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

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Grammar and Vocabulary Anxiety

As our informants became more aware of writing for a reader and, in turn, the expectations of readers in the American academy, they also tended to feel insecure about their ability to live up to those readers’ expectations, particularly when their teachers focused on the errors they were making rather than on content and the things they were doing well. Many informants expressed concern over grammatical mistakes, inadequate vocabulary, and spelling to express otherwise sophisticated ideas.  Many also indicated that having error-free, grammatically correct sentences was an important part of “good writing.”    

Sri:
~It all comes down to vocabulary; it’s not your thought because I feel that  now, every person who goes to school who does even a bit of schooling is blessed with some thought or another in his or her chosen field, but it’s the expression….   I mean if you talk to an Indonesian, a Malayan, everybody grows up in a language, so um, and everybody has an enriching experience as they grow up, so it’s not the thoughts, I always felt that it’s never lack of original thoughts, it’s the expression and that comes when you have a solid, solid vocabulary basing.  You have to have to know which word to use to express your thought. 

Tonka:
~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 a…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 [?] had an S on the end and the tenses matched, in the sentence. While in Bulgarian it was more, 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.

 

Monique:
~Good academic writing here [U.S.] is structuring the sentences, having the right words …the good English words.  For me when I write, first of all my English is not good… academic writing, I did not learn English in school so my choice of vocabulary I have to look up in the dictionary, to have a bigger effect on the reader, because my writing consists of typical everyday English.  And also for us when we write the words are backwards…structure sentences are not the same in English as in Karano or French, so I think when I brainstorm and draft I am doing it in those two languages. And translating them is not the same, and when you get your paper corrected is like “oh I see.”

Ting:
~I was feeling good about my writing in English before I came to this country, but since I started my program, I found my writing was almost classified as awful because my professor was mad at me.  And then I began to be very humble in this case, and still right now I’m not very confident in my English writing, basically because some sentences are not really spoken in the American way. Some professors are very understanding.  She wasn’t angry really, but she was frustrated, because she wasn’t sure what I wanted to express.  She didn’t give me a very good grade on that paper, which made me sad…. My first semester in this program as well, one professor told me my language was a problem…. Primarily, because the first semester of the PhD program, one the professors didn’t even want to continue reading because he felt disappointed about my language.  He had high standards…. After that I didn’t have extremely negative feedback from professors.  But still every time I write I get editing from the professor, which means I still have language problems.  And if I just write it by myself and edit it myself, I kind of doubt how good it could be.

Diana:
~My grammar in Spanish is really good, and the use of like, the synonyms, and a good vocabulary. And in English, definitely, I would like to have more vocabulary, so I can do that.  And of course, when I don’t know a word, I just try to describe it with a sentence, what I meant, so that makes it longer and hard to read.  Not good.

Efrata:
~
Tenth class I had to be in the advanced English class, that was really hard because I noticed obviously other students wrote much better than I did, they were able to…they knew what was expected of them in an English class in writing papers, for me that was really difficult.  They had a better vocab, they knew how to construct their essay in a form that was expected in an advanced course, and that was really hard for me.

Yoon:
~In terms of describing something, I don’t know, there are several words.  Even though I know a lot of words and I know what that means, but I don’t know where I should put in the sentence.

Sandarshi:
~The only thing that I have criticism of late is that I sometimes use a lot pattern tenses – extensive pattern tenses. When I kind of want to add a thought in the middle I tend to open a paragraph and I open a bracket and insert those things in brackets. And sometimes my sentences get long and become run on sentences. I also think it’s the way I think; I tend to put a lot of things into one thing and I try to cram it all in when I should have split it up into two or three thoughts.

Malak:
~In English, I find that it’s hard to structure what I want to say; the idea I have. And I think that’s why I look for words, that maybe I lack the vocabulary to write.

Haifeng:
~I should say that English is more rigid language than Chinese.  In Chinese is more flexible than English.  I just say what I have in my mind, I think… in Chinese, the verbs, there is no tense; for instance, for the “go” here we have “went” or “gone,” but in China we have just “go.”  But you have some other ways…some other like adverbs or some words to you know that kind of words, you know that when this happen, but we don’t change…

~The big shock was when I saw the feedback of my professor about my writing; I was shocked….  Sentences or also some awkward word choice, I mean all the things, but basically like I said the grammar, we have learned pretty much in China about grammar, but I still have some problems when we use it.

~For word choice in English,  I don’t know better choice; my professor just circle and say “this is awkward; there is a word choice problem.”  So I just go to find some senior students here to find an alternative for that word.  Because I don’t know what is a bad word to express…and for the sentence things the professors he give me some examples of how to express in a better way so next time I am going to use that way. I care very much. I think this writing is critical for our success in this discipline so I just try to use the way he express.  And for the grammar is…I know I should do that but I am not get used to it.  And one other thing I admire of this is when I read…I do some reading of a piece that is very impressive I am going to try to write it down or remember it in another way and I will try to use it when I write next time.

Shen-Shyang:
~Chinese has less grammar than English. So we don’t have past-present, future tense. We don’t have a lot of things compared to English. So grammar is usually not a very difficult thing in Chinese writing….  It is more from experience. The teacher says you should not do this, you should not do that. Rather than in English where there are rules.

~Grammar is my weakness. And I think I say too much in too little space. And not enough vocabulary. In a paper, I keep using the same word.

~When I write something I show him [my professor]. He is always changing this and changing that. Sometimes it is correct. Because sometimes, when I read too much of my writing I become numb….  I keep reading it over again and again. So maybe I go past the error.

Cheryl:
~I remember one time, this professor said you have too many run-on sentences. I didn’t know what was a run-on sentence so I had to go find out. Or your sentences are too long.

Minhee:
~I try to use all the vocabulary words I learn, because otherwise I’ll lose it if I don’t use it.