not attacks, neither are they personal; rather clients just want to know that they will receive wonderful help on their papers. Almost all the time, by mid-way into the session, I succeed in winning the doubtful client over, and we are able to have a productive session.

Overall, I love tutoring at a Writing Center in a foreign country. It helps me evolve in my own command of English, and my use of American English and even slangs. Coming from a nation (unfortunately) colonized by the British, many words are written, pronounced and used differently than they are in American English. Tutoring in an American University’s writing center means that I am exposed to both worlds, and I enjoy taking full advantage of this ever-growing knowledge of the diversity of the English language.

JIMMY CALDERON
Pursuing a double major in Spanish and French at McDaniel College

Being a peer tutor who also happens to have learned English as a second language has its perks and difficulties. But before we get into the pros and cons of the matter, perhaps it would be helpful to tell you my story. I was born in California, but I moved to El Salvador at the very young age of 3 months. My family, who was originally from El Salvador, lived in the United States as political exiles during the Salvadoran Civil War. After the war, we returned to El Salvador, tierra que me vió crecer (land where I grew up). I went to school in El Salvador, which allowed me to acquire a great proficiency in the Spanish language. At the age of 15, my parents decided to send me to the United States, because they knew I would have greater educational and professional opportunities in this country. At age 15, I left my parents behind and moved to a land of total strangeness. The little English I had learned in school back in El Salvador proved to be useless. When I started school here, I was put in a classroom with other Hispanics, but there were also some South Korean students in our class. Our class was not that big; it only had 6 students. Because not all of us spoke Spanish, we had to speak in English. That was my first classroom experience in the United States. After a few weeks, I became more accustomed to hearing English all around me. By the time I reached high school, I was speaking fluently.

My writing, believe or not, has always been better than my speaking. I speak with an accent, a fact that gave me the nickname of Fez, the Hispanic character in “That 70s Show”. I didn’t have any difficulties writing in English. In fact, that allowed me to skip unnecessary ESOL classes in high schools since teachers believed I was ready for 9th grade English. I have always been a writer. I will always be. There is a saying in Spanish that goes more or less like this: “El que es perico donde quiera es verde” (Literal translation: He who is a parrot anywhere is green. More meaningful translation: He who has a talent is capable of performing such talent anywhere under any circumstance). Once I had gained a good grasp of the English language, I started writing. I worked first in translating a few of my poems from Spanish to English. I then attempted to write some poems in English. As the years went by, I became better and better at writing (creatively) in English. Nowadays, not only I am a tutor at McDaniel’s Writing Center, but I am also the co-editor for the school’s literary magazine, Contrast.

But enough about my exciting life. Going back to my original point, having learned English as a second language comes with perks and difficulties. For instance, one of the many perks is understanding how the syntax of the English language works. I had to learn not only vocabulary but also how to put this vocabulary in a coherent sentence. This is a difficult task for anyone really, for there are multiple ways in which a sentence can be “correct.” However, for an individual learning English, this can become particularly difficult. This is because English syntax does not work the same way as the syntax of other languages. Well, reading that last sentence back I realized I am not talking about a difficulty, but, truth be told, that is the matter of fact; a perk can also be a difficulty depending on the point of view from which it is looked. I believe that learning English as a second language provided me with a good basis of syntax and grammar rules of the English language, at least enough to be able to teach it to others.

This knowledge of not only a different language but of a different culture has enriched my personal experience, and has allowed me to view the world with different perspectives. This is particularly useful when it comes to tutoring other people. When a student brings a paper and we first look at it, I think of that as submerging myself into a different world, a different culture. This multi-culturism allows me to relate to the writers, and to attempt to understand their views of the world.

One of the labels I hate the most is that just “because I come from two different cultures I know everything about those given cultures”. In reality, I would say that the knowledge I have about my two cultures is vast but superficial: I know a lot of the elements of the Hispanic and American culture, but I do not know all the details to call myself an expert on said culture.

LARA VUJOVIC
Pursuing a PhD in Psychology at Tufts University, Boston

I was born and raised in Montenegro, but I moved away when I was 16. I got a stipend to finish high school in Slovenia– the program was in English (International Baccalaureate). I graduated from college in Germany (also studying in English). My main motivation for moving was to get the best education possible. I also thought it would be adventurous and fun (I was 16 at the time of my first move!). I also love learning about different cultures and lifestyles. I would definitely do this all over again if I could (although there have been some tough times adjusting to new places, but I think that’s normal).

I care about language and writing and I was very good at it in Serbian (my native language), so I was always self-conscious about writing in English. I used to ask my friends to proofread not only my papers, but any writing I produce (even as simple as e-mails).

However, when I came to the States, I got a job as a TA. My students sometimes had to submit writing assignments, and I’ve realized that most of them don’t express themselves really well despite being native speakers. I realized that I can teach them a lot about writing. The fact that I was able to do it well in one language meant that I can probably do it well in another language. My advisor was also extremely helpful with my own writing process, so in the first year of grad school, I gained a lot of confidence in my writing and ability to teach writing. Exactly around the time of that realization, I saw the ad from the ARC and I decided to apply. 🙂

I’m sometimes still nervous before meeting a native speaker for a consulting session, because I worry that I might lose credibility once they hear I have a slight accent. However, I haven’t had a single bad experience and the students often leave me very positive feedback. I do feel I can contribute more to the sessions with non-native speakers, because I think I can understand their fear and writing blocks associated with writing in another language. If it’s someone looking for help with personal statements (or similar), I like to take the time to get to know them better first. If it’s someone looking for help with a class assignment, then I just focus on the assignment. If I hear someone has an accent, I usually like to check where they’re from.

Generally, I’d say I feel quite comfortable in the writing tutor role, also because everyone in the program (the coordinator and other consultants) is very supportive and understanding.

After graduation, I hope to stay in academia. My research focuses on emotion regulation. Basically, I research how people change their emotions so that they fit situational demands best. For instance, if I’m angry at my boss, it’s probably not the best idea to yell at him, I should rather seek to regulate my anger by taking deep breaths, counting to 10 etc. Apart from enjoying research, I’m also passionate about teaching, so I think being a professor is my ideal career.

Many thanks to all the tutors that chimed in with their excellent perspectives! Have a question/observation? Leave it below! And don’t forget to read part one here.

1 thought on “Tutoring with an International Background: Part Two

  1. Pingback: Tutoring with an International Background | Connecting Writing Centers Across Borders (CWCAB)

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