Highlighting and Supporting Linguistic Diversity in the Writing Classroom

By Denise Desrosiers

I have been teaching intensive English and first year composition (FYC) classes at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) for the past eight years. The students in my classes have typically been international students from east Asia who are in the U.S. to attend undergraduate programs, and many of them return to their home countries after completing their degrees. For these students, English instruction has typically been part of their previous education, but not part of their everyday communication. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the students are insecure about their English proficiency and feel trepidatious about using English, both inside and outside of the classroom. At the beginning of each semester, I often ask students to introduce themselves to me in writing, telling me about their experiences with reading and writing in their various languages and how they feel about those experiences. In these introductions, and in other contexts such as writing conferences, many students express a lack of self-confidence about writing in English and, regardless of their actual level of proficiency, state that their English proficiency is poor. As I started to notice this pattern, I began to wonder what messages are being sent and received about language proficiency and how those messages affect students’ self-perceptions as English language users.

In order to explore this question more deeply, I conducted a research study about students’ feedback on a UNH publication of student work, Transitions, a collection of student model essays for all FYC classes. As the international student population at UNH has grown over the past decade, the editors of the Transitions text have encouraged and thoughtfully considered submissions from multilingual students as potential models for the next year’s students, and over the years, international and multilingual student writing has consistently been included in Transitions. Over time, I began to wonder how multilingual students felt about seeing their peers’ essays in Transitions, and also how mainstream students perceived those texts. To look for some answers to those questions, I surveyed and conducted focus groups with students from both mainstream and multilingual sections of FYC, and I found that the publication of those texts was eye-opening for both populations.

Many students from the multilingual sections were impressed by the multilingual student writing in Transitions, saying, for example, “Some international students are ‘authors.’ Some of them can write perfect essay.” While some students felt that the English proficiency of those who were published in Transitions was higher than their own, many students commented that they found the publication of multilingual student essays in Transitions inspiring and motivating, commenting, for example, that “it can…be an inspiration for some international students,” and that it “encouraged me to learning harder.” Furthermore, some students commented that the publication of multilingual student texts made them feel like they have the same opportunities as mainstream students and that they are being judged equally, saying, for example, “It’s depend not on where are you from it’s depend on your hard work,” and “We are also some of the important part on campus.” When students saw themselves represented in a local English writing context, they were engaged as English language users, expressed confidence about multilingual students’ potential, and showed motivation to develop their own English proficiency. These results show the promise of highlighting multilingual student work as a way to encourage and include multilingual students.

Additionally, the students in mainstream sections, who had varying but mostly limited personal experience with multilingualism, expressed an appreciation and respect for international students and the challenges of working in multiple languages. For example, one student said, “Now, I have much more appreciation for their hard work in learning English,” and another said, “I think it’s definitely impressive that…English is their second language and they write like this.” These comments show mainstream students thinking about and valuing the effort that it takes for multilingual students to succeed in English. Furthermore, many students from the mainstream sections commented that international students’ essays are valuable because they present different perspectives. For example, students commented that “it gives you the sense of how other people view things that you could view differently,” and “they provide new perspectives that American students may not have.” These comments from mainstream students indicated that highlighting multilingual students’ writing can help make mainstream students aware of both the challenges and the assets of multilingualism and cultural diversity.

This research inspired me to think about different ways that I could encourage students to value and appreciate multilingualism and cultural diversity in my classes. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to try that out with my first ever mainstream section of FYC. Naturally, I made it a priority to assign multilingual student writing in Transitions and have discussions around the assets of those texts. In addition, I wanted to encourage mainstream students to consider their own backgrounds and the cultural and linguistic diversity that exists among them. When I asked them to write their self-introduction essays, I made sure to ask them to discuss any other languages that are part of their background, and I was thrilled to see students reflecting on multilingual, foreign, and heritage language experiences. I tried throughout the course to bring in, and encouraged them to share, diverse cultural perspectives, and as we moved into the personal narrative unit, I encouraged students to write about cultural experiences and use words from their other languages to add authenticity and richness to their writing when it was relevant. Although some multilingual students in mainstream classes seemed a little hesitant or shy about showing that part of themselves, I was delighted to see that some felt confident enough to do so. I made a point to express positive feedback about these forays into multilingualism, and I saw a lot of positive comments from their peers as well. In these ways, I attempted to normalize multilingualism and emphasize the beauty and strength of writing in multiple languages in my classes.

These experiences give me hope that thoughtful pedagogical approaches can help to create an environment in which multilingual students feel more confident about their language use and in which linguistic diversity can be shared openly and celebrated. While my experiences took place within FYC classes in a university context, the value of encouraging positive attitudes about multilingualism transcends this context, and it may not take a monumental effort to do so. I believe that small actions that we take as educators to show that we value multilingualism can have a big impact on multilingual students’ confidence and willingness to share diverse linguistic and cultural experiences. Therefore, I encourage all educators to consider how multilingualism can be highlighted and supported in your own contexts to cultivate more positive environments for multilingual students and to enrich learning for all students.