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Grad Student Memoirs: Analyzing ESL Grammar

by Katka Lapelosová May 17, 2013

So I get the assignment: In order to receive my Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, I have to analyze an ESL student’s grammar from a writing sample they provide.

No big deal, right? I’m a writer. I use conventional grammar all the time. I’m an editor. I know how to make bad writing sound better. I totally disregard the 5,000 minimum word count because really, it’s no challenge — I wrote an entire 50,000-word novel in a month for NaNoWriMo. Surely a little baby 5,000 word count won’t cause a headache — I practically shit out 2,500-word papers for my other classes. This project is going to be easy-peasy. All I need is a weekend, at most.

Except that I have to acquire the actual writing sample. I’m not yet an ESL teacher, and my social awkwardness / self-consciousness prevents me from asking the other actually certified teachers in my cohort to lend me something Jorge scribbled in their second grade class, or some research project sixth grader Renata handed in. So I seek out alternative options. I’m well traveled — who do I know that speaks English but isn’t totally fluent?

Why is it so hard to write about writing?! I whine, and I cry a little. I begin to drink whiskey as I write. Hemmingway produced amazing work while drunk, maybe I can too.

Laughing at myself, I am clearly a moron for thinking such a friend exists. During my travels I’ve encountered foreign friends who speak English better than I do. Shit, think fast — I have a month to hand in this analysis.

I contact my good friend from Slovakia, remembering the time he brought me into his university English class. His friends complimented me on the straightness of my teeth. I recall the exact words he said to his professor:

“I don’t need to come to class anymore because I have this friend from America, and we’re going to be talking in English, so that counts, right?”

My friend Dušan is happy to oblige my request. He sends me a writing sample about the Slovak arts center I used to volunteer at, Stanica. Drowning under a wave of nostalgia, I reminisce about the things in Dušan’s letter: the various artistic, theatrical, and musical events that occurred there, other volunteers who came from Latvia, and France, and Slovenia, the community-building nature of Stanica and its significance within the town of Žilina. Reading and rereading the writing sample, I can’t help wishing I was experiencing Dušan’s words instead of just visualizing them.

The next step is putting the writing sample aside and not touching it for another three weeks and two days. Obviously.

* * *
Cracking my knuckles, and snuggling into my favorite writing chair, I eventually look over the paper’s rubric. I’m all set to start this thing…and then I log on to Facebook, wasting about three hours web-stalking all of my friends who are suddenly pregnant. But I do try to type out the introduction, at least — once I get going, the paper practically writes itself, right? I include some information about the Slovak language: how they don’t use articles, how they have about six different cases, that their nouns and adjectives are often gendered, etc.

And then I look over Dušan’s writing sample. Realizing that it’s actually near-perfect and that, unlike a beginning English Language Learner, he really hasn’t given me much to correct, I start to panic. He hasn’t spelled anything wrong, and all of his sentences are complete. He has left out some articles, but that’s about it. The rest is a great example of his advanced English proficiency.

I’ve sat at my computer for seven hours and have only typed about 800 words, including pointing out all of Dušan’s “flaws” (which amount to maybe four sentences lacking the word “the”). This is when I freak out at the fact that I really don’t know as much about grammar as I thought I did. Sure, I can tell when something is incorrect — but I have no idea how to explain why it’s incorrect.

“Because it just looks wrong, duh!” isn’t a valid reason in graduate school.

I can picture my professor laughing out loud at my pitiable analysis of the English language and creating a viral Twitter handle using my asinine quotations for all to ridicule (@DumbassESLTeacherSaysWHAT?!).

My new plan of attack includes over-analyzing all of the nouns in Dušan’s sample. I stare at my blank computer screen; the cursor blinks in time like a metronome of failure. Time to move on to the verbs. I notice he mixes up his genders — aha! Time to Google Translate those phrases, and bullshit three paragraphs about how verbs in Slovak have genders, and that’s why he said “the work will inspire her” but that “he will use his technical skills,” even though Dušan is referring to the same person. I’ve still got at least 3,866 words left, though, so I better scrutinize that writing sample some more.

Why is it so hard to write about writing?! I whine, and I cry a little. I begin to drink whiskey as I write. Hemmingway produced amazing work while drunk, maybe I can too. I’m kept up at night trying to understand parts of speech, and if darling Dušan is abiding by Standard English word order, and about how cruel my grammar teacher is for assigning me something that is basically impossible to complete.

I make up something about how Dušan needs to improve upon his use of the present-perfect tense and that he must increase his syntactical awareness if he wishes to promote Stanica to a global audience. Is “syntactical awareness” even a thing?

I call in sick to my job to finish the paper on the day it’s due, because I stayed up until 3:30am the previous evening trying to work out another 2,000 words. I made it to 4,246. So this is what a crack head feels like — dehydrated, antsy from a lack of sleep, slightly hallucinating from forgetting to eat.

After recalling that the format had to be in APA style, I experience a total creative-person-meltdown. I’ve still got to write an abstract and reformat stuff because I wrote all of my references in MLA. I want to punch everything in sight. The paper has a really lengthy conclusion as well as a three-page reflection, but I couldn’t tell you what about, because at this point I am drooling into my keyboard and coasting on autopilot.

But the worst is that I feel incredibly guilty for basically tearing apart my friend’s English skills, for the sake of getting a good grade.

* * *
I hang my head and hand in my paper. It’s complete rubbish. I can picture my professor laughing out loud at my pitiable analysis of the English language, judging my ability to teach ESL, and creating a viral Twitter handle using my asinine quotations for all to ridicule (@DumbassESLTeacherSaysWHAT?!). I also feel like I’ve done Dušan wrong via my incompetency to understand and correct his mistakes, and I contemplate what kinds of jobs I can find on Craigslist that have nothing to do with grammar, teaching, or any position where others rely on me to better their language skills. Clearly, I’m not cut out for this shit.

I get my paper back after a week. My mouth hangs open and my eyes widen as I read the words, Outstanding paper! A+! Please email me a copy! in perfectly scripted graphite letters across the top of the cover sheet. Scanning through the pages, I notice a note at the end: Excellent work, but you know it only had to be 2,000 words, right?

That’s when I throw the paper across my home office and pour myself a stiff drink.

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