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

photo of sandarshiProfile: Sandarshi

Country: Sri Lanka
First Language: Sinhalese
Education: Assistant Director, Office of International Programs and Services

"The way I think…it’s completely influenced by my culture..."

~So good writing, if I look at it technically I look at if it’s grammatically correct and I’m not sure if I can distinguish if it’s a good writing or if it’s sloppily written. But for me good writing is a little bit different: it’s the meaning behind it. And good writing, it’s culturally…it’s a loaded question. But what’s good writing here can be completely nonsense in my country. It is, to a certain extent. If I take an essay that an American, a student and show it to a professor, in my home country they would say ‘what is this? This is not academic writing. This is someone’s personal view? I don’t care what that person’s personal view is. This is not what I have taught.’

So good writing depends on where you come from. I basically think the context from which you look at it, the appreciation. There are basic things which are universally common like the grammar, the structure. But beyond that, it’s the norms and the way you think.

~What I’m struck by is that what’s considered good writing here [in U.S.] is not considered good writing back home. I would sometimes take back my papers and show it to my old professors, things I’ve gotten As on in class and they would beat on it and say “this aspect was not analyzed,” not in terms of structure or grammar, but in terms of content: “this aspect is not analyzed very well or this has not been brought out. The analysis of this is shallow or mediocre.” While here they would say “oh this is marvelous. You’ve got a wonderful bibliography, you’ve done extensive research.” In terms of what is good, people here are struck by—and I’m sure this is true for a lot of international students—people are struck by the comfort level you have with a second language. English is not my first language. The comfort and the level of writing has been considered good.

~Writing experiences would be different if you knew only one language. So I’m sure the strengths and weaknesses of writing and reading and speaking in many languages, people only think it’s a strength, but it might be a weakness. I’m sure there’s a weakness. If you only had one language to focus and master and command the depth and breadth of— perhaps, I don’t know, perhaps not—that would be completely different. But at the same time, if I didn’t have a second or third language, I wouldn’t read other things written in a different language and be able to understand, and those things enrich your reading and writing and your thinking, obviously. Every single language, you know, how much more richer our experiences would be. Just as much as it has its pitfalls, I’m sure it nourishes my writing and thinking.

~Particularly academic writing [in Sri Lankan academy] is more objective. Not so subjective; you don’t bring your personal opinion. People don’t care about your personal opinion; you just analyze the data in a more clinical fashion back home. You write in the third person, you never insert “I” into an academic piece. Ever. You’d always write in the third person. It wouldn’t be appropriate.

~I think the fact that ideas when disseminated become your ideas when you think about it, when you analyze it. I think it’s the way we’re brought up. You sit and you learn; all of the learning comes from wisdom from parents and people in the community. And when you hear it and hear it and hear it, it becomes your way of thinking too, to an extent and there’s no clear distinction between what that person said and what you thought because it becomes embedded in you in terms of processes and you’re thinking is completely molded by other things. In that aspect, I agree that there’s no formal way of saying so-and-so said it because it becomes common knowledge.

The way I think, it’s completely influenced by my culture, and since Singhalese is the primary language or the medium of communication, the patterns of thinking come from my Asian mentality, I think. I think the way you write is not necessarily the language you learn but the values and beliefs and the cultural norms that influence the patterns of thinking that then influence the writing. It’s not what you learn to write that influences your writing. It’s more the culture that influences the way you think that influences the way you write.

~I think by saying Middle Eastern people write in circles or Russian people… or English write straight through, those are, I think, American stereotypes or Western stereotypes. It’s more the way you think, more the things you believe, values and judgment.

. ~On whether she learned to write by copying the writing of others:
I can’t remember ever doing that in terms of copying people who have written about the subject. For research writing, you have to do lit reviews, so you have to learn the field-what is out there. So that for literature reviews, you kind of have to cite what people have written about that subject. That’s the only time I can think of – not copying but analyzing what other people have written about the subject. Other than that, I don’t think I have ever done that. I am either attracted or enticed to write because I see writing of other people or I like the way people write or I read more of a particular writer because the style of writing is very enticing or interesting. But I don’t necessarily say I’m going to write more like this person. I’m just intrigued by the way people write, but I wouldn’t necessarily say I copy the writing style.

I have a child growing up here and I tend to compare what I did as a child and what I wrote as a child as to what he’s writing and they’re completely different. My very, very young days were reading Charles Dickens. My child never gets to read Charles Dickens in school. Wordsworth and sonnets and things were taught to us when we were in first grade. So we were very different because we were a British colony.  It changed somewhat when I came here. The more free-for-all, free-form, fluid, personal views that are not so structured writing, are something that I face here. I had a much more rigorous structured writing experience growing up than my child has here. I find it too free-for-all. It’s not structured in a sense; you’re not taught the building blocks of writing and grammar – they are taught in a very different way.

The general outline of a paper, the need to have an introduction, to have the middle and to have a conclusion and to make sure you cite your sources, was there in the back of your mind all the time, but I did not come from a practice of writing down every single point or bulleting things and saying I’m going to write this much on this paragraph. Everything was a bit more fluid. It kind of came out the way it came out after I had wrote. And also I would never start “this is my introduction.”  I don’t start saying here’s what my story’s going to be. Even with my personal writing, I don’t start saying this is the way my story is going to be…. I kind of keep the door open and let anything that passes through come in and is discovered. For me, writing is more about discovery than sitting with an idea and saying here’s what it’s going to be and here’s how I’m going to write it.