Sitting on Top of the World: A Multilingual Writing Center?

Writing Center TA Manuel Herrero-Puertas

Writing Center TA Manuel Herrero-Puertas

By Manuel Herrero-Puertas. In an increasingly globalized world, more students start their papers with the phrase “In an increasingly globalized world. . . .” Stale as this formula sounds, the truth is that globalization leaves no landscape unaltered. Consider academia. More than ever, universities provide international avenues where scholars from different countries meet and exchange knowledge and resources. Do we still think of U.S. universities as U.S. universities? Reconsider. The University of Wisconsin-Madison alone counts almost 4,000 international students from more than 110 countries, the 12th largest international population in a U.S. campus. This breadth and wealth of nationalities creates a fertile multilingual scene. UW-Madison offers instruction in roundly 80 different languages, some of which extend to graduate programs in which professional scholars write reviews, articles and dissertations in their target tongues. Students choose every year among 100 study-abroad programs, devoted mainly to hone second-language skills and, no doubt, to escape the infelicities of the Madison winter.

Where does the Writing Center fit in this multilingual scheme? English remains the primary language of instruction at UW-Madison and at most higher education institutions across the nation. Yet, to abide by our mission statement and assist “students in all disciplines,” we should start considering the possibility of a bi-, tri- or even multilingual center. How to do this? What languages should we prioritize? According to what criteria? To what extent is this expansion gesture realistic, given the current moment of budgetary hostility? Pause for an aspirin.

And a story that, I think, illuminates the payoffs of re-examining the writing center as a multilingual institution of global import. In Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World, Eduardo Galeano describes the world’s most egalitarian place: a soccer field in Macapá, Brazil, where the midfield line lies exactly on the Equator. Each halftime, both teams switch sides and defend a different hemisphere (27). For Galeano, the Zerão stadium—so called because of its zero-degree latitude—embodies an ideal vision of globalization, the vision of a world whose North and South repeatedly trade places, allowing its less privileged inhabitants to share the rights, resources and infrastructure of those on the lucky side of the fence, a world that forces the fortunate ones to re-experience life from an opposite angle of privation. In such world, frontiers don’t signal division, but the exact spot of multiple negotiations and empathies.


Historically, the writing center belongs in the Northern, most exuberant, half of the field. This doesn’t mean it has to stay there. Top-quality writing assistance seems a luxury well nestled in Anglo-European educational spheres, incoherent in countries where the struggle for literacy focalizes every effort (one needs teeth to enjoy a steak; one needs to know how to read and write before drafting a good thesis statement). Nonetheless, the writing center can help us turning the world upside down (and I mean that as a good thing). When they successfully interact, writing instructors and student authors work out the kind of miracle that Galeano aims to see in Zerão. The constant oscillation of authority, the different sources of expertise coming into play, the transfer of knowledge and skills taking place in conversation, all these exemplify the North-South reversals of the Zerão metaphor. Our writing center stays in Madison, but our past, present and future tutees travel much distant roads, hopefully carrying with them talents that can be passed on and elaborated in their myriad destinations.

This horizontal model fails every time we uphold English—a certain kind of English—as the sounding board for academic performance. Every week at the Multicultural Student Center satellite location, I tutor international students who don’t speak English as their first language. 90% of the time their top priority is to “sound native enough.” I’ve grown fascinated by this phrase, which means—I think—to assimilate into a discursive and linguistic category that one doesn’t rightfully belong to. It’s like replacing Zerão with a replica of the Tower of Babel and placing English at the top. When ESL students voice their desire to “sound native,” they’re looking at academic English from the ground below, willing to accelerate their ascent to the summit by dropping off linguistic ballast.


This semester, I am committed to have my ESL students reconsider the notion of “sounding native.” Before, I used to remind them that misuse of personal articles, odd syntactic structures and loose grammatical cores were not the exclusive flaw of offshore students, that native speakers can produce prose as murky and inaccessible as any foreigner’s. I now realize that this approach perpetuates the notion of a proper versus an improper English, a standard code well polished and universally accessible (by “universally” meaning, of course, readable for university instructors) against an illegitimate, hybrid variation that bespeaks awkwardness and lack of revision. In one word: otherness. In the spirit of Galeano’s fable, I’ve started proposing an alternative understanding of “sounding native,” one that identifies as “native” every single component of the student’s linguistic and rhetorical provenance. When tutees confess their fear of not sounding English enough, I make them signal to me the usages that, in their opinion, give away their ESL status. Then, I ask: “What is it about this sentence that sounds foreign in your opinion?”, “How would you express this idea in your own language?”, “How would an automatic translation of that would sound in English?” These questions operate a reversal of power in which students see themselves as linguistic authorities, an empowering process that the academic system often negates.

Language, the raw material of any writing center, unites and divides. It unites in conversation; it separates us whenever a specific linguistic format becomes the incontestable mold. Writing conferences provide golden chances to negotiate, combine and recombine words into surprising new products. Yet, as one of my students mentioned once, “experimenting is great, but would I still get an A?” Negotiation requires flexibility on both sides. I don’t mean to say that ESL students shouldn’t do their English homework, but 1) we all should the homework of multilingualism, and 2) the monodialectal essence of academic homework demands urgent revision.

In due time, this would—and should—lead to a radical departure from the monolingual model at play in most writing centers. The individual student’s defiance of academic English and its corseted standards should be joined by a larger, institutional effort to reassess our linguistic boundaries. I’ve often been told that unclear writing mirrors unclear ideas. This is a dangerous lesson to a multilingual student, whose lack of clarity might not originate in a muddled brain but in a different, non-Western, epistemological framework. Many cultures think in circles, not in lines. With some extra time, effort, curiosity and investment the writing center might be able to start assisting students in languages other than English. Inevitably, such step will force us to acknowledge the broad spectrum of Englishes waiting at the gates of academe.

Manuel Herrero-Puertas
Madison, WI

4 thoughts on “Sitting on Top of the World: A Multilingual Writing Center?

  1. Thank you for this, Manuel! This gives me new language with which to talk to the multi-lingual learners I work with and learn from. There is so much pressure sometimes to “fix” language, when language is not a fixed system at all.

  2. Hi Manuel, thanks for taking the time to share this with us. I was looking at some of your other posts after i found your blog through one of my students blogs. keep up the good work.

  3. Thank you for this, Manuel. I love the story of the soccer field. The “corseted standards” you mention will take time to change, but change is afoot. The academic stigma will and must give way as our faculty becomes more international and as our institutions’ efforts move increasingly beyond the ivied walls and into the world.

  4. Dear Manuel, thank you for sharing your interesting experiences and thoughts about the multilingual writing centre! Academically and personally, I am interested in writing as a progress and the support offered at universities, especially multilingually, so that your post will be a wonderful source for a paper I am writing about multilingual writing centres. Great comparison to the football field!

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