The Interdisciplinary Power of Language in a Writing Center

by Michael DuBon

Language is a system of reference made to concretize the physical and abstract worlds that also serves as a culture perspective. Every language is its own unique subsystem. To increase understanding of how the system of language works, it is helpful to be familiar with as many subsets, languages, as possible. This familiarization with many languages increases personal knowledge that translates directly to helping others understand language and writing. Being of Spanish Latino descent, I have found great success in this didactic endeavor by drawing connections between English and Spanish.

When one speaks a language, they are speaking in a specific code that has particular rules and is understandable to a certain audience. Often these linguistic rules in one language can help explain interpretations in a different language. For example, in terms of vocabulary, the other day my father was talking to me about the word for the verb “to bristle,” “erizar,” in the context of an agitated cat. He said the word came from an aquatic creature called an “erizo” because of its spiky appearance. I immediately thought he described an urchin, and found out it was so thereafter. It made sense that the prickly nature of an urchin would be called a bristle in another language.

A syntactic example of this idea of code and interpretation can be seen in the common order of adjectives and the nouns they modify. In English, the adjective is often before the noun, “The pretty car.” In Spanish, the noun often precedes the adjective, “El carro bonito.” A Spanish professor I had who spoke six languages had this to say about the matter: “It doesn’t necessarily make sense in English to have the adjective before the noun because we don’t know what the adjective modifies until we arrive at the noun. One can say ‘The pretty…’ and a listener wants to know ‘A pretty what?’ But in Spanish if we say ‘El carro…’ we know what is to be described.” While this may be a comical explanation, it shows that languages use specific syntax to convey meaning and that being familiar with these structures can enhance understanding of the logic behind them. In this case, the insight of knowing English and Spanish structure can help one to explain the other.

This idea also holds true for phonetics. Phonotactic constraints occur when a speaker of a language encounters a phonetic rule where vowel sounds, consonant clusters, or syllables that are not present in the speaker’s native language appear in the language they are trying to speak in. One phonotactic constraint for native Spanish speakers of English are words that start with -st –sp consonant clusters. Thus Spanish speakers feel a need to add a vowel sound before these words such as in “eh-school,” and “eh-special.” Native English speakers of Spanish are tempted to add a “you” sound when an “u” is present the middle of a word, in particular, as opposed to how the vowel is pronounced in Spanish with an “ooh” sound. Thus they are apt to say “pelic-you-la” instead of “peli-cu-la.”

Variation also occurs in the context of article use in both language as well as in punctuation. These linguistic distinctions operate as cultural reference as well. English borrows the word “machismo” to illustrate the idea of an aggressive hyper-masculinity, for the concept of the word was not as deeply embedded in the English culture. The Spanish culture adopted the word for hamburger, as did English, from the German language, for the English and the Spanish weren’t familiar with this style of German food before it was introduced to them. Knowledge of multiple languages expands perspective and different points of view.

When one is tutoring or studying language, questions arise as to why language works in a particular context. One frame of reference is a strong base to elaborate on this topic; however, multiple languages and frames of reference enhance this discussion. I personally have learned more about English grammar from studying Spanish and more about the nuances of language from studying English and applying it to my Spanish writing. Furthermore, enhancing one’s knowledge of various languages’ syntactical and grammatical structures helps to understand how they relate to each other in writing and speech, which helps to diversify one’s writing style and also acts as a teaching aid.

Depending on the languages and frames of reference one has, a tutor can be of great service to students writing in a language that is not their native tongue. A tutor with knowledge of the tutee’s origin language can recognize and closely examine specific issues in the tutee’s writing such as an awkward writing style or translation issues that include syntactic, grammatical, mechanical, and semantic concepts. I have found that using specific examples from the tutee’s origin language to illustrate how these concepts translate in the destination language is an effective tool in explanation and also work as building blocks for lasting understanding of the linguistic concepts at work.

The beauty of multiple languages in a tutoring center is it not only highlights how writing is interdisciplinary but also multilingual. It invites those studying other languages to use their writing center as not only a source for help with English cross-discipline writing but also a resource to seek help in writing across cultures and languages.


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