The Language of Writing

Can Your Own Tongue Be a Foreign Language?

The Bifurcation of Written and Spoken Language

Sometimes, I think I'm talking with two different people. How, I wonder, can a student very thoughtfully and carefully explain an idea in an essay, but then struggle for words while sitting across from me during a meeting? Or, conversely, how can another student so thoughtfully and carefully explain their topic in conversation, but then write an essay that reads like cardboard?

In teaching, I regularly notice a clear difference between how my students communicate verbally versus how they communicate on the page. Although some of this difference can be attributed to shyness or inexperience with a computer keyboard, I believe that there is a component that goes deeper. When I consider my own growth as a writer compared to my struggles in learning foreign languages, I see very strong similarities. From what I can tell, learning to write isn't simply about mastering the use of language — it's about learning a new one. A strange, uncanny tongue — one that resembles our voices in its arrangement and structure of words, yet casts no sound upon the air.

Chalk board with words "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" (Translation: Do Your Speak German?)
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

My Struggle with Foreign Languages

I was thirteen before I took my first German class — a freshman in high school. Sure, I learned some Polish from our housekeeper when I was three or four, and my grade school had that weekly Spanish class in the eighth grade, but my first real exposure to learning a foreign language was German at thirteen. And four years later, I took the Advanced Placement exam. And I earned a 1. For the AP exam, 1 is the same score you get for correctly spelling your own name.

No, I didn't get college credits for my high school German. I did, however, still take German classes. I later earned my bachelors in both English (as literature) and German (the language). And then I joined the army as a linguist. Six months later, they had me studying Arabic. And now, seventeen years after that, I'm lamenting how much Arabic I've forgotten — and how much more I never learned.

When I say I'm terrible at languages, it's because I suck at learning them. I love grammar — I will happily diagram sentences in English, German, or Arabic. But learning new words? Memorizing the unfamiliar arrangements of irregular verbs? That's hard for me. I have neither the patience nor the short-term memory or whatever it is I was talking about.

Yes, I picked up a few words of Thai from my ex-wife, and I have a few snippets of French because it's French, but beyond that? If I ever do manage to cross that visit to Lebanon off my bucket list, I'll be at the mercy of others to communicate. Lucky for me, I speak English, the current lingua franca of the world. It's almost certain that anywhere I go, there will be someone who speaks enough English to direct me to the nearest embassy/airport/guilt trip home.

My son, on the other hand, likely won't share this regret. He's already fluent in both English and Thai — he easily switches between the languages without a second thought. Meanwhile, I will live with the regret that I didn't study more languages earlier in life. And my opportunities to practice the foreign languages I do know are somewhat limited. Even now, I kick myself for not forcing my son to learn some German. There was this window — back when he was two or three — where I might have tricked him into believing he should value strange words spoken by no other child anywhere ever (in his eyes). Instead, I waited until he was old enough to speak in complete sentences. Now, whenever I try teaching him a few words of German, he's sufficiently skilled in the arts of English and sarcasm to reply with "No, Daddy — now you learn Thai!"

Fun Facts about Language Learning

You can learn a new language at any age. But as a BBC article reveals, different ages have different advantages and challenges.

It's better to start young. According to the findings in an international study of native and non-native English speakers, "the ability to learn a new language, at least grammatically, is strongest until the age of 18 after which there is a precipitous decline. To become completely fluent, however, learning should start before the age of 10."

Want to read that language study in Arabic? I've forgotten so much that I can barely pronounce the words in the title, let alone translate. As a military linguist, I was pretty pathetic.

How Foreign Languages Illustrate the Challenge of Writing

Like speakers from different countries, our students come to us from different classrooms in different cities and states. Each student will have been exposed to different assignments and expectations. Further, we don't know the kinds of reading and writing that our students may have been doing outside class. This, of course, is the foundation behind Universal Design for Learning — we want to adapt our teaching to meet each individual student where they're at. But knowing this doesn't necessarily help in the moment. Yes, I am very aware of the fact that each one of my students comes from a unique background. Unfortunately, most students don't know what that means. Beyond a "we didn't really write essays in school" to a "my literature teacher had us do this series of book reports that was incredible," I rarely hear what my students actually learned about writing. Instead, I'm left with reports of their experiences and the words they place on the page. And in many cases, what I hear them say doesn't at all match what I read in their papers.

In the past, I attributed this to a common problem we see in education. Sometimes, it seems that students forget what they've learned the moment they leave the classroom. And this, I think, is likely supported by neuroscience. According to one study, our minds recall entire events rather than focusing on singular details, and another study indicates that a key component of intelligence involves forgetting irrelevent details in order to focus on critical information for making decisions. So, speaking as an adjunct faculty member in the humanities, I can honestly say this: my students might remember sitting my classroom, but their brains likely deprioritize much of the information I tell them.

This is hardly a groundbreaking announcement. But part of the problem, I think, comes in our conception of writing. When students come to class, many perceive the writing assignments as simply a product you produce, and then the class is done. Certainly, I have students who love the process — I myself "liked" research papers — but many students don't sense enough change in their writing to feel that they've "gained" anything. They show up, they track down the number of sources I tell them to track down, and then they write about it.

On the surface, it might seem incredibly boring. And for many, many generations of students, writing classes — and the composition course in particular — have been seen as rites of passage rather than actually experiences of learning. Worse still, this leads to damaging myths and misconceptions about writing. Because we teach the "same" language that our students already speak, many people — students, parents, and teachers in other disciplines — believe that we have "failed" all those students who "can't write."

The reality, I believe, is that our students who "can't write" are simply developing their skills in the language of written words. Yes, it's a language they already speak with lips and larynx, but that doesn't make it the same language they write with eyes and fingers. Neuroscience may support this: a study of aphasia in stroke victims shows differentiation between written and spoken grammar. As cognitive science researcher Brenda Rapp explained, "It’s as though there were two quasi-independent language systems in the brain."

Learning Grammar as a Model for the Acquisition of Writing

As with speaking a foreign language, writing well requires competency in a complex system of specific tasks. In this, we can use grammar as a model for understanding the complexity of language. Knowing the placement of nouns and adjectives may come naturally for many students, but not all. During my first months of studying Arabic, I remember how strange it felt placing adjectives after the nouns they modify. It seemed almost unnatural. But then, for anyone who speaks French, Spanish, Thai, or Swahili, this is normal. For speakers of Dutch, German, and Chinese, it makes perfect sense to place adjectives before the nouns. As someone who only knew English and German, it never occurred to me that other languages would change something as fundamentally "fixed" as the placement of adjectives.

When I teach English 101, I can generally assume that everyone's nouns and adjectives will march forward across the page in the proper order. As a native speaker of English bumbling my way into those first days of high school German, I never once made the mistake of placing an adjective after the noun. In fact, for the genitive case — a variation of the possessive form — I struggled with placing "der Katze" ("of the cat") after the possessed noun "der Fisch" ("the fish"). In German, the phrase "der Fisch der Katze" would be a description of a feline eating dinner — in English, "the fish of the cat" would be seriously confusing.

So when my students arrive in English 101, it's easy to imagine that they're "ready" simply because they know how to place words on a page in the right order. They've made it through high school and life, haven't they?

Then again, until German class, I was quite satisfied with my linguistic abilities. I could read every single book my teachers gave me. Up until the age of thirteen, I had a gift for language. As long as the language was English.

That Dialect We Call College

In this way, I feel that writing — academic writing, in particular — is a foreign dialect for our students. Because of this, those students who already excel at writing tend to do very well in our courses — for them, writing is no more difficult than speaking. For other students — the ones who have never written ten-page papers, the ones who type with two fingers, the ones who prefer YouTube to novels — a composition course is more than simply a challenge. For these students, it's like being dropped into woods behind a rustic European village and then being told to beg for food. And maybe also an A.

"And by the way," adds your evil tour guide, the one standing by the chalkboard, "your begging must be formatted in 12-point Times New Roman, with a separate Works Cited page at the end."