Saturday, July 11, 2009

Overcoming Fossilized Language: Difficult But Possible

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

I recently received a request from a paralegal instructor looking for a way to help a non-native student whose writing skills are inadequate to her academic goals and chosen profession. He describes her as a reasonably conversant, bright student in her twenties. She had satisfactorily completed most of the paralegal program’s sequence of classes as well as two ESL courses. He writes:

Throughout the semester, she “stumbled” with the language on her written assignments. And when it came to the drafting of the memorandum, she mauled the grammar and the syntax; she had numerous comma splices and sentence fragments; she incorrectly used punctuation. She understood the assignment and she knew what was expected, but what I read was inarticulate.

Always allowing her to write, rewrite, and rewrite again after returning an assignment, I had hoped that, after my numerous marginal comments, she’d conquer some of her problems. This was not to be. Alas, the same problems abundantly peppered her memorandum. I gave up. I told her to find a friend who was willing to spend the time to go over the mechanics of her writing. She did. I gave her a passing grade.

All of this brings me–at long last–to my point. What can I do to help this student?

What the instructor describes is typical of a second language learner who missed getting a solid foundation in grammar and mechanics during her acquisition process. Our colleges and universities are, unfortunately, full of such students today. I had many such students in my own writing courses.

Bringing her language skills to an acceptable academic level is not going to be easy for this student — but she can do it as many before her have done. It’s hard but possible.

Motivation is key

The most important ingredient is the student’s motivation. I’ve had students whose previous teachers had just passed them on and who felt their English was fine for university level — until they hit my class and I apprised them otherwise. So the first step is raising the student’s awareness of his or her poor language skills.

Next comes an understanding of the consequences of having poor language skills. In my case, I told students they could not possibly pass my course with their current language skills, and without passing my course, they could not graduate from the university. That either got their attention or undying enmity. But I could not in good conscience pass students on to my university colleagues with inadequate college-level writing skills.

Students who realized the importance of having good language skills for their academic and career aspirations were then ready to listen to me and do whatever was necessary.

No shortcuts, just lots of hard work

Since I was an ESL teacher as well as a writing teacher, I offered these students the opportunity to sit in on my ESL grammar classes and do one-on-one tutoring with me twice a week. In addition, I recommended a private tutor — often one of our part-time teachers.

The student wrote a paper for me twice a week, and then we talked about it. For each error in grammar or mechanics, we referred to a grammar book (mine, actually). I explained each problem in great thoroughness and sent the student off with homework. It’s a slow process.

For a student without a basic understanding of how English is put together, a teacher just writing notes in the margins of a student’s paper isn’t enough.

The ideal tutor for this student would probably be a law student who has taught ESL or is thoroughly versed in English grammar. But, unfortunately, even among native speakers these days, precious few know
much about English grammar (due to an ideological misdirection taken in our field beginning in the 1960s).

Judging from my experience, I’d say it would take a year for this student’s English to advance sufficiently. But she’d have to be very motivated and find a good tutor. There are no shortcuts that I know of. And students lacking motivation and self-monitoring skills never seem to make it out of the rut of their fossilized language.

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