An Introduction to Multilingual Writers at UW-Madison

Kate Vieira, Writing Across the Curriculum

As most instructors know, multilingual writers form an integral part of the educational community at UW-Madison. What instructors often don’t know is how to meet the needs of multilingual writers, especially in writing-intensive and Communication-B courses. In other words, we realize it is integral to the UW’s mission to teach in ways that are inclusive of linguistically diverse students, but it is often hard to know what is pedagogically useful and what is fair. The first step toward answering some of these questions is a simple one: to get to know the multilingual writers at the UW and in your particular class.

Isn’t “multilingual” a mouthful?

Multilingual writers in English have been defined by different labels: English as a Second Language (ESL) students, second-language writers, non-native English speakers, English-language learners, generation 1.5 students, etc. I prefer the term “multilingual writers” simply because it is more accurate. English for many students could be their third, fourth, or even one of their many native languages. But beyond this, the word “multilingual” emphasizes multilingual students’ assets—not what they lack, but what they bring to the table because of the way they’ve lived their lives.

Who are the multilingual writers on our campus?

The most important thing to recognize about multilingual writers is that they vary enormously. They have differing levels of fluency in their home languages and in academic English. They have different racial, class, and educational backgrounds, as well as different learning styles and needs. Given this variety, your most important source of information about how to help multilingual writers succeed in your class are the writers themselves.

Here, however, are some general observations. Multilingual writers at the UW include both international students and students from within the U.S. International students have often studied English for years in their home countries before coming to the U.S., though many also take a series of ESL courses at the UW. These writers often learned English through grammar rules and textbook instruction and thus are very conversant in the vocabulary of English grammar. Multilingual writers from within the U.S. often come from communities (many here in Madison) where English is not the common language, or where English is used in school but another language is spoken at home. These writers have sometimes learned English by ear, from the TV or friends, and thus might have ESL-like features in their writing even though they might consider themselves native speakers of English (Reid).

How can we acknowledge multilingual writers’ talents and challenges?

Whether they are international or from the U.S., many multilingual writers realize that they are often held to an unfair “native-speaker” standard of idiomatic perfection by well-meaning instructors. But as anyone who has written in a foreign language knows, and as research attests, such perfection is nearly impossible to achieve. Given these linguistic facts, instructors would do well to avoid focusing on minor errors and instead to cultivate the resources multilingual writers bring to the classroom. Of course, in addition to understanding multilingual writers’ talents, we should also help them learn the conventions of our fields and improve their writing in other ways.

In order to deliver such instruction effectively, however, we must first understand students’ linguistic strengths. While writing abilities vary among multilingual writers, just as they do among monolingual writers, knowing more than one language can benefit students’ writing in a number of ways. Being fluent in two or more languages often makes writers more self aware of rhetorical and grammatical choices in their writing and affords them a potentially richer vocabulary than those who know only one language. Many multilingual writers are resourceful in their communication practices and adapt well to changing situations. Plus multilingual writers often excel at cross-cultural communication (Canagarajah).

Who are the multilingual writers in my class?

You should learn about the writing backgrounds of all your students by giving them a short survey at the beginning of the semester asking them about their language and writing experiences. (See page 148.) You might want to find out, for example, which languages students are literate in, what experiences they have had with academic writing in these languages and in English, and if they have any concerns about the writing they will be doing for your class.

Asking all students directly about their writing backgrounds has three immediate benefits. First, it keeps instructors from making assumptions about students’ writing abilities based on their race, last name, or “accent.” Second, it gives instructors valuable information about individual writers that can help them teach both multilingual and monolingual writers more effectively. In other words, it offers us a glimpse into the way students conceive of themselves as writers in English, which can help instructors plan lessons or individual conferences that speak directly to student needs. Third, it communicates to students that instructors are interested in their development as writers, not just in their writing as detached from their linguistic history. In my experience, this investment in the relationship between instructor and writer is key to motivating students and to creating an inclusive classroom environment.


To better understand how to support multilingual writers at the UW, we interviewed three successful undergraduates. Of course, these three students do not represent all multilingual writers on this campus. Yet it is still instructive to hear about their productive experiences with writing here at UW, through which they learned about the conventions of a particular field, solved a challenging problem, or discovered something about themselves. In the interviews that follow, they share their stories and their advice for instructors.

Mijung Kim is a junior majoring in communication arts. She moved to the U.S. from Korea for her bachelor’s degree.

What was your best experience with writing at the UW?

My best experience was in a Comm-Arts class last semester. When I asked the professor about my writing topic and argument, she wanted to talk with me more. So I followed her to her office, and we discussed the reason why I wanted to make the argument that I did. She asked questions like, “Why do you think this?” and “Why don’t you add a discussion of that?” She listened to my points and she really liked my idea!

Then I asked her very carefully if she would mind reading my writing before it was due. She said she would happily do that. I was really glad, because sometimes instructors think it is unfair to other students to pre-read. But I sent her my paper. She said that my ideas were good and made sense, but that the style could be better. She didn’t correct my grammar, but she had an opinion about almost all my sentences. She helped me to make certain expressions more idiomatic and told me her opinions about my arguments. It was a very special experience for me, and I learned a lot from it.

What kinds of challenges and talents do you bring to the class as a multilingual writer?

My biggest challenge is with time. In essay tests, for example, native-speakers can think as they are writing, but I don’t have time to think. I have asked to have more time than other students, but professors don’t let me. So, I memorize by heart all my notes and even examples before the exam. Also, for take-home papers, I have to revise a lot. In many of my communication arts classes, for example, almost everyone is a native-speaker. So it seems that they can just write an essay quickly and start the day before. But I can’t do that. I have to revise three or four more times than a native-speaker.

Also, learning the American academic writing style was challenging for me. Unlike the Korean academic style, it seemed to me to require repeating points over and over again. Moreover, I had only read popular magazines in English before coming here. And they have a very different style—no thesis statement! So I had to learn to write in the American style through a lot of trial and error.

As for talents, Korean culture helps me to have a different kind of point of view toward everything. For example, in my communication arts major I had to write a movie script. Because I had learned in class what makes Hollywood films interesting and exciting, I based my script on the Hollywood style. But I also added some pop Korean culture to it. I made it more moving, because Koreans often like to see some warmth in a film. So I added those kinds of elements to the script, and my TA really liked it.

Mohamed Yusuf graduated in 2007 with a B.A. in business (operations and technology management). He is from Somalia originally, and Somali is his native language, though he lived in Egypt from the age of 11, where he studied Arabic and completed high school. He moved to the U.S. for his college education.

What was your best experience with writing at the UW?

My best experiences were in a business communications class and a philosophy class. In the business communications class, the instructor knew that my writing needed special attention and graded it accordingly. For example, when we wrote memos and had to correct mistakes in letters, she would comfort me if I couldn’t find all the mistakes. She told me not to worry if I couldn’t get everything, but to try my best. This attitude really encouraged me to work hard and do my best in that class because I knew an “A” was achievable. The professor also told all the international students in the class that she would consider the ways our cultural backgrounds impacted our writing and participation in the class. Her paying attention to my culture was really important, because my culture has a great impact on my worldview.

In the philosophy class, I had a chance to express my ideas and write a meaningful argument. We discussed important topics like the duty to reduce starvation, gun ownership, and animal rights. It is easy to argue a point when you are speaking, but writing an argument and following the rules was challenging. At first I had a lot to say, and my thoughts weren’t organized, so my argument didn’t make sense. I let my passion override my logic. When I started following the rules of writing arguments and learned how to approach and develop certain points, I was better at making myself clear. I think that’s an important tool nowadays to decrease miscommunication between different cultures and to reach a better understanding of others’ points of view.

What recommendations would you give instructors for helping multilingual writers?

Know students’ cultural backgrounds; show empathy; ask students what problems they have with writing; show them examples of successful writing; show them how to polish their drafts; make them love writing by raising their interest level; and don’t put them on the spot unless you forewarn them.

Erika Lopez is a senior majoring in political science and economics. She moved to the U.S. from Ecuador at the age of 13.

What was your best experience with writing at the UW?

In one English class I took, I had assignments that allowed me to express my thoughts. I could write what I wanted to. But the professor was tough! Even if he thought it was a great paper, he would still give me points to work on. Sometimes it made me mad—to work so hard on a paper and still have red marks and criticism. But I appreciated his comments because they were clear. I also appreciated an assignment in another English class that allowed me to analyze my own writing and learn about myself as a person and as a writer.

What are the challenges and talents you bring to a class as a multilingual writer?

My challenge and my talent are the same: I can be very descriptive! Part of the reason I am descriptive is because I continue to be unsure about my English and want to make sure my writing is understandable to the audience. In Spanish, for example, sometimes there is just one word that would explain everything I want to say. But in English, it might take me a whole paragraph to explain.

It can be frustrating, though, when I try very hard to make something clear, and am very descriptive, and the professor still doesn’t understand me. I don’t want professors to kill themselves trying to understand my writing. But they should ask: “Is this person trying to be clear? Is this person trying to communicate?” Of course, if I am being unclear, I want to know. But I also appreciate it when professors understand the effort I am making.

What advice do you have for instructors?

I need guidance about the specifics of what instructors are looking for. Examples and models help a lot. Also, keep in mind the language barrier! Some ideas might not come out clear because of cultural or linguistic issues. Instructors should be conscious of this.


Global English

Consider the following trends: Globally, “non-native” English speakers are gradually outnumbering “native” speakers (Graddol). This shift is occurring in part because the population of “native” English speakers is declining, and in part because English is becoming the lingua-franca of many “non-native” English speakers. Such demographic realities mean that in place of one standard English, World Englishes with various standards are being developed that deserve respect (Canagarajah). In fact, some researchers now predict the demise of the “native-speaker” standard of English. In light of these shifting global circumstances, and as scholarship itself becomes more globalized, Standard Edited American English might soon become just one of many dialects.

What might the consequences of such a shift be for instructors who use writing in their courses? I propose the following possibility: Instead of helping multilingual writers adapt their writing to monolingual standards, we might instead spend some of our instructional time teaching monolingual writers to understand, adapt to, and write in different varieties of English. Some researchers believe that the time for such pedagogical change is now, and that we should be teaching both monolingual and multilingual writers to switch among and even to merge different dialects and languages to communicate with increasingly diverse global audiences.