Author: Oliver Hiob-Bansal

It’s all just in the words

As academics, no matter our level or field, we are used to the conventions of our field as well as the language, the jargon, used in our environment. While I speak of academics, every profession has its own jargon, it is used to communicate efficiently, and simultaneously it establishes our own knowledge and understanding of our discipline – 10-4?

In our field, the humanities and even more specifically, the literatures, terms and concepts such as “discourse,” the “Other,” or to “deconstruct” are frequently used to communicate an idea and situate it within a larger discourse. Often we, as academics and advanced students, do not reflect on these terms because they are understood by our academic audience – it is our language here at the university and in our department. As Instructors we try to familiarize our students with this language, yet might not always be aware of our own jargon use, or what is understood differently by students who are either new to academia or to the field. In humanities discourse, everyday terms like “memory,” “voice,” or “truth” are re-contextualized and given a slightly different meaning and thus different consequences than the same terms when used in non-academic language. In a way they are jargonized as this new, academic meaning is known to the academic community. For native-speakers of English, the transition, or the jargonizing process, from every day to specialized language happens quickly and often as a side note: as instructors we deconstruct the everyday term and (re)situate it within our own disciplinary discourse and then expect our student to use these jargonized terms. But what happens when a Second Language Writer comes across these often common but now re-contextualized terms? For Second Language Writers the transition requires an additional step, the translation of the term into his / her native language and thus an environment where the deconstruction of the English term might not work as fluently as it does in English. Second Language Writers are therefore frequently confronted with jargon understanding of terms that differ or go far beyond a traditional dictionary definition. Furthermore, some of these terms may prove themselves much more complicated and problematic, especially when venturing into a post-colonial environment / jargon: What or Who is “the Other” when a Second Language Writer from a non-western environment writes? Why is he / she referred to as the “subaltern”? Obviously, it was Gayatri Spivak, as an Indian woman and scholar, who coined the term, but she did so within the jargon environment of her field. But it is now we instructors who introduce these terms to a diverse student population from all over the world, and more frequently than not, do so from a Western perspective and interpellate our students into our own discourse, often silencing their voices.

I am not advocating that we as instructors stop using the jargon of our fields! It is in many ways our responsibility to familiarize our students with the specific language that is used in an academic discipline, at least to a certain degree. Members of the medical community must speak the same jargon; legal professionals speak and write in their own “language” where every day synonyms have a distinct (legal) meaning; police officers must know what the numbered codes mean – even though these jargons/languages might seem inaccessible to the outsider at first, they serve a purpose.

However, as instructors of our field(s) are in a position (if not to say we have a duty) to make our language / jargon accessible to our students and thus have to take a step back once in a while to reevaluate our own, specific language. Especially when working with Second Language Writers, we need to understand that there is an additional translation process and that we might have to work through a term, maybe on an individual basis, a bit slower and ask more pointed questions to further the students’ understanding. Or, why not take a moment in class and work with all our students through a term like “voice” and let them discover its academic scope. What we cannot do in return, is to penalize a student who makes a good argument based on a different, non-jargonized understanding of a term.

In the end, it is all “just” about the words and how we use them – for better or for worse – but we need to understand and to be understood in order to have communication happen.

Letter to an Instructor

In the past decades American academic institutions have experienced a steady increase in the numbers of international students. Increasing economic pressures and the commodification of education have led college administrators to intensify recruitment efforts overseas in an attempt to bring an even larger number of international students to US campuses – a development that in my opinion is unlikely to change; international students are here to stay, figuratively and sometimes literally. For us in the university and college classrooms this upsurge in numbers may pose a challenge as these highly intelligent students sometimes come ill prepared in regards to language skills and cultural knowledge. As educators of either writing or content courses, we sometimes disregard these differences in cultural upbringing and prior knowledge and are surprised when some of the international students do not fare to well. In the American academic system, the participation grade seems to be almost omnipresent and carries at least some weight in the final grade. Still, we have international students in our classes who do not speak up, or if they do, they are hard to understand, and sometimes write papers that are illegible. Unfortunately, we often do not have the time to address their needs as international, multilingual students.

I was an international student. I came for my Masters in German Literature and stayed for my PhD – that is almost a decade ago. Today I am working with international students in a second language writing classroom, not because I am an excellent writer, but because I am intimately familiar with the challenges and struggles of a second language writer. When I recently visited the graduate seminar of a professor with whom I took several seminars almost a decade ago, I remembered my fears and anxieties of taking a graduate seminar in an English department. The classes back then were amazing, challenging, and intimidating. I learned a great deal in these seminars, but still there were some things I would have liked my instructors and my fellow classmates to understand.

The following “letter” is to any instructor who has second language students in his or her classroom, it is not a plea for special treatment, but an attempt to voice the frustrations and thoughts of a second language student in an academic classroom; it is unedited for grammatical or punctuation errors (we use many more commas in my home language), this is how I, as a now-experienced second language writer, write in my first draft:


Letter to my instructor and my classmates,

I am a second language writer and there are some things you need to know. I am trying to improve my English on a daily basis, but it will never be as good as yours. Even though I dream and think in your language, it will always be yours and never completely mine. I can live with that, but can you? Will you accept my mistakes? When I struggle with articles, prepositions, and other grammar issues? When I use the wrong word or confuse sentence structures? I am not trying to make these mistakes and often I am not even aware of them. The longer I live here the better my spoken English gets, but I don’t write as much as I speak. I have many ideas, but often I lack the vocabulary! I am a good writer, when I am in command of the language, my own. When I came here things were different, harder, I not only had to learn one new language, yours, but I had to learn to understand and to write in the language of academia. But this is not all, when I arrived in this country, I had to learn to understand it; you do so many things differently from what I was used to. For the longest time I did not understand your jokes, it is easy to laugh along, but your humor is hard to understand and I often just don’t get it. I still have a hard time to be funny, at least when I want to be. I learnt the difference between “playing with myself” and “playing by myself” the hard way; when I said the first version, it made perfect sense to me. Also, you laugh about things that I have a hard time to consider funny, imagine being a German and you hear the word “Grammar Nazi” for the first time. My country has a distinct, different history from yours; I grew up with different values, ideals, and prospects – but now I am here, sitting in your classroom, with 20 students who share your culture, your values, and your ideals. Are you surprised that I am not speaking up when I disagree with your views? You are a group, I am alone, I am not afraid of you, but I am intimidated by you: I am afraid that my voice will not be heard, that my argument is obstructed by my lack of vocabulary, I am afraid that I will say something wrong.

But I am pointing out the negatives, I am proud to be here! I am proud to have come to this country, to learn, and to contribute. Even though I know that my English will never be as good as yours, I know that you will never speak my language as well as I do. I am able to converse in two languages; to transmit and translate ideas and concepts. I bring a cultural understanding to your class that you might not have thought about, bring ideas and cultural knowledge to your class which is completely foreign to you. I am willing to share, I am willing to let you be part of my experience – if you let me be part of yours. I am willing to learn and succeed, if you give me the time and tools I need. It might take a bit longer, you might not always be able to understand me, but I am trying. Talk to me in person, I know that takes up your time, but I will appreciate it! Try to understand where I am coming from when you read my paper and you disagree with my views on the world – I sometimes don’t agree with you either. Please don’t penalize me for being a second language writer, but use me as a resource for a different perspective.