Reading Muriel Harris’ “Expectations and Assumptions of ESL Students” makes me appreciate even more that I grew up in a very diverse multicultural family. Though my hometown of Wayne is primarily white, I was blessed to have family members who are Chinese, Filipino, English, and Nigerian. Still, no matter how much I think I’ve acclimated myself to all these cultures, I struggle at times. “Those of us who have tried to negotiate our way in foreign countries with a smattering of the local language know the humbling feeling of incompetence or childlike dependence that we sink into when we try even simple tasks such as finding the appropriate bus or purchasing tickets” (Harris 214). There are still new things I learn from cultures I’ve been immersed in for years. Even when I speak to my English brother-in-law, there is a 5-second delay before I respond because I need to translate what he said into American English. This is all the more reason why we should not judge our foreign students when we don’t necessarily know everything about our own environment.
I suggest the tutors be sensitive to that face that other countries, specifically Asian ones, stress regurgitation rather than personal interpretation. “ESL students… noted… the student’s role is to study hard and to learn – sometimes by memorizing – what is presented” (Harris 211). The application of repetition begins at the sentence level. I recall reading earlier in the year an article in which a Chinese TOEFL test-prep company taught students how to cheat the oral part of the exam by using a fill-in-the-blank trick. For example, suppose a student was asked to describe his favorite activity. “I like (jogging) in the (park) in the morning. The (park) is next to a (lake). The fresh air clears my head.” If a student was asked instead to describe his favorite place, he could say, “I like (eating outside) the (dining hall) in the morning. The (dining hall) is next to a (pond). The fresh air clears my head.” Students pass the TOEFL with flying colors using this technique. Unfortunately, it gets students accepted into colleges they cannot succeed in because they do not have adequately developed language skills. Simple substitution does not apply to real-life situations. These students are left woefully unprepared for the real world. Students realize their short-comings too: “Chinese students… often cite repetition… as something that detracts from the quality of their drafts” (Harris 215). I blame this repetition on the way foreign students are taught first to never question authority and then to express this authority’s ideas in one format. This two-tier problem leads Americans to wonder if the students are even capable of thinking for themselves. Therefore, it is the writing tutor’s responsibility to patiently tease out the EAD student’s argument. In the words of one of the ESL students Harris questioned, “Be more patient since the way [foreign students] think sometimes is so different from the way American people do.”
There is an age ceiling at which, once passed, children can no longer learn proper native pronunciation. Tutors need to remind themselves that if their students are currently in EAD, then they did not learn English before this age ceiling. This is why a high degree of empathy should be employed while tutoring: we take for granted that foreign nations are accustomed to American culture so it is indeed easy to get frustrated. However, we expect everyone else to acclimate themselves to our norms when we most likely would not be able to do it ourselves if we were in their shoes.