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

photo of TonkaProfile: Tonka

Country: Bulgaria
First Language: Bulgarian
Years in US: 4
Age Learned English: 10; school
Education: Undergrad in Government and International Relations

"Good writing is, first of all..."

In my native language…again it was mostly analytical. It’s interesting because it always comes back to me reading, to mimicking someone else’s writing. Because, if I had to analyze, say a book, I would take someone else who analyzed it or analyzed parts of it and then take someone else and see how they structured it, and in a way try to create, see what the general idea of what all that is and try to create my own way of analyzing it. I would put it in my own thoughts , but put it in a frame that’s suitable. So, reading was a big part of learning the frame of the discipline and fitting in your thoughts.

Mimicking others? I do a great deal of mimicking someone’s writing, especially in my major. I mimic academic writing by reading and it’s easy for me; like right now, I’m working on my senior thesis, so I go and read studies a lot before I start typing. So when I start typing and summarizing using their quotes it’s easy for me to follow through in my analysis in the same language as they use because they use it so well. So for me it’s very easy to pick up and mimic someone’s writing

If you want to be proficient in academic writing in any field, you have to learn. You have to see how people write in your field, by reading a lot. I’m grateful to my professors for making me read a lot just because it’s easy to adjust your writing when you mimic someone’s writing in a way. Mimic the style, mimic the structure. So I read a lot before I started being proficient.

~In response to what it would be like if she wrote the “American way” in Bulgarian
In a professional environment you would look very…I don’t want to say low-level, but too straight forward. Academic writing I’ve read in high school was in geography, psychology, philosophy, and history, mostly. And I still remember a history textbook that I had to read over and over again to realize what a sentence was talking about. It was written from academics to academics and not to students. So it was very hard. I’ll definitely need editing to make it to the academic level which is very reader responsible as opposed to writer responsible as it is here.

Technology makes it easy to access information. There’s a lot of information out there. Including, it made it easier for plagiarism which is the bad side of it. But it also helped catch plagiarism. You can plagiarize but there’s also the plagiarism programs are evolving as well. And in fact this emphasizes the importance of technology on writing. When I went to the International Writing Association conference in Minnesota, there was a whole panel talking about plagiarism and the new software. I guess writing has to keep up with the technology. There’s always a good side and there’s always a bad side as well.

~On what characterizes “good writing” in the US academy:
Good writing, first of all, is grammar responsible writing. Well-structured writing as well. Good flow of the thought or argument. And then, having your own voice about it. When you ultimately succeed in writing when you have your own accent, I call it. When you speak to me and hear my accent, it reflects where I come from. Well, I want my writing to be reflected in that way too. That to me is good writing. Having your accent as well as being grammar conscious and being conscious of the rules of writing.

~On instructors’ definitions of “good writing” in the US and Bulgarian academies:
Well, first of all, yeah, it was being conscious about grammar and being able to write properly. And of course I grew up in an era where there was no way to check your spelling so that was emphasized a lot. And being, the more sophisticated you sound, the better. It is about the use of the language. How you’re going to use the phrases and how you’re going to structure your sentences to make it more colorful, more abstract, more like a piece of art rather than writing as opposed to writing, just expressing an argument.

One of the things that I was taught to be a good example of writing was long sentences. While here short clear sentences, that was a thing I learned here. So short clarity is a thing…clarity, straight-forwardness and being able to ultimately be understood by your audience. Because you’re writing for a specific audience. The audience wasn’t stressed much in Bulgaria but it’s stressed a lot here. Apart from the ordinary rules and regulations in writing.

~On “ good writing”  in the Government discipline:
Mostly, it is content. I would have to say that. Content comes first before structure so before I start writing, it is all about your evidence, all about your content and mostly, that is what teachers look at. What’s your argument, have you supported your argument. Then comes structure. However, I have come to realize that if you don’t get a good structure, if you don’t structure your evidence right, you won’t get your argument write. Just because by structuring your evidence, you kinda see where you have gaps in your evidence so you can fill them and give better evidence to support your argument. I’m a very visual person so when I have it on paper and I see where it doesn’t fit or where there is no transition between the evidence and my argument, it’s easier to fit it, to fit the evidence in. Of course sloppy writing is always penalized but you have to have a good structure for the sake of your argument. It’s how you show what you know, in how you connect, how you analyze, how you think. Writing is the only way in my major.

~I always revise. And I’ve started doing that since starting English, since coming to Mason. In my previous college [in West Virginia], it was mostly essays. We were required to write; every draft was part of your grade, so you felt like you were writing a whole new assignment. So you didn’t feel like it was revision or editing, but class requirement. As opposed to here where you have one huge paper at the end that’s valued 30% of your grade, and you really want to do a good job on that paper so you revise it constantly for clarity, for use of evidence and whatnot.

~Revision and drafting is a huge part right of process now. And you feel the importance of it because it’s not a requirement, but you are self-conscious about it and you look at your paper in a different way. And the effort that you put in proofreading and editing makes you value your paper and writing a lot more.

~At the beginning, my [native] language influenced my writing in terms of wording. I remember my first essays; I started writing them the ways that I was taught in high school to write, in a more abstract way, in the way of like going around the topic, but sometimes you would never actually get to your point. Just going around it and making your reader connect the dots and get to your point. That was emphasized a lot. This abstract writing. I guess, reader responsible writing. Making the reader think about it, this was valued. When I had my first conference with my English professor here, he said “remember, you are not writing for Germans, you are writing for Americans”.  So he pointed out the audience and how, I guess, English audience relied on writer responsible pieces instead of reader responsible pieces.  But then I started reading in English and I saw how professors started expecting me to write. So reading in English was a lot, a lot of help in getting the point: “get to your point. State your point and support it instead of leading me to your point.” So it was a lot of impact. I was struggling with that, but with the reading, it all came into place now.

I’m so afraid that if one day, I have to use my native language in an official and professional environment, I won’t be able to. I had to make a call and schedule an appointment with the Bulgarian embassy for my passport because it expires, and I had a hard time communicating just because I’m not used to the professional, formal way of expressing myself. So every time I put on my resume that I’m proficient in Bulgarian, I have to be very cautious about it. In a way that, cautious about what position I’m applying for because I don’t know how well I’ll be able to express myself in Bulgarian because English took up so much of my writing abilities.

~On differences between writing in Bulgarian and in English:
Well I guess it comes back to what’s important to your writing in your language. Bulgarian instructors would be strict about how you present your ideas and they would find ways to make your simple writing use abstract words to make it more abstract and more creative and over here they would cut your words and make it more concise. That was the biggest difference that I found.

In Bulgaria, the more you write, the smarter you are. But here, it’s not necessarily a good thing because the more you write, since you don’t have the freedom of going around your topic, you tend to distract your reader from your topic when you write a lot. Too much words can distract your reader from your whole point. So it was a good thing in Bulgaria where you can go around and talk about different things around your topic and sometimes never getting around to making your point, just making it reader’s responsibility to get to your point, as opposed to here where wordiness can work against your argument. And sometimes I struggle with limitation when it comes to essays. And it comes to me right now where I’m apply for scholarships and fellowships and graduate school and you have 500 words to describe an experience, and I struggle all the time to limit it and where to cut words from to express myself. That’s one of my weaknesses; to pick my thoughts, to be concise in a way.

Other than instruction about how to write and how to structure your paper, the whole process of writing is given much more importance here than in Bulgaria where teaching writing ends with sentence structure and punctuation and not a lot of emphasis on structure.

Of course there is introduction and thesis and body part and conclusion, but it’s not explained, it’s not as elaborated on as it is over here in the United States. Here writing is really, I guess it’s harder to write concisely.  That’s why we pay so much attention to writing; instructors here pay so much attention to writing and there are books written and whole manuals on how to write, whereas in Bulgaria, there’s a lot of freedom on how to approach a topic.

Don’t wait until the last moment to write your paper and submit it, because most of the time it’s going to be a raw version of your thoughts, inconsistent in a way; you won’t be able to see the gaps that you have. Maybe your first draft will be brainstorming your ideas and putting all the information that you have. And then the second draft will be organizing them so you can fill in the gaps. It’s all about making your argument valid.

To me, grammar, especially in your native language, is something you just learn it the first day you start speaking. Like you’ll write a sentence, you might make spelling mistakes when you’re little; but grammatically it will sound right. While in English, it was more of consciously learning it. It was something I had to think about. When I wrote, I had to think about it and make sure there is, say that the verb had an “s” on the end and the tenses matched, in the sentence. While in Bulgarian, I never really had to think about it until they brought back the grammar as “today we are going to study grammar” or “this year we are going to study grammar” and they start showing which is the subject and which is the verb and we had to underline, we had different way to underline it.  So then they brought up the concepts of what the verb was, what the tense, what different terminology, which I had to struggle a lot. I knew that when I wrote a sentence it won’t be incorrect; I knew it would make sense but I had to learn what everything was. But learning in English, you could not do it without knowing the terminology and without knowing what it is and why it needs to be there. It also makes me ask a lot of questions like “why is it this way?” because to me, I learn better if I understand it. In Bulgarian, I don’t have to ask why something is because that’s the way it is. While in English there’s a reason behind it; you put an “s” after because it’s third person.

Instructors’ feedback is the greatest indicator of how you write. To me, that has helped me a lot and to gain confidence. I would never have become a peer tutor if it was not for the feedback. I always take it into account, always.

My English 101 teacher said “think of your audience when you write.” That’s one of the best comments that navigated me towards good writing.