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University of Balamand > News > Archive > Learning to Write in Another Identity

Learning to Write in Another Identity

In her January 14 lecture, Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature Fatima Esseili addressed the challenges facing second-language writing and teaching in Lebanon at both the university and school levels. The lecture, based on a synthesis of relevant scholarship, was followed by an engaging debate among faculty members from various departments over issues of pedagogy, identity, and curricula.

Dr. Esseili argued that at the university level, the challenges of teaching English as a second language are compounded by the fact that students tend to come from a variety of educational backgrounds. At Balamand, she pointed out, slightly over 40 percent come from schools where the language of instruction is French. While the majority of UoB students come from schools where the language of instruction is English, their levels of competency vary significantly.

Another factor that complicates the learning experience is what she identified as the conflict between the students “social and academic identities.” While Lebanon’s first language is obviously Arabic, in their academic lives students are virtually expected to adopt another cultural identity, intrinsically connected to the English language, used as a medium of instruction. The difficulty of transitioning between one language or one identity, and another, is reflected in the common verbatim translation of Arabic idioms into English that frequently occur in student writings.

“Students unintentionally introduce interlanguage form,” said Dr. Esseili. For example, native speakers of Arabic tend to produce English utterances that are literal but incorrect translations from the Arabic. Examples include such phrases as “describing medicine” instead of prescribing medicine, or referring to someone in charge as “the responsible,” or saying that “something is the seventh impossible.”

One way to address the problem, suggested Dr. Esseili, was to motivate students “to read English texts and to do so by suggesting readings that are related to their local contexts and immediate concerns, and to encourage them to choose their topics.” She also advised professors to focus more on correcting thought processes than simple grammatical errors. Many students, she argued, come from schools that do not encourage or emphasize critical thinking, and look at the learning of English as the rote memorization of grammatical rules.

Another impediment to learning, said Dr. Esseili, was the problem of “collectivism”. She argued that “students tend to help each other because of their collectivist culture and do not believe there is anything wrong in allowing their friends to copy from them. Cheating and plagiarism, she argued, are significant factors affecting the improvement of English writing skills.

Dr. Esseili’s lecture was part of a series organized by the Department of English Language and Literature. The next lecture by Assistant Professor Peter Williams, on January 21, will be on “The Rhythms of Gestures: the Curious Cases of Leopold Bloom and Minimalist Art.” ​​​​​​​​​
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