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

photo of KarimatuProfile: Karimatu

Country: Nigeria
First Language: Hausa
Education: Undergrad Health System Management

When I was in college in Nigeria, I would have like two or three pages for my exam, I would have to sit down and memorize it: definition, definition.  What is the difference between this and this, the differences according to so and so person and the definition of this is this.  The teacher expect you to write the definition.  But here, if you write a definition by a Webster dictionary, the teacher is going to say you are copying work, it is not your work.

For me right now, I prefer the American system because I don’t have to cram anything.  If I was a good writer then I know my GPA would be 4 because I understand and I know how to apply them but I cannot write.  But now I have four daughters, I don’t have the brain to memorize the definitions, I cannot memorize any more.  But back home my husband say we have to define every medical word; we have to know what is this definition, but here he say when he ask the doctor what is this, they say give me a second, they go open the textbook, you know, read what it says and come back and explain. 

When you are writing an essay back home, you don’t go like following some certain rules or regulations whereby you have to have introduction, thesis, conclusion, body. In Hausa you don’t have to do all that.  What is more important is the ideas that you are putting on the paper, that is what is more important.

The academic world is English.  We speak in English, we write in English.  It is a very well educated country and Nigeria I guess is the largest African country and the population and the economy is the largest; we have the highest number of graduates in the country, but the formal system is British system.

~On attitudes toward plagiarism in Nigeria:
Really, it is not like English.  Whereby there is less emphasis on taking somebody’s word, it is not like here, if you write a textbook and if somebody copy your paragraph, you can sue somebody for taking.  But back there when you say something and you move to the next word it is not a big problem. Emphasis on citing where it comes from, it is taught, but not enforced.  You know somebody’s word is somebody’s word and you can’t use and claim as yourself.  But say you are writing some history about Nigeria; you can go and say the first president on his first speech say “so, so, so.”  No, you are going to write it like you are the one who say it.

~On definitions of good writing:
Well it depends on the reader.  If the reader has an English background, he might say this is not organized.  But if it is a Hausa reader, then this is what is expected.

I am taking Business, I am taking History, Geography, Sociology; my courses, all my courses, even back home, the content, everything you teach me I understand; everything you teach me, philosophy, psychology, everything I understand it, because back home education is very important, we study a lot of hours, not like here two hours you finish the course, back home from morning till 4:00 teaching, one class, teaching, teaching, teaching.  We have a textbook, like when my husband came here, he says the doctors here they don’t know anything and I say why do you think and he say because those medical terminology you have to cram them in your head you know.  For example, I say if I know how to write, American system of education is very easy, and the reason is let’s say for example they ask you about politics; in the British system you have to cram and memorize the definition of politics and you have to say politics is “so, so, so” and it started on this, in “so and so” country, define it and use your source.  You have to memorize it.  In the American system, the teacher asks you what is politics; you don’t have to say politics is defined by “so, so” person; no, you say, “oh politics is some kind of government, elected government, America we have president, the senate, the past,” and as soon as he understand you have the concept you are fine to go.  But back home you have to understand and memorize what is this.

~On how she advises others from Nigeria coming into the U.S. academy:
I tell them they should find a teacher, somebody who major in English.  I know it is hard to get, but somebody who major in English, somebody who teach in college or university, to come teach them English, teach them how to write, and that is when they go to take the TOEFL they will do well.  Always what I learn from studying in America, to be a good writer, it is not only to write; to be a good writer, reading also helps because you see how others do it.  So I tell my sister, now I buy books, I said everybody has to read this book and when you finish you give to your sister, you pass it over; get used to the habit of reading and if you can read it, take a piece of paper, I don’t know how to do it, but I don’t want what happened to me to happen to my sister.  I say, when you read, write.  Let’s say you read two pages, and you ask yourself what you read; sometimes you read and your mind is somewhere else you don’t understand.

In Nigeria, we have an English teacher.  Even though everything is in English, but we do have an English teacher who says “this has to be this way and this has to be this way.”  But there is less emphasis to teach us how to do that, because of the Hausa part we don’t need to do that.

Our politicians on TV, they don’t go around the point.  They go straight to, they don’t go like, “Nigeria is a rich, we are trying to…”  No, they just go straight to the point, “the problem in Nigeria is corruption, people are taking the money, the poor are suffering.

~On participating in class discussions:
It is causing me trouble because my teacher is seeing those ideas are coming but this writing is bad, so now I am going to stop talking because it makes the teacher know you.  Really, it makes the teacher know you; the more you talk in class, the more they notice you, the more they memorize your name, and they have better expectations.  That is so funny, my teacher say, “you have all those ideas, and this is your paper?”  But it is embarrassing.  I feel really embarrassed that maybe if I didn’t say anything, maybe she would not have expectation on my papers.  I have a teacher before who say if you don’t solve your writing problem, wherever you go you will have big problem.  On the last day, she said you can ignore it now, but if you continue to study, your writing will give you a big problem in the future and I remember thinking she’s mean to me, but now I know she is really serious.  Now I think I should go back to elementary school.