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Andrew Cohen

Drawing on his vast experience teaching and learning languages, Andrew shares perspectives on helping writers learn expectations of academic English.

Featuring
Andrew Cohen

Interviewers
Maija Brown
Johanna Mueller
Zack Pierson

Editors
Johanna Mueller
Zack Pierson

Advisors
Farha Ahmed
Daniel Balm
Linda Clemens
Debra Hartley
Huy Hoang
Kirsten Jamsen
Katie Levin
Mitch Ogden
Kim Strain

© 2010, Center for Writing
writing.umn.edu/sws/voices
Please do not quote without permission.

I’m a good advocate for the nonnative because it’s so relative, you know: the where and when and how, the context shifts so much. And I can really empathize with people who come in here who are facing the same kinds of things I faced. I got to Israel, and I sat in with these good test takers who had placed out of Hebrew. I said, “This is ridiculous I’m going to teach in Hebrew. I need a class.” So, they put me in the most advanced class. And what I got were fellow students who had all been at Hebrew High for 12 years. So they’re sitting there in class writing Hebrew poetry. And I’m sitting there in the back row with the newspaper, hoping that the teacher won’t even know that I’m there because I feel so inferior to everybody else. So, it was that wonderful feeling of... failure. I guess that I just felt so inferior to my classmates.

In that course [that I teach], I make it a real point to not assume anybody knows how to write what I want them to write. So I lay out very clearly the guidelines for what a term paper consists of: what sections I want, that I want it subheaded, that I want it singlespaced, etc.

I tend to lay off of comments about grammar and about language unless I don’t understand something, and usually I do understand. And it’s probably partly because I’ve studied eleven foreign languages and I’ve been in the position of learners so much that I can empathize. But I’m concerned with the message, not with the form. But I’m going to do my best to at least lay out the paper, so they know where the beginning is, the middle is, and the end, how to do it. And then when I grade these (and if I have a TA, we work together), it’s being graded on the basis of how effectively they did each of the sections. So the grading isn’t a mystery: you got a B just because my gut tells me you deserve a B. NO. Each section is graded.

I can give you an example. I’m leaving this noodle restaurant up in the mountains in Japan. So I’m having my lunch, I’m leaving the restaurant, and everybody shouts out “Arigato gozaimashita! [Japanese phrase meaning "Thank you!"]”-- even the people taking the dirty dishes back to the kitchen. And, so I turn to the proprietress and in my best Japanese-American-English Japanese, and I say, “Doitashimashite [Japanese phrase meaning "You are welcome"],” which I had learned meant “You’re welcome.” What’s the big deal? She said, “Arigato gozaimashita”; I say, “Doitashimashite.” She looks like this at me; my two colleagues laugh. So I go to them, “What did I say that was wrong?” They say, “You don’t say that.” And that’s very frustrating because here I am a learner of Japanese and I have learned “You are welcome,” and I assume that “You are welcome” transfers to a variety of contexts. In that context, you don’t do that! You do a slight bow. You do “Domo [Japanese phrase: "Domo arigato" means "Thank YOU", and Japanese people often just say only "Domo" to infer "Domo arigato"]”, which is the beginning of, well, thank YOU, which by the way is what we might do at Target when you pay them $150 for the appliance or whatever it is, and they say “Thank you” and you say “Thank YOU.” We do that. We thank you for taking the money; I didn’t want that $150 anyway. But the other thing you can do is silence. I say “What, silence!?” My colleagues said, “Yeah, silence.” In Japanese, it is perfectly acceptable not say anything. That’s not American. Can you imagine leaving a restaurant with a “Thank you for eating here,” and you don’t say anything? You just leave? No, we can’t do that. What do we say? We say, “Thank YOU.” Or “It was lovely; I really enjoyed it. We’ll come back again.” I don’t know. But so it was an eye opener to me.

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