3844328 from pixabay
We need to stop telling our students to have their essays checked by a native English speaker. It doesn’t help them, sometimes harms them, and perpetuates a false narrative about writing and language.
The first time I was told, during graduate school, that I had a good “writing voice,” I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t that I lacked confidence in my writing—I just thought that, as a nonnative speaker of English, I was “graded” on a different scale. I thought native speakers can have good or bad writing voices, beautiful or strained prose, clever or dull word choices, while nonnative speakers like me can write grammatically or ungrammatically, with correct or incorrect spelling. Eventually, if we’re lucky, we can write “just like a native speaker.”
I was far from alone. Talking to my English-as-an-additional-language (EAL) colleagues and students reveals remarkably similar stories. Inexperienced writers attribute all their writing challenges to their poor mastery of English, while experienced writers know that the path to good academic writing involves minimal obsession over English grammar.
Initially, I thought this was a common misconception by EAL writers, and all I had to do was to dispel the myth. Until, that is, I noticed colleagues telling students to have their essays checked by a native speaker, journals advising EAL authors to do the same, and graduate students receiving similar writing “advice” from supervisors. I watched students with near-native English language proficiency be racially profiled, encountered writing centers that relied on tutors’ native-speaking intuitions instead of training them in academic writing skills, and observed as anxious students stopped trusting their writing intuitions, becoming worse writers as a result.
This needs to stop. Below, I present three reasons why we should stop telling our students to have their essays checked by a native speaker and what we can do instead.
- First, “You should have your essay checked by a native speaker.” is not writing advice. Nor is it a diagnosis. Native speakers write poorly all the time, and none of us would think “you should have your essay checked by a better writer” is good writing advice. Instead, we tell students to read the essay out loud to check for flow, or to try to explain the argument to a friend to check for cogency. While it’s true that some EAL writers write poorly because they lack mastery of English, they don’t all face the same challenges. Some may use unusual vocabulary while others write garden-path sentences. Good writing advice points out specific problems and discusses strategies to resolve them.
- Second, the quality of academic writing has very little to do with the quality of the English. While I don’t want to deny that an essay can have so many grammatical errors that it’s incomprehensible, I’ve found that, more often than not, the occasional odd phrasing or unnatural sentence structure doesn’t actually impede comprehension. We all know that clarity in writing is about clarity in thought, and writing something down is the best way to discover the lack of clarity in thought. We push our students to write early and often so they can identify weaknesses in their thought and use the resulting discussions to guide further research.
Many of us academics believe in the value of revision. We know that early drafts serve a different purpose than late drafts, and we should pin the central argument down before stressing over word choice and paragraph length. Why not extend the same thought process when teaching student writing? I’m not saying that grammar and spelling aren’t important. I am saying that they should not be the first, second or third area of focus.
- My last point is conceptual. Telling a student to check with “a native speaker,” any native speaker whatsoever, portrays language as flat, rigid and uncreative. It conveys the idea that all competent speakers of English would write in a similar way, which is categorically different from how EAL writers write. (A piece of direct counterevidence to this is the fact that a native-speaking colleague of mine was asked, by an anonymous reviewer, to have his writing checked by a native speaker.)
In addition to being false, this image of language as something rigid strips inexperienced writers of the sense of ownership over their own writing. It tells them that their expertise matters so much less than someone else’s linguistic intuition, and it doesn’t even matter whose linguistic intuition it is, as long as they are a “native speaker.”
When I was first sent to the writing center as an undergraduate philosophy student, the writing consultant changed half of my uses of the word “idea,” because I was repeating the word too much and it’s good practice to diversify one’s diction. She changed “idea” into words such as “thought” or “theory,” which she took to be synonymous with “idea.” The thing is, they are not synonymous in philosophy. There are centuries of debates over how thoughts relate to ideas and whether theories exist at all. But I was a first-year undergraduate student. I had to decide whether I should trust this native English-speaking authority like I was told to, or my own ill-formed, inexperienced impressions of the discipline.
There is value in learning from better writers, in having other people check your writing, and in paying attention to word choices and sentence structures. But telling someone to have their writing checked by a native speaker does not promote this. To the contrary, it prevents us from meaningfully engaging with student writing in the concrete, tailored and responsible ways that our students deserve.