By Moushumi Biswas
Doctoral Candidate, University of Texas at El Paso
Key words: FYC, multilingualism, India, writing pedagogy, language practices
The question I have been asking of late is: How can we re-conceptualize writing pedagogy – and first year composition (FYC) in particular – to include the language practices of multilingual students from India?
Even as we speak for the cause of the many Englishes, I realize that those of us who are from other countries have tried to conform to the so-called standards of American English as we strove to succeed in the academy. Thus, despite the inclusive model of instruction that we have now in the face of a rising number of students (and teachers) of color, I feel the need to admit that for the simple purpose of effective communication, and good grades, non-U.S.-born students try to learn the lingua franca called American English. An example of that is the way I have spelled “color” in this article. I also remember the times I got funny looks in class for pronouncing “niche” as “neesh” and “pastiche” as “pasteesh,” which are the French ways of pronouncing them as I had “learnt” (not “learned”) in India. Then, as Victor Villanueva (1993) said in Bootstraps, have I become “raceless” through “concensus” when subjected to “acculturative and assimilationist forces” (113)? In a nation committed to diversity, especially on the threshold of the day when colored people will outnumber whites, how problematic is this practical need for a lingua franca? Does diversity, then, call for the inclusion of everybody’s languages, or in fact amplify the need for a lingua franca for the simple purpose of coherence and understanding each other?
It is interesting that even as early as the last century, right after the world wars, an apparent need to standardize college-level academic writing was felt in the American academy, and First Year Composition (FYC) was devised to meet this need. However, for students from India and other Commonwealth countries for whom English (the British form) is the first language, FYC is an unfamiliar thing. There is no formal writing instruction at the undergraduate level in their native countries and they are expected to learn to read, speak, and write the language during 12 years of elementary, middle and high school BEFORE entering college. Moreover, most students in India as well as the rest of the subcontinent learn two to three languages simultaneously (in my case, it was English, Bengali, and Hindi). Grammar instruction is mandatory just as literature and poetry classes are, for all the languages that students learn. It needs to be mentioned here that while grammar is often reduced to merely the mechanics of a language, I was fortunate to have an English teacher in fourth grade who actually explained the rhetorical aspect of grammar, including the purpose behind the rules and the exceptions! Not only did she teach us about the English language, but also the language itself and how it works. I believe in the universal relevance of this teaching strategy, particularly in the FYC classroom with a diverse student profile. When the rhetorical objectives behind the rules of grammar are grasped, grammar ceases to be a lifeless, mechanical thing; students understand the logos behind the structure of a language and it becomes easier for her to learn it and eventually, play with it. In fact, grammar becomes an aid to learning the nuances of a language. Insight into a language from such a mode of learning is the strength that students from India can bring to the FYC classroom, and share with other learners.
To my mind, learning the many nuances of a language, especially when it is a language with so many variations prevailing in the different parts of the world, is particularly useful. Growing up in a postcolonial country, I often heard about the social and educational capital that the English language carries since it would “enable me to communicate” in practically any continent. So I was taught English (British) alongside Bengali, which, by default, became my second language. But I did not lose my mother tongue because of this; rather, I gained a first language. In fact, straddling two cultures and continents was fun since it added variety to life, adding unique dimensions to my knowledge-making process. It helped widen my mind to the world beyond the immediate environment, not to miss the fact that it was not one-way traffic; the Indian languages added to English too. As it happens, India and other parts of the Orient contributed over 700 words to the Oxford English Dictionary, which are now part of regular usage. “Shampoo,” for example, is a Persian word while “guru,” “pundit,” “curry” and “bandana” are Indian. I think this global nature of the English language needs to be kept in mind when teaching writing in the U.S.
To return to the topic of students from the Indian subcontinent, or with roots there, I would include both students who come to the U.S. to get degrees and go back, and the 1.5-generation students who emerge from the American grade school system. The reason for including the 1.5-generation is that they are still very closely associated with the culture of their ancestors through their parents, an influence that is quite strong and sets them apart from other American students despite the fact that they were raised here. Under the circumstances, I believe FYC needs to examine the implications of teaching “standard U.S. English” to these multilingual students from the liminal space between native speakers and non-native speakers and also explore the pedagogical imperative of a monolingual system of learning and its impact on the composition process of multilingual students. If the key to composition lies in students’ local literacies, then FYC, as a matter of praxis, needs to ask if it should accommodate the literacies of multilingual students to facilitate the composing process. As a student from India, I can say that learning American English was an extension of my earlier experience of learning languages other my mother tongue, which later facilitated the process of teaching FYC in the U.S.-Mexico borderland classroom as I understood how bilingual students thought in more than one language, and sometimes translated from one language to another as they put their thoughts down into writing.
Even though English was my first language and I already had a master’s degree in English language and literature from India when I applied to graduate school in the U.S. (in 2008), I was advised to apply for a second master’s before looking at a doctoral program. I was told this would help me “test the waters in a different educational system and familiarize myself with the milieu of the American academy.” Six and a half years later, as I am working on finishing my doctoral dissertation, I have the chance to ponder over the grad school advisor’s words and look back at every new thing I encountered in the classroom here, particularly those related to language practices and expression of thoughts, the different Englishes spoken by students as well as teachers from different parts of the world, and the way my style of communication underwent changes – consciously as well as unconsciously – as I adapted to the academy in a different continent.
Scholars such as Alastair Pennycook and Suresh Canagarajah have theorized about the benefits of “code-meshing” and “translingualism” in teaching the English language, allowing non-native English writers to take a transcultural approach to text production. They say that such an approach makes space for multilingual students to have their local literacies inform their writing. Pennycook (2007) says in his book Global Englishes and Transcultural Flows that we can’t be proprietory about language because it is neither linear nor static. It is lived and enacted within culture, calling our identity into being as it helps us perform identity. Pennycook believes that a “lack of engagement with the global circles of flow (of language) limits its linguistic, musical and cultural possibilities” (117). While Pennycook is speaking in the context of hip hop, I think in a situation as diverse as the American classroom, there is a great opportunity to see the lived nature of language and its remixed flow, creating change through iteration even as we hear and read it.
In the essay “Toward a Writing Pedagogy of Shuttling between Languages: Learning from Multilingual Writers,” Canagarajah (2006) argues that “dominant approaches to studying multilingual writing have been hampered by monolingualist assumptions that conceive literacy as a unidirectional acquisition of competence, preventing us from fully understanding the resources multilinguals bring to their texts” (589). He asks, “How do teachers and researchers of English writing orient to linguistic and cultural difference in the essays they read?” (589). Referring to what he calls the “inference” model, he says that “if they see a peculiar tone, style, organization, or discourse, many teachers instinctively turn to the first language (LI) or “native” culture (CI) of the writer for an explanation” (589). I think Canagarajah brings into focus a very practical issue here. If the teacher is not familiar with the student’s tone, style, organization, or in other words, manner of expression, then obviously there would be questions about the viability of allowing “code-meshing” and “translingualism” in the FYC classroom. It would probably slow down the class as both teachers and students try to learn, absorb, and assimilate; and given the time limitation of a 16-week semester, the class might not be able to complete its coursework.
On the other hand, one would argue, this joint-learning exercise of the teacher and students might bring forth such rich learning moments in culturally relevant and responsive learning/teaching that it would still be worth it. Considering both the pros and cons then, should FYC adopt this approach and incorporate the notions of “code-meshing” and “translingualism?” I would say that adopting such an approach when teaching composition would ultimately help students gain their right to their own languages, while using language differences as resources for knowledge making and knowledge gaining. Then, how do we adopt this approach?
A TED Talk video dated June 2014 (posted earlier on the Transnational Writing blog), shows in a very “articulate” manner how “being articulate” can be the key to achieving “translingualism” and being understood across continents and cultures, regardless of a speaker’s “enunciation and diction.” “Tri-tongued orator” Jamila Lyiscott, who is a doctoral candidate and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, explains in her spoken-word essay, “Broken English” (link provided below) how she celebrates as well as challenges the three forms of English she speaks: with her friends, in the academy, and with her parents.
Lyiscott’s aim is to help strengthen the connection between the academic world and communities of color outside, and the example she sets in mixing and meshing the codes of three Englishes in the essay could well show the way to express oneself “articulately” to be understood by any kind of audience. When her father asks her, “Wha’ kinda ting is dis?” she answers in the academic tone, “father, this is the impending problem at hand.” On the other hand, sometimes in class she pauses “the intellectual sounding flow” to inquire, “Yo! Why dese books neva be about my peoples.” While declaring that she treats all three of her languages “as equals” because she is “articulate,” Lyiscott asks, “But who controls articulation?” This question is especially relevant in light of the fact that “the English language is a multifaceted oration/ Subject to indefinite transformation.” In her characteristic humorous tone, the tri-tongued orator points out that “even ‘articulate’ Americans sound foolish to the British.”
I think the “being articulate” approach employs Canagarajah’s code-meshing and code-mixing approaches very well without running the risk of code-mangling as might be feared when speakers of different Englishes – and other languages – try to incorporate their various forms of communication in individual expressions. Such democratization of expression through “articulation,” which harkens back to Nietzsche’s notion of language as something “unconsciously rhetorical,” recognizes the subjective aspect of truth/knowledge and embraces perceptions that emerge from different socio-cultural and political constructs while still being accessible to everybody. Furthermore, I think one significant aspect of such an approach is that it would work for students from India, whose language practices were my concern as I started writing this post, just as much as it would for students from anywhere else. In that sense, the “articulation” approach might well lead to a path of effective communication for all, while including their individual language practices. Equally important, too, is the fact that the “being articulate” approach will enable students to succeed in civic life after they leave the academy, no matter which part of the world they choose to go to.
- Jamila Lyiscott’s essay “Broken English” can be accessed at: