George Mason University vertical bar Valuing Written Accents: Non-Native Writers in the U.S. Academy

photo of IgnacioProfile: Ignacio

Country: Spain
First Language: Spanish
Education: Exchange student (Law/Govt/PoliSci)

~On giving credit to sources when writing in Spain and France:
Plagiarism:  We don’t have a specific word for it like here, but it is more expressed that one should never copy papers from other sources, and never ask someone else to write it.  But it is not as emphasized or stressed as here and the consequences if you plagiarize are not as harsh as here.  There you may fail the course if you plagiarize, but here you may get expelled from school and have it on your record.

France was really different from Spain, for instance, because they really focused on the writing.  For instance, in language school, it was not like in Spain because there we learned pretty much the history of the Spanish language, also grammar and syntaxes.  But in France it was all about writing and writing arguments.  And that was kind of a shock for me because in Spain they didn’t really teach us how to write, they just give us basics of grammar and theory of language, but we did not have to write papers for class, for instance.  I mean maybe one or two a year, but it is not common at all. 

In France, they really focused on the writing, like the US.  They didn’t care about the grammar because you were supposed to know it already.  They usually gave you assignment, an article or part of a book and then you have to write an argument about it, using a lot of the structure.

The problem in Spain is that people don’t really focus on the writing, not as much as they should.  So with some professors you find that they just give you information, information, information.  They don’t follow any order; they just put it all together.  That is a problem with our education system I think.

One doesn’t remember theory for a long time, whereas one always keeps skills such as writing and public speaking.  So that is why I think it should be focused.  Most of my classmates graduate and they have passed the law and theory, but they don’t know how to express it, they don’t know how to write an opinion.

In France I had quite a lot of reading and I had to write about the reading.  In Spain we also have to read some books and we have some quizzes about what we read, but we didn’t have to actually write papers about what we have read.  And in the US, yeah we also have a lot of reading, way more than in France and in Spain.  Like every single day, at least in the school I attended, we had to read about 40-50 pages. 

I think I am way more concise than I used to be.  I usually state my ideas way clearer.  Well then usually I have a lot of doubts or self-doubts about what I write, but here I kind of learned how to get rid of my self-doubts just for the sake of the argument and convincing.  Even though before, I used to express my doubts in the thesis, which kind of weakened it.  So that is more or less what I learned I think, to be more concise and to state a very clear argument, even if I myself am not very much convinced about it.

At first I considered a paper as a chance to kind of show my knowledge of the language and how I mastered it.  Now I see it as a way of making sure someone understands what you are saying.

~On the  structure expected in a paper in the U.S. academy:
Tell me what you are going to tell me; tell me; then tell me what you told me.

Usually my process is first I do brainstorming.  I do the readings, a lot of readings, so I write a lot of quotes from the readings.  Then from these quotes I write the ideas I have got.  Then I make a scheme, and in the scheme I put all the arguments I want to use.  Then I start writing the paper presenting the arguments in the introduction, then developing them in the development with examples I find, then the conclusion repeating everything again.

Here it is more straightforward.  I think that in France you sort of have to prove how you master the language and how you have to use.  It was good to use a lot of metaphors.  Whereas here it is more straight-to-the-point; you have a thesis and you have to put it as clear as you can.

In the Latin languages the sentences are usually longer, whereas here there are several short sentences joined together.  That is a mistake I made at first when I came here for the first time.  I used to write very long sentences, which they could hardly understand.

~On what advice he would give other students planning to enter the U.S. academy:
I would tell them to be really concise, to keep in simple.  Not to use fancy words or expressions in English even though to him it may sound better; they are really needless.  I would tell him to just explain the best he can the topic he is focusing on.  I would also encourage him to go to the Writing Center and to talk to the teacher all the time to get his papers corrected as many times he could, because that is the only way to learn.

~On losing the beauty of language in academic writing:
It is sort of sad; a lot is lost, but I think it is better.  It depends on the purpose of your paper, but if you are writing in law it should always be as concise as possible, and you should always avoid fancy expressions.  If you are doing creative writing it is completely different but when it comes to law or politics or legal analysis, those fancy Latin expressions which are used in Spain for instance don’t work; people are really fond of using these expressions in the paper even though most of the people don’t know what they mean.

At first, I had a lot of troubles with introductions.  Because I thought that the introduction was just presentation of the topic with nothing else.  But then I found out that besides presenting the topic, you have to state already which are going to be your arguments throughout the paper.  Yeah, I found it pretty restricting at first; I felt like I was repeating myself all the time, by stating the thesis in the introduction, development and conclusion.  But now I am more at ease with it.

I still translate sometimes.  I still think in Spanish sometimes when I write.  For instance, I use a lot of articles; we put articles everywhere in Spain, so here I am “the, the, the, the house, the wall, the people.”  That is kind of difficult to get used to.  Also, the way the sentences are constructed, like really concise, really short, that is kind of challenging too.  And a lot of English expressions are pretty challenging too.

Our cultures are not that different, I think.  Usually it is true that there are some words in English, which are really specific and whereas in Spanish they are broader, so sometimes it is kind of different for me.  First I have to learn the difference in English.  For instance I just wrote a paper on preemptive and preventive war.  Well in Spain we use the same word for both things, but here it is like two totally, completely different things.  So I have to grapple with these things very often.

People tend to distinguish the words from each other here.  They give them really precise meaning and they are always looking for a word to have, so that always giving the words a different meaning from the others which makes them special and specific. 

In Spain, maybe we have a class a year or two in which they tell us we should start with an introduction, development, and conclusion, but that is about it.  Whereas here it is not only that, you have to say in the introduction what you are going to say, then you have to sort of link the introduction with the development with a final sentence, and you have to start development with a sentence, and you have to develop your thesis with an example, then finish introducing the other statement or argument, then wrapping up everything with the conclusion.  Here, it’s very focused, more developed.

Here a good thing is that most professors state really clearly in their syllabus how the papers should be written, how it is going to be evaluated.  That was really helpful from the beginning because you already have an outlook of how it was supposed to be.  And also throughout the courses, for instance, sometimes you have the possibility of submitting your final draft to the teacher so he corrected it to you and he tell you what you should improve, what he expects from that paper and from your ideas.  That’s very helpful too.