Graduate Student Voices: Writing as a Nonnative Speaker

As a nonnative speaker of English, I know that writing in a second language might be challenging, particularly when it comes to academic discourse. A considerable body of research in our field provides numerous suggestions on how to help undergraduate L2 writers. Graduate students, on the other, somehow tend to receive less attention in the literature. Yet, nonnative graduate student writers face a number of challenges, and I am certainly aware of that based on my own experience.

I asked three graduate students in the field of applied linguistics—Aleksandra (from Poland), Mengying (from China), and Chen (from China)—to share their experiences as nonnative academic writers. I asked them the following questions:

  1. What is the biggest challenge in writing that you face as a graduate student and a nonnative speaker of English?
  2. What assistance/helpful advice have you received in grad school that helped you with your writing?
  3. From your perspective, what could universities/graduate programs/advisors do to alleviate writing challenges of nonnative graduate students?

The Students

Aleksandra Swatek

Aleksandra Swatek

Mengying Liu

Mengying Liu

Chen Yue

Chen Yue

What is the biggest challenge in writing that you face as a graduate student and a nonnative speaker of English?

Aleksandra: It’s no secret that graduate school requires a lot of independence from a student: you need to plan your own time for writing, decide when and what to write. This is unlike my previous experience, where most of my writing done in my MA studies was directed by my professors more closely. My Polish MA thesis, advised by Dr. Pawel Frelik, took about 3 semesters to write and the process of writing was very similar to a writing seminar, but I had more time for working out my arguments. I had a lot of independence when it comes to writing it. When I started my MA program at UMaine, all the seminar papers had to be done by the end of semester, so the process was shorter and more challenging to me.

The second biggest challenge that I’d like to mention is transitioning from work in literature to second language studies. The difficulty of this shift comes from switching from textual-based knowledge making practices to more empirical based writing. Jumping from MLA to APA definitely requires a lot of brain rewiring.

Being a nonnative writer was a huge issue to me at first, but the more I read about writing studies and the more I wrote, the more confident I became in my language skills. I see being bilingual as an asset rather than an obstacle, especially when doing cross-language research. Coming across World Englishses and Translingual Writing scholarship contributed greatly to this perspective.

Mengying: The biggest challenge that I face in writing in English as a nonnative English speaker is that I have to spend a comparatively long period of time organizing my language. Usually I know what I am going to talk about in my paper, but I sometimes don’t feel that I express my ideas 100% clearly and coherently in English. As a writer, I want to develop my thoughts and ideas in greater depth and with more nuance, but I am not sure if I am able to do this in English.

Chen: When I first started graduate school in the United States as an international student, my biggest challenge was the definition of “good writing.” My past college writing experience in English taught me that accuracy is the priority, and I paid extensive attention to the correct use of grammar rules and building complicated sentences when I drafted my term papers. At that time, I did not care, or did not know that I should think about, the content of my writing. To me, good writing was a compilation of grammatically correct sentences. However, my “good writing” did not impress my professors, and the most common comment I received was a red “explain.” I thought I had explained everything super clearly, and I was confused and disappointed when I saw the returned drafts. Later on, after rounds of revision and conferencing with professors and writing tutors, I realized that the definition of “good writing” in U.S. higher education is different from what I perceived. It was from then that I began to think about the content of my papers and to focus on meaning/ideas rather than purely on grammar rules.

What assistance/helpful advice have you received in grad school that helped you with your writing?

Aleksandra: I would say that doing work in the field of rhetoric and composition opened my eyes to the complexity of writing as a phenomenon that can be studied and learned. This is why I would claim that taking my first rhet/comp course—Teaching College Composition —with Prof. Dylan Dryer, who first introduced me to the wealth of this scholarship, was the best assistance I could receive. He also provided me with thoughtful feedback and mentoring, that was unparalleled to any other academic experience I had before. I especially appreciated being introduced to the critical approaches to writing, including the analysis of the native/nonnative divide of writing and teaching. Honestly, also teaching undergraduate courses in writing taught me a lot. I guess the saying that the best way to learn a thing is to teach it might be true.

Mengying: One of the pieces of advice that I feel is extremely helpful for me when I am writing is to not to think about the format of the paper, the citation, the grammar, etc., and just write down whatever is in my mind. I feel this is pretty helpful for me because I can focus on one thing at one time. For instance, for the first draft, I will primarily deal with the content, in the second draft I will deal with citation, etc. Breaking writing down into several manageable steps is less stressful.

Chen: During my past 5 years in graduate school, I have been helped by numerous sources in my writing experience, including books, professors, classmates, and writing tutors. I especially enjoyed the individual conferences I had with my committee chair when I was writing my master’s thesis. After my chair returned me her comments on my first draft, I was shocked. When I turned the draft in, I was quite confident because I knew what I did in the study and I knew exactly what I was trying to explain in the Result and Discussion chapters. However, obviously, my committee chair does not read my mind. There were many long and detailed comments in the margins, explaining why a specific point is not well developed and how an argument should be backed up in a more logical way. After reading her comments, I scheduled an appointment with my chair, and we sat down to discuss ways to improve my thesis and general expectations towards academic writing in U.S. higher education. During my thesis writing process, my committee chair and I met multiple times and discussed every single chapter in detail. That was the first time when I started to think seriously about what I was writing and how to make my writing clear, and I definitely consider that writing-conferencing-revising process a turning point in my writing experience.

From your perspective, what could universities/graduate programs/advisors do to alleviate writing challenges of nonnative graduate students?

Aleksandra: I think graduate programs should create more opportunities for graduate students to work on their writing. In programs outside of the English Departments students have even less experience of working on their writing (in a writing group or a graduate seminar). These opportunities should not be forced, but optional.

Mengying: It may be a good idea for both faculty and students to sit together and talk about the problems they have met in their writing, and then talk about how they solve those problems. I think all writers (not only nonnative English speakers but also native speakers) have their own problems in writing, and they may even have the same problem in writing. One reason that I think makes writing in English so intimidating for nonnative English speakers is that they sometimes think native speakers will never face any problem in writing, which is certainly not the case based on what my NS friends told me earlier. Getting together gives the NNS a chance to demystify the writing process and to alleviate writing challenges they face.

 Chen: I think the first step in helping nonnative graduate students to alleviate writing challenges is to make the instructors’ expectations clear. Most international graduate students, including myself, were in a swim-or-sink situation when they first started to write in English in graduate school. The criteria and expectations towards good writing in grad school should be made explicit to all students, especially international graduate students. In addition, a specific grad-level writing course could also help international grad students grasp a better understanding of how to put their ideas into a well-organized paper.

Students’ Bios

Aleksandra Swatek is a PhD student in the Second Language Studies program at Purdue University, Indiana. In her research, she focuses on second language writing, rhetoric, and composition and assessment of writing.

Mengying Liu is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota. She is in the program of Second Language Education. Her research interests are Chinese heritage language education, bilingual education, Chinese teaching, and learning in the United States.

 Yue Chen is a PhD candidate in Second Language Studies/ESL at Purdue University. Chen’s research focuses on the development of second language writing in China, second language pedagogies, and writing program administration.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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