technical writing and the “language barrier”

One thing that strikes me about US graduate programs in electrical engineering is that the student population is overwhelmingly international. For most of these students, English is a second or third language, and so we need to adopt more “ESL”-friendly pedagogical approaches to teaching writing. I came across a blog post from ATTW by Meg Morgan from UNC Charlotte that raises a number of interesting issues. For one, the term “ESL” is perhaps problematic. The linguistic and social differences in pedagogy between other countries and the US mean that we need to use different methods for engaging the students.

In terms of teaching technical writing at the graduate level, the issues may be similar but the students are generally older — they may have even had some writing experience from undergraduate or masters-level research. How should the “ESL” issue affect how we teach technical writing?

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One thought on “technical writing and the “language barrier”

  1. Interesting question. By the way, the designation I’ve heard is ELL (English Language Learner).

    When I was working with international TAs for a math course, I made sure to speak more slowly and enunciate way more than I usually do, as well as make deliberate hand/body gestures to accompany unusual words. But that’s general to any teaching of ELLs. As far as technical writing goes, it seems like part of an instructor’s job is to figure out whether the student understands the typical (American-culture-centric) rhetorical structure of a argument, and then figure out how to communicate that clearly. At the extreme end, I’m thinking of my dad (who immigrated to North America from Asia in his adulthood), who still doesn’t seem to understand that a paper needs to communicate a specific point; and that even if the pieces are there but they are not sequenced to make sense to the reader, then that means revisions are in order. Less extreme, I find the writing of French and Spanish scholars in my field to follow a different argument structure than American and British scholars, which makes it more difficult for me to figure out what the author is trying to say. Is this true in your field?

    I was reading a paper tonight that concurs with the linked blog post’s observation that ELLs may misinterpret feedback such as “Would you explain this?”. The authors of the paper I was reading were discussing translation issues between cultures for tests. One of the issues they hinted at was that the phrase “Explain your reasoning” was interpreted differently between cultures. (Unfortunately the paper did not detail how the interpretations were different.)

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