By Kristina Lum (MA 2016, SWLF)
Krisina Lum

As most of us have seen, there is an increasing trend of international student enrollment here at OSU. This increase has prompted discussions on how instructors can address the needs of students who are learning to write in English, a language different from their native one. However, international students are not the only multilingual students. There are students who were born and raised in America but do not speak English as their first language. These students could be the children of immigrants or from a place in which another language is just as common as English.  One such student population is students from Hawaii or, as Morris Young calls them, “Hawaii writers.”

According to OSU’s 2014 fall enrollment summary, Hawaii is the third highest in state residency enrollment, which means that there is a fair number of Hawaii writers attending OSU. Since Hawaii is part of America, these students were educated in the American school system, but they are coming from a linguistic and cultural background that is different from their peers. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Hawaii writers is that most grew up hearing and/or speaking a language commonly referred to as “Pidgin” but were educated in a school system that ephasized the use of Standard English (SE).

Although Pidgin closely resembles English, linguists recognize it as a legitimate language with its own unique grammatical structures and lexicon. However, Pidgin has been a topic of controversy because it can easily be mistaken for a form of imperfect or broken English, particularly when it comes to education. In fact, the Hawaii Department of Education attempted to ban the use of Pidgin in all public schools in 1987 because they believed that it interfered with student achievement.

Multiple studies done by scholars such as Mary Lynn Fiore Ohama et al. and Richard Day indicate that the education system in Hawaii perpetuates discrimination towards Pidgin through its preference for SE. As a result, Pidgin-speaking students may be more reluctant to speak up in class because they think that they are speaking a lesser language. Some may even try to hide the fact that they speak Pidgin by opting to switch to SE in professional or academic settings. However, the switching between languages is not always perfect and elements of Pidgin can show up in their English speech or writing. When this happens, Pidgin might be mistaken for “improper” English.

The case of Pidgin-speaking Hawaii writers is an example of how the favoring of SE continues to de-legitimize the use of other languages or linguistic variation in academia. Therefore, it is important for us to recognize the assumptions we have about the linguistic backgrounds of our domestic students and the potentially disenfranchising elements of SE for students like Hawaii writers. This, however, is not an argument against teaching SE; it is an argument for awareness.

Being aware of the backgrounds of our students can help us make sense of the writing that students turn in. For instance, what might appear to be a paper written by a lazy student who wrote her essay one hour before the due date might instead be a paper from a multilingual student who is still struggling to successfully translate her thoughts into SE.

Simple activities such as collecting notecards with information about where the student is from or having students write a short essay about their past writing experiences can provide a better context for our assessment. As a result, we can re-evaluate the ways in which we respond to student writing. This does not necessarily mean that we need to lower our expectations. Instead, such practices call for us to read, teach, and assess with more patience and understanding when student writing does not meet our expectations.

While unique, the situation of OSU Hawaii writers is not the only one of its kind. If we consider the range of dialects, vernaculars, creoles, and accents present in America, we are looking at a large spectrum of linguistic diversity within our domestic student population. Being aware of this diversity is the first step in creating more inclusive pedagogies that will better serve our students.

Reference List:

Day, Richard R. “The Development of Linguistic Attitudes and Preferences.” TESOL Quarterly 14.1 (1980): 27-37. Print.

Ohama, Mary Lynn Fiore, Carolyn C. Gotay, Ian S. Pagano, Larry Boles, and Dorothy D. Craven. “Evaluations of Hawaii Creole English and Standard English.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology 19.3 (2000): 357-377. Print.

Young, Morris. “Standard English and Student Bodies: Institutionalizing Race and Literacy in Hawai‘i.” College English 64.4 (2002): 405-431. Print.

Young, Morris. Minor Re/Visions: Asian American Literacy Narratives as a Rhetoric of Citizenship. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. Print.

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