Esther Namubiru is an English and writing instructor and the 2019 Stearns language diversity faculty fellow at George Mason University. She enjoys learning about how to teach reading and writing while helping students develop their confidence in their own linguistic and cultural identities. Having been an international multilingual student from Uganda, and now working as a multilingual instructor, Namubiru is dedicated to the success of multilingual and international scholars.
As an international student from post-colonial Uganda, I came to the United States of America already knowing and using English because it is a lingua-franca in my country. It is learned and used alongside other local languages in the region. I learned English in my classes and used it at home, so it was easy for me to write and speak in this language as I moved from one schooling system to another. However, it was not until I began traveling and learning in a different educational and cultural system that I realized how little I actually understood about this language and its relationship to writing, reading, my mother-tongue, my political and cultural history, my identity as a Ugandan international student in an American college, and a multilingual instructor of English for Academic Purposes. Through moving from one academic system to another and interacting with this language in writing and reading contexts, I realized the extent of my underlying assumptions and ideologies regarding what it means to be an English-language user and writer.
1891 map illustrating both the geography and colonial ideologies prevalent during the colonial scramble for Africa.
The writing center is bound to receive international students like me – students from post-colonial societies where English functions alongside other languages but often with fraught political, cultural, educational, linguistic, and historical dynamics. These dynamics impact the way writing and reading are understood and enacted by international students. Some writing center scholarship has begun to explore these dynamics, particularly culture and its influence on language norms, to understand how they impact students’ willingness to apply methods like peer-tutoring which are commonly used in Western academic contexts (Miller, 2002). For example, Miller noted that methods like peer-tutoring were met with skepticism when they were proposed at a new writing center program in a Kenyan university. Both the faculty and students challenged the method due to their perceptions of power in the teacher-student and student-student relationship and their understanding of who was considered a qualified student-writer and could conduct a strong peer-tutoring session (Miller 2002, p. 8). However, if the writing center is to succeed in working with international students from post-colonial contexts like Kenya and Uganda, writing tutors and administrators have to first understand these international students’ unique experiences with the English language, reading, and writing. How do these students perceive reading, writing, and language in their post-colonial context? In light of the colonial history in these contexts, how is English incorporated, perceived, and used in the local education system alongside the students’ own languages? In countries like Uganda where foreign education systems are being used in private and international schools (Ssentanda, 2013), how are students and families who can access these schools adjusting to the different pedagogies related to reading and writing in English?
In this essay, I try to answer some of these questions by sharing the way I learned to read, write, and speak English as a student in post-colonial Uganda and an international student in Kenya. I describe some of the ways I was taught English grammar, essay-writing, and feedback-processing within different post-colonial local and international contexts. I also describe how language itself has played a role in my identity-formation as an international student and my ability to interact with and appreciate my fellow peers and instructors. My experiences are not representative of other foreign students’ journeys (even those with a similar background). Instead, they are meant to start a conversation about the need to appreciate the unique factors and experiences that influence international students as they learn writing and reading in American educational systems.
The Primary School (and Good English?)
Although I grew up speaking English and Ganda (my mother-tongue) in my home, I was more comfortable speaking, listening, writing and reading in English. Of course my parents tried to help me strengthen my Ganda by talking to me in Ganda and teaching me Ganda rhymes, songs, and even the Lord’s prayer. Despite their best efforts, my English strengthened the older I got. I could still speak in Ganda, but reading and writing were hard. It should be a surprise I was becoming fluent in a language other than my mother-tongue while living in my own country. Uganda, a former British colony that gained its independence in 1962, established English as one of its official languages. Although this country is a multilingual society, most interactions in major domains like media, business, and education are typically conducted in English. With such exposure, I acquired this language as though it were my first tongue.
In Uganda’s urban primary schools, pupils start learning in English in the first year of school, and it remains the language of instruction throughout all levels of primary school (Tembe, 2006). Since my primary school was located in the capital city, Kampala, English was the main language of instruction. In addition to learning it, my peers and I were required to speak only English on school grounds. Scholars investigating these linguistic norms within the educational landscape of Uganda have suggested that such policies might be demonstrative of an underlying belief that English is the better language to learn (Ssentanda, 2013; Tembe & Norton, 2008; Tembe, 2006) In fact, while interviewing Ugandan teachers about their language of choice in the classroom, Ssentanda (2013) notes that the majority of teachers insisted that children needed to learn in English if they were to have better opportunities in their professional pursuits. Some Ugandan parents also prefer for their children to learn in English even though the language is not spoken in the home (Tembe & Norton, 2008).
As a child, I did not fully realize how ingrained this belief—‘English as the better code’—was in my own perceptions of the language; however, I felt pressure to be articulate and speak ‘good English.’ I welcomed all opportunities to read aloud in my composition and literature classes and basked in any praise related to my clear diction. Outside class, I enjoyed listening to the BBC station where native and non-native English speakers interacted and communicated dynamically in this code.
Classes in my primary school, which was also a private school, were comprised of at least 30 students which is not surprising given the increase in Ugandan parents moving their children from public to private schools (Ssentanda 2013, p. 291). In my lower composition classes, teachers focused heavily on English grammar and accuracy as opposed to writing essays. Through pop quizzes and in-class grammar exercises, the teachers evaluated our punctuation and spelling. In the higher levels, teachers introduced summary and essay-writing by assigning short story books for us to read and summarize. These quickly became my favorite writing tasks. While I do not recall brainstorming my ideas or discussing my paragraph development with my primary school teachers, I relished their feedback on my grammar and creativity. If you asked me at the time what I thought a good summary looked like, I would probably have said that it needs to have good English, clear sentences, and correct spellings.
The High Schools (and Good Writing?)
After completing the Primary Leaving Examinations, Uganda’s standardized examinations that are administered in the last year of primary school to determine which secondary schools students will join, I joined a private secondary school founded before the nation’s independence. While at this boarding school which was known for its academic excellence and an established
Esther Namubiru on her first day of primary school
history in Christian ethos, I soon learned that writing could be done in non-writing classes like Geography and Agriculture. For instance, my Agriculture instructor assigned a short descriptive essay on topics we were learning such as the benefits of open-range herding as opposed to tethering. I had trouble understanding why I was writing about such topics. To me, writing was a creative endeavor and fiction-writing was the type with which I was familiar.
I tried to understand what my secondary school teachers were looking for in my writing and noticed that grammar was no longer the main concern. In fact, my instructors were more concerned about the structure of my writing and the accuracy of my ideas. “Can you re-check your explanation of that idea?” they would ask. I realized over time that stating the facts as I had learned them was sufficient most of the time, provided I was clear and accurate. Later, as I wrote more essays on everything from evergreen forests to volcanic formations to the folklore about how the first man (Kintu) was made, I discovered that writing could help me clarify what I thought I knew and what I actually knew.
In terms of language use, some of my secondary school teachers code-switched with their students and each other which surprised and intrigued me. The code-switching happened a lot in my Ganda class where I enjoyed listening to my peers reading and speaking in Ganda and comparing it to their mother-tongues. I also became keenly aware of my low fluency in Ganda and how this could, in fact, be a detriment. I was proud of my English-speaking skills and thought my English was impressive. At the same time, I was embarrassed by my Ganda fluency. The fact that there were other students in the class who could also not speak the language well did not comfort me. I felt less like a Muganda, excluded from my culture, people, and language. As soon as I got a chance to drop Ganda class, I took it.
In the third year of secondary school, my family moved to neighboring Kenya where I finished high school at an international school that followed the Cambridge system. Kenya is also a former British colony, and English is one of the major languages of communication along with Swahili. At my international school, English was the main language of instruction though my teachers and peers came from all over the world including India and England. Unlike my primary school where English was required in all interactions on school grounds, this school allowed Swahili and other languages to be spoken inside and outside the class though lessons were conducted in English. In classrooms of 10-15 students, code-switching and writing essays in classes besides literature was the norm. However, it was while attending this international school that I realized what seemed like gaps in my perspective regarding writing and reading.
Before joining this school, I thought writing was just for my teacher—as long as they were pleased, I had accomplished my purpose. At this international school, my perspective was challenged as my new teachers tended to ask me what I thought needed to improve in my writing rather than telling me what they thought I should do. In my composition class, for example, my teacher insisted on 15-20 minute one-on-one conversations with each student in which the teacher reviewed their feedback before asking the student to explain and defend their writing choices. This approach baffled and frustrated me. Why share the feedback and also expect the student to defend their writing process? Wasn’t the teacher’s feedback more important than whatever choices the student had made? Was it accepted to contend with and even ignore the feedback?
In addition to re-learning how to interpret the teacher’s feedback, I was also introduced to the idea of peer-review. In one of my classes, a teacher chose one of my peer’s papers and asked the student to read it to the whole class. Then, the teacher asked the student to pass their paper around for us to skim. As the paper drifted from one hand to another, the teacher instructed us to “be skeptical” and question what this student could be doing well. (The teacher had already clarified that this student’s ideas and writing were interesting and warranted further discussion). As the teacher waited for us to share our thoughts and observations, I felt angry. To me, seeing what the student was doing well meant comparing my work to theirs. I did not like that even though I was used to being in competition with my peers (thanks to the P.L.E. exams in my primary school days). What was worse was being expected to freely notice and discuss these things in front of my peers. I sat awkwardly waiting for someone to speak and just when the silence was becoming unbearable, someone cleared their throat and asked a question. There was a brief pause before another student spoke, and then a third. I could not believe it. Not only were my peers seemingly eager to talk about the student’s paper, but they also appeared open to the student’s advice on their writing questions. Some praised and agreed with the student’s ideas and writing choices, while others challenged.
To this day, I continue to wonder about that peer-review. Where did my classmates get the audacity to freely critique and praise their peer’s work? I wonder how the student in the spotlight truly felt. Were they genuinely interested in their peers’ feedback? And I wonder about the teacher: did they truly expect insightful commentary from the class? In spite of all these questions though, that peer-review activity revealed to me that writing requires trust. Writers need to trust that readers will see and appreciate their perspectives and readers trust that writers will be open to their critique. And teachers need to trust that their student writers and readers will be interested enough in each other’s work to support one another.
This concept of trust was challenging to me because it refuted what I believed about the student-student and student-teacher relationship. In my Ugandan culture, I was trained to view my peers as my competitors fighting for the top position in the class, the school, and the country. In this international school, my peers were equals. They were to encourage and challenge me, and I them. My teachers were still superior, but they were also colleagues who cared about my ideas as much as their own. I would continue learning about and grappling with these new representations in my school relationships while pursuing a bachelor’s degree at an American college.
Tutoring and Teaching as a Multilingual in an American college
My experiences influence how I approach teaching and tutoring English and writing to international students from a post-colonial context. As a multilingual from a post-colonial community where lower order concerns were prioritized at the primary level, I cannot assume that students will appreciate a focus on the higher order concerns versus the lower order concerns (or vice versa). In some cases, reviewing lower order concerns is exactly what a student needs even though they were previously exposed to the fundamentals of English grammar in the home countries. At the same time, I often wonder whether it is a waste of valuable time to review the lower order concerns and Standard American English grammar with students who already have an adequate understanding of basic English grammar. If they have an adequate knowledge of grammar of World English, isn’t it better to shift focus and discuss the higher order concerns? Is a discussion of Standard American English grammar features still needed?
My experiences have also affected how I approach peer-feedback both as a tutor and an instructor. As a tutor, I expect that the international students I work with will recognize me as a fellow peer who can also help them interpret their instructor’s expectations having been part of the American academic culture for a while now. Most times this is exactly what happens, but there are a few situations where I have found myself needing to reassure my peers that they can trust me as a non-native English speaker and a fellow international student. The challenge of trust also shows up in the classroom where my students might sometimes hesitate to give and receive feedback from each other even though they have been prepped with the tools to provide constructive feedback. Overtime, I have learned that their hesitancy stems from several things but the most common seems to be a lack of confidence in themselves and/or their peers’ linguistic and subject-matter expertise. Simply making an activity that teaches them how to give feedback is not enough to address this issue. On the other hand, discussing the role of trust in the writing and feedback process could easily become too abstract while oversimplifying the hard work of trusting your peers.
Even though non-directive feedback is typical in tutoring sessions, I wonder how it might work with international students who are accustomed to direct feedback. I am not surprised when my students and tutees ask for explicit instructions regarding their revisions. This is understandable since many of them are still adjusting to a set of norms that challenges how they view the role of the student, the teacher/tutor, and the writer. It took me four years to understand these norms during my studies at the international school in Kenya. When responding to my teachers’ feedback, sometimes it was confusing to know which identity to prioritize, the student or the writer and expect/respond to feedback in this role. Even after I understood these norms, I continued to negotiate my culture’s perceptions of power and its enactment in my relationships with my teachers since this affects how I expect them to address my writing. How can I now expect my students to understand these issues in one semester with me?
I call myself a multilingual and multicultural scholar because I can speak and listen to Ganda almost as well as English, and I know what it means to live in a society where multiple cultures and languages interact. At the same time, my experience learning English in post-colonial Uganda and then realizing that I speak it better than my mother-tongue has influenced how I view myself as Ugandan and as an international scholar. Furthermore, the way I learned to read and write first in my local Ugandan system and then in an international school setting has also affected how I teach my English for Academic Purposes writing and research class. From these experiences, I have come to understand not only cognitively but also in an embodied way that language, writing, and reading do not exist in a vacuum. Other factors like culture and a society’s political and linguistic history impact them individually and collectively. What’s more, the English language, writing, and reading exist in tension within post-colonial societies like mine. This tension continues to infuse my choices and questions as a multilingual speaker and EAP instructor. My exposure to reading and writing throughout the different systems varied so much that I had to re-learn and re-consider my understanding of what it means to be literate in English and my mother-tongue. I continue to re-negotiate my identities as a language user, an Ganda and English speaker, a student, and a writer/reader while facilitating this re-negotiation for my international students.
Miller, A. (2002). Culture and composition: Starting a writing center in East Africa.” The Writing Lab Newsletter, 27 (4), 8-11. Retrieved from https://wlnjournal.org/archives/v27/27.4.pdf Accessed 13 December 2018.
Ssentanda, M. E. (2013). Exploring connections: Reflections on mother-tongue education in post-colonial Uganda. Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics Plus, 42, 281-296. doi: 10.5842/42-0-163
Tembe, J. & Norton, B. (2008). Promoting local languages in the Ugandan primary schools: The community as a stakeholder. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 65(1), 33-60. doi:10.3138/cmlr.65.1.33
Tembe, J. (2006). Teacher training and the English language in Uganda.” Tesol Quarterly, 40(4), 857-860
 Ugandan rural primary schools also learn English but this starts in the fourth year of school; therefore, pupils in rural schools learn content in their mother-tongues during the first 4 years of primary school before switching to English-only instruction (Tembe 2006, p. 857).
 Due to Uganda’s continued financial, curricula, and teacher-training challenges, families that can afford it are placing their children in private and international schools leading to an increase in class sizes in these schools (Ssentanda, 2013).