Taking Your Food for a Walk: Lessons in Fluency -->

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Taking Your Food for a Walk: Lessons in Fluency

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Two and a half years ago, I was living in ViƱa del Mar, Chile, teaching kindergarten English (I was okay at that) and trying to live an active and social life with limited Spanish skills (I was not so fantastic at that). Despite years of Spanish classes, my communications were riddled with confusing grammar (“You are quiet or no to get stickers!” I often told my students), poor vocabulary (“Can I take my food for a walk?” I asked at a restaurant once, hoping for a to-go container), and charades and sound effects when language utterly failed me. I knew precisely what I wanted to say, but lacked the ability to express myself. Anyone who has spent much time outside his or her home country can, I’m sure, relate.  

This frustration is not limited to travelers. As Rachel discussed a while back, writing can be like learning a new language: whether you are moving from professional to scholarly writing, undergraduate to graduate writing, or graduate to doctoral writing, you are entering a new discourse community that has its own norms and expectations. This is can be a confusing and daunting transition, and if you are making this transition in a second (or third or fourth) language, it can be even trickier.

No matter how well I communicate in English (and I’d like to think that I’m adept at that), I struggle to express fairly basic ideas in Spanish. Similarly, no matter how articulate you are when, say, communicating with friends and family, with your boss and coworkers, with former professors and classmates, or in another language, you might sometimes struggle to meet your faculty’s expectations here at Walden.

While I never achieved my goal of Spanish fluency in Chile, I learned some lessons that help when I – like many Walden students – enter a new discourse community:

1. First and foremost, be patient. Language acquisition takes time, as I learned the hard way, and academic language is no exception. If English is not your first language, it might take even longer (we’re talking years) to become comfortable with academic language. If you get a few poor grades on a few course papers, that doesn’t mean that you are unintelligent or not cut out for your program. You might just need a bit more time.

2. Immerse yourself in the language. For me, that meant listening – to my students, their parents, the couple at the table next to me. For you as students, immersion typically means reading, and not just skimming for content, but reading actively for vocabulary and style. What kinds of words appear in a scholarly article? How do authors construct and support their arguments? Just as important, what kinds of words do your authors not use? Challenge yourself to read the literature in your field as actively and extensively as possible (check to see if your instructor offers a recommended reading list) to immerse yourself in scholarly language.

3. Ask for help. In Chile, I very quickly lost my shame about asking people – whoever was in reach – whether I was saying a word or phrase correctly. You will want to find your own support system in your writing at Walden. Ask friends, family members, or coworkers to help you work through an idea or proofread a paper. If you have questions about an assignment or a grade, ask your instructor. Consider taking a writing course for more practice. And of course, reach out to the Writing Center – that’s what we’re here for. 

4. Remember that fluency does not mean perfection. Even if I had stayed in Chile for another 20 years, I would probably not sound like a native Spanish speaker. My goodness, I wouldn’t even call my use of English “perfect”! Similarly, no matter how hard you work or how many papers you write (and if English is not your first language, no matter how long you have lived in the United States or studied English), you may never receive a paper back from a faculty member that says “A++; don’t change a thing.” I know that I myself have never received such feedback. Focus not on perfection, but instead on communication. That is, after all, the goal of writing.

Have you ever struggled to communicate in another language? Have you reached fluency in a second, third, or fourth language? How might those experiences inform your writing at Walden? Share with us in the comments!
We’re always looking for ways to improve our resources. If you're a current international and/or multilingual Walden student, please take our brief survey to help us improve our services for you. The survey link will remain posted here as long as the survey is active. Thank you!

Kayla Skarbakka
Kayla Skarbakka, coordinator of international writing instruction and support, says, "Walden students inspire me with their drive to pursue their educational and career goals." She currently lives in Dallas, Texas.

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