Author: Sonja Trierweiler

Intercontinental Ink: Culture Portrayed through Writing

Many students come in to The Writing Center not confident in the work they’ve produced. It’s not that they’ve written it “wrong,” but that ideas are unclear due to wording or organization. And now that I’m graduating in a week, I’m getting rather sentimental; so please humor me as I reminisce on some of my fondest writing center appointments (it’s relevant, I swear).

When I began learning Arabic and Saudi students would coincidentally schedule appointments with me, I would, without fail, get overly excited. But I wanted to be discrete about how I went about telling these students that I was studying Arabic. I’d grumble an occasional ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in Arabic under my breath, hoping the students would catch on. Or I’d leave my laptop open, revealing my Arabic/English keyboard, hoping the students’ eyes would catch my conspicuous cry for approval. But once we’d start the consultation, I’d let it drift to the corner of my mind as I redirected my attention to their writing.

Which, as it turns out, is fascinating.

Arabic is written poetically, deliberately, and to evoke emotion. It’s descriptive and heavily sprinkled with metaphors; Arabic poetry is the most beautiful, passionate prose. Often, this style transfers into Arabic-speaking students’ English writing. This sort of contrastive rhetoric has provided me with some of my most cherished appointments. I am able to see exactly how someone is thinking and how it translates from one language to another.

English is direct and oftentimes dry. Although “fluff” in moderation or having craftily worded sentences can make English writing more interesting, it is still a precise, formulated approach. Non-native English speakers use their inherent understanding of language (which can create some strangely formulated grammatical phrases), but it also generates ideas and comparisons that aren’t readily available to me given my personal understanding of language.

Literacy isn’t just writing. It’s understanding. It’s being able to communicate well. It’s knowing how to accomplish something through some means. Just because you write differently than someone, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It shows the awesome complexity of societal and cultural understanding through language. And regularly witnessing this fascinating phenomenon will be one of my most missed experiences as I finish out my time here at The Writing Center at MSU.

Intercontinental Ink: Struggles with the English Article System

As a consultant here at the MSU Writing Center, I’ve noticed one item in particular that almost all Writing Center clients who are non-native speakers of English struggle with: the English article system. Articles like a and the are an inherent knowledge native English speakers take for granted. Sure, if something is definite, it is preceded by the, like the frog. Indefinite would be a frog.

Simple, yes? No.

Let’s look at plurals. The frogs is fine, but what about a frogs? Or simply frogs? Then we can get into uncountable things, like life, which doesn’t need an article. But the life has a different, more colloquial meaning, so using this article unknowingly could create unintentional meaning.

Mid-way though a writing center consultation, I’ll find myself confidently tromping down the path of explaining the English article system, only to stumble over my shoddily crafted rationales.

I’ll say, “Yeah, all nouns need an article!” Haha, no. “Okay, well, if it’s plural then you don’t. Usually. Sometimes. I think?”

Then I’ll backtrack with, “Um, no, actually just some… like… well let’s just look at an example in your paper,” as I continue to not sufficiently explain anything of value.

After I’ve finished this awkward conversation with myself, praying that the client still thinks I possess some fragment of credibility, I determine that honesty is probably best in this situation: I don’t know how to explain the English article system. Articles are like prepositions in that you just have to know when to use them.

Latin doesn’t use articles. Japanese doesn’t use articles. Russian doesn’t use articles. Why, then, does English? Unfortunately, it’s just the way it works. And on behalf of English and those who cannot explain it, I’m sorry.

Basic Grammar Leads to Basic Communication

The Great Grammar DebateGrammar may seem tedious and frivolous to many. You may think you’re wording is right, but then you ended your sentence in a preposition. Or you split an infinitive. Or you used ‘affect’ as a noun. Just when you think you can get away with a passive sentence, you’re suddenly overcome with the fear of the wrath of your anthropology professor who definitely reads her copy of the Chicago Manual of Style to her kids every night before bedtime.

You ask, what’s the point? Why do we need such strict rules to communicate an idea?

Because it’s important to maintain a consistent structure so that we can most effectively understand each other. It’s a sort of framework we need, a basic element, which we can build from to explain our ideas with as little confusion as possible.

Grammar is like what Arthur Shopenhauer says about mankind… and porcupines:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told–in the English phrase–to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

He explains that humans maintain a basic set of manners so that we can tolerate as many people as possible based off this minimal foundation that we’ve all agreed was an acceptable way to act. Like politeness, grammar is also this minimal foundation to which we must adhere for others to understand and make communication possible. Simply put, we rely on grammar, whether or not we’re cognizant of it, to interact with others on a basic, often misunderstood level.

Intercontinental Ink: Twitterversary

With the 7-year anniversary of the launch of Twitter on March 21, I’ve decided to delve into my own past regarding this beyond-popular site. After sifting through my archive of tweets like “#fiddlefaddle at f9ily xmas party #classy” and others that were written in messy Arablish, I’ve realized that my understanding of Twitter’s intentions is far more comprehensive now.

As people started to understand this micro-blogging site, they were able to grow along with it. I remember the first time a popular (ish) newsource started following me, as well as the first time I had an actual conversation over Twitter instead of an abandoned, not-favorited, not-replied post. I also remember my first long distance conversation with several friends in remote locations. Not only has Twitter had a tremendous effect on my personal and professional life, but it also became an instrument for change among other groups of people. Just look at its major role in instigating and maintaining the Arab Spring, or the way it relays information to varying numbers of people almost instantaneously. Continue reading “Intercontinental Ink: Twitterversary”

Intercontinental Ink: Latin and the Pope

The pope’s decision to retire has brought on a flurry of buzz and speculation. The announcement of his decision to terminate his seven-year run arrived to the ears of the world this February; however, this was only after it was translated from the language in which he delivered it—Latin.

Latin is dead. Okay, maybe not totally dead. I know that Masses are sometimes conducted in Latin, but that’s still related to the pope. Latin’s cool if you are studying other Romance languages. Science-y people also love Latin, like in naming organisms. Other Homo sapiens that continue to clutch onto Latin: Classical Studies majors. But I’m pretty sure that program is now on moratorium at MSU so that’s kind of awkward.

Why Latin? Pope Benedict was an especially ardent Latin lover and made this dead language live. Although it seems silly to use a language nobody speaks, it’s also refreshing to know that it breathes in some capacity. Given that Latin is seldom used in contexts that aren’t pope-certified, this language has a strong association with Catholic culture.

Language use serves as a monument to culture. Slang, for instance, can represent your generation’s values. My mother would ask me if I was ‘going’ with anyone. Yeah, mom, to the beach with Laura. To my friends, I was ‘going out’ with, well, no one. But Laura was going out with Adam who was going to the beach with us. I mean, YOLO, right?

In addition to generational signifiers, language can also indicate regional values. Northern Californians will tell you their garlic fries are hella dope; but in Southern California, you’ll get hella nasty looks from the locals when using the word ‘hella’. If you go more SoCal, you can encounter a heavy Hispanic population that integrates a significant amount of Spanish into their regular conversation. Speaking Spanish in San Diego, Chinese in San Francisco’s Chinatown, or Arabic in Dearborn helps to preserve heritage for those who have moved to live in these areas from other cultures.

Culture is perpetuated through language, and although the pope is resigning and his successor may not endorse Latin as strongly as he did, the language still serves as a tribute to Catholicism simply through its existence.


Side note: I’d just like to bring up the word ‘papacy’. Pope. Pap. What.

Intercontinental Ink: Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English

Audience. It is arguably the most important factor to keep in mind when constructing a document. In a university setting, this could include classmates, friends, professors, future employers, academic communities, or review boards. Although it’s necessary to think of your readers as a whole, do you also remember the audience’s culture? More specifically, their language?

It may not be immediately apparent when considering your audience, but chances are high that someone who doesn’t speak your native language will be reading your writing. Do you write pieces that are posted online? Anyone in the world can access these documents—don’t exclude them because you forgot about them! So if you’re a native English speaker and your readers are Korean or Saudi Arabian or Chinese, you need to be aware that not only is English not their native language, but they also carry along different cultural values associated with his or her ability to understand and process your writing.

Here are some items to consider when writing to international audiences:

  • Be concise. Know what you’re saying; say it clearly.
  • You might get a kick out of idioms, but it’s possible your audience can’t make heads or tails of it. Avoid when possible.
  • Don’t not end your sentence in a preposition if re-arranging it is going to make is sound awkward. If it sounds strange to a native English speaker, it’s going to sound strange to a non-native English speaker.
  • Although the word that can sometimes make English sentences seem wordy, many other languages mandate their equivalent of that to be used in writing in order to make grammatical sense. Just because you can omit it in English and the sentence will still make sense, doesn’t necessarily mean a non-native English speaker will understand the sentence without using that.
  • Literal is safe. Not to discourage humorous or innovative writing styles, but if there’s a possibility your reader doesn’t have as strong of a command of the English language as you, then be precise.

Writing is a part of culture. When taken into consideration, it allows for a more expansive, comprehensible, and accessible document.