February 19, 2014
Working with ESL Clients
by: Ephraim Freed
Over time, consultants see quite a few clients. Each session goes its own way, but they add up and eventually start to blur together. As such, it can be intimidating when a session provides an unusual challenge. Every consultant has some job-related weakness that he or she needs to address. For me, it was working with ESL (English as s Second Language) clients. My intimidation came from a combination of factors: the occasional difficulty in understanding the client’s speech, the conflict between preserving the client’s voice and satisfying the instructor’s requirements, the fear of insulting the client’s cultural sensibilities. Such concerns were obstacles making it more difficult for me to do my job. Only by having multiple sessions with ESL clients was I able to abate my fears and become better at helping those who came to me for advice. If you find yourself in a similar situation, maybe you can learn from my experiences.
The first and most necessary change to make is your attitude. Remember that the Writing Center is available to everyone who needs it, regardless of their point of origin. You are not dealing with the client, but working with the client. By fearing that you are going to offend the client, you underestimate his or her strength as a person. It takes a special kind of student to learn another language and, in most cases, travel to another country to learn. Often, these students have great adjustment skills and are deeply motivated to impress their professors. Judge the client’s work as you would any other.
This is not to say that working with an ESL client doesn’t provide special challenges. Depending on the individual, you may have difficulty understanding his or her speech. Sometimes, this can be the most problematic element of the session, so use your best listening skills. To confirm you have correctly interpreted the client’s request, try rephrasing it as a question: “Are you concerned that you haven’t done enough research? Do you know how to use the library’s databases?” It might sound rude or condescending, but it can also get a session on track. Also, remember to frequently ask if he or she has any concerns. Of course, this is a good practice for any session.
All consultants are trained to respect the client’s voice. When it comes to ESL students, this also entails a respect for accent. Just as a spoken dialect can represent a writer’s homeland, the same can be said for word choice. In academia, however, this can lead to some controversial issues. Your client might want you to make sure his or her writing “sounds American.” For that matter, his or her instructor may take issue with unconventional, “foreign sounding” turns of phrase. Balancing the client’s voice with society’s demand for uniformity is a tricky business, to be sure. There is no formal way to settle the matter, but a good rule of thumb is to only suggest an alteration if the client’s writing is grammatically incorrect or obscures the message. In regards to grammar, just inform the client of what is and is not correct as you would for anyone else. In my experience, despite our problems communicating orally, most ESL students understand written English quite well and don’t have major problems with grammar. Your situation may vary.
Word choice is more of a grey area. A classic example is the sentence “the cowboy ascended his horse.” I would advise against altering “ascended” to the more conventional “mounted,” because both are valid and the client’s choice represents what he or she is trying to convey. Only step in if the client chooses a word which makes no sense given the context. However, the instructor may not feel the same way and specifically request that you enforce the most conventional speech.
Above all else, remember that the client is not trying to unnerve you. Think of him or her as a partner with whom you are improving a project. Despite the geographical and cultural differences, you two can come together and make something worthwhile.