The Promise of Language Difference in Writing

July 25, 2017
The Promise of Language Difference in Writing © Shutterstock/Irina Bg

Historically, much interest in language difference has been directed at eliminating such difference—correcting errors—to the point that the presence of language difference has sometimes been conflated with error . . .

Writing teachers have always been interested in language difference. Of course, historically, much of that interest has been directed at eliminating such difference—correcting errors and teaching students to avoid or correct errors in their writing—to the point that the presence of language difference has sometimes been conflated with error. 

Underlying such conflations is a historically inaccurate understanding of languages as stable, internally uniform, and impervious to interactions with one another. It is only if we assume, for example, that what we call English is set and uniform that we can be sure that a particular usage is a mistake. But English has always been diverse and changing, as any examination of practices dubbed English will show. So what looks (or sounds) different may not, in fact, be a mistake. This isn’t to say that writers (and speakers) don’t make mistakes—they do, and often. But mistakes in language practice are only sometimes related to language difference.

Two recent developments make the appearance of language differences in student writing more frequent: (1) the growth in students with more diverse language repertoires; and (2) the growth in global communication. We can no longer pretend that all students are English monolinguals (they never were, but it may have been easier in the past to maintain that illusion), and in any event, our students, like our colleagues and fellow community members, are in communication with more folks with more diverse language practices. The emergence of English as a global lingua franca hasn’t changed this. Instead, it’s simply meant that English is now being subject even more than in the past to quite different practices, as documented by scholarship on English as a lingua franca (ELF) and World Englishes.

These developments can lead to genuine frustration and confusion among teachers of writing (English) in the United States. Which language, or version of which language, should we be teaching students to write in? And why? Those looking to demands of the workplace won’t find much guidance. While there remains some official insistence on the ability to write what is imagined to be Standard Written English (SWE), in practice writers need to be more flexible and fluid in their writing, and as already mentioned, what counts as SWE, like English more broadly, is diverse and changing. Moreover, a growing number of workplaces demand flexibility and fluidity from workers in their writing (and speaking). An employee who refuses to communicate with colleagues globally who use English differently (or other languages), or is unable to, is not likely to be a productive worker.

But this is a problem only if we believe our task as teachers is to impart to students an unchanging Standard Written English and the ability to produce it. While teachers can help students overcome limiting strategies in their writing, and can and should help students learn to proofread (an often misunderstood and overlooked reading practice), they can also take the diverse and changing nature of languages as a subject of student investigation and experimentation. Instead of thinking our job is to give students the English they are to write in, we can have them explore what it means to write and revise English, and how and why they might do so in particular ways. Contrary to what we might fear, few students have any interest in writing in ways that don’t aim at communicating meaning. But they do have an interest in contributing to the life of language through their writing, and the difference they bring to that work is promising.

Bruce Horner is Endowed Chair in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville, where he teaches courses in composition, composition pedagogy and theory, and literacy studies. His work has received the Braddock Award, the Winterowd Award, the CCCC Outstanding Book Award, and many other recognitions. He is a coeditor of Crossing Divides: Exploring Translingual Writing Pedagogies and Programs and Economies of Writing: Revaluations in Rhetoric and Composition.

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