Tutoring Multilingual Writers: Addressing the Dilemma of Voice and Identity

by Kanjing He


Multilingual writers face the dilemma in finding a balance between two contradictory voices: one is the “authentic” American voice that is considered the standard in the eyes of professors and peers; the other is the voice that bears our own culture and identity that defines who we are. On the one hand, multilingual writers want to meet the standard and sound more “American” in their writings. On the other hand, as language is the carrier of culture, by learning to write in an “American” voice, multilingual writers fear that they will lose their own voice and encounter an identity crisis. As a multilingual writer myself, I constantly fight with the two voices during my writing process and struggle to reach a balance between authentic American language and my own voice. At the same time, as a tutor, I try to find and accept my voice and develop my tutoring practice, while still guiding multilingual writers who face the same dilemma as I do to reach a balance with which they feel most comfortable with.

I interviewed three multilingual writers who are international students from China: two undergraduates and one graduate student. In the following section, I will discuss the results of my interviews and refer to my own experiences as a multilingual writer. Specifically, I am going to discuss the main challenges that prevent multilingual writers from developing their own voice and how I try to handle those challenges through my writing center tutoring practices.


  1. The Sense of Insecurity: Seeing “American Voice” as the Norm

In their own countries, multilingual writers are taught to imitate American expressions and use them in their own writing. During my interviews, international students reveal that when writing English essays or papers, they fear that their expressions are Chinglish, which refers to Chinese English, so they learn to understand American thinking patterns in order to grasp the way Americans express ideas and thoughts. The education many multilingual writers receive in their own countries emphasizes the importance of “authentic” English. So, they get used to searching English expressions on Google to check the authenticity of their expressions. When coming to America to pursue further education, they become more afraid of not sounding “American,” as they don’t want to appear different in the American academic setting. The graduate student I interviewed relied on their American adviser or colleagues to proofread their language before submitting their paper to an academic journal. As a multilingual writer, I have the same fear of sounding foreign in my papers. There was a time when I couldn’t submit my papers without first having my American friends proofread them to make sure that I was not so “weird” in my expressions. Many multilingual writers fear that their non-standard/foreign expressions will not be accepted in the American academic setting. They see their own voice as deviating from the standard and treat their American peers and advisors as the authorities, which causes them to abandon their own voices in favor of getting closer to a standardized language.

To address multilingual writers’ sense of insecurity, which is caused by the fear that native English speakers will reject the presence of a foreign voice in academic writing, both multilingual writers and tutors need to accept diverse voices—both from clients and from tutors. The writing center should not be a “purified space,” using a single authoritative discourse and excluding other foreign ones (Petit 111–112). Both tutors and multilingual writers need to focus on the value of differences, such as bringing in different identities to expand the inclusiveness of the writing center as well as of American academic settings (Kiedaisch and Dinitz 44).   


  1. Order of Concerns: The Persistence in Grammar

Multilingual writers tend to classify grammar issues in their papers into the higher order of concerns. They are very anxious about grammar accuracy, and they further pursue standardized grammar to reach perfection. Their persistence in focusing on grammar issues is due to the education they receive in their own countries. The international students I interviewed revealed that they have been learning grammar since primary school and a large portion of their English tests were focused on grammar. So, the truth is that multilingual writers may not be deficient in grammar: in fact, they almost certainly know more about the parts that make up the English language than their native counterparts. Their problem is that they might simply not understand how to approach writing tasks in other ways, for example, the development of ideas and the structure. As a tutor, I know that being picky about grammar errors will make the matter worse. I try to begin by focusing on global aspects of the paper and then on local aspects such as grammar errors, so that gradually multilingual writers learn that there are things that are more important than minor grammar errors, such as the content and the structure of their writing. I repeatedly inform them that a good paper is not about grammar. In “What Makes Writing Good? An Essential Question for Teachers,” good writing needs to take a lot of things into consideration, including good thinking, communication, structure, clarity, purpose, voice and correction (Nauman 322–325). So, tutors need to inform multilingual writers that grammar should not be the only concern we have in writing a paper.


  1. Writers’ Request for Reformulation and Asking Tutors to Appropriate

Appropriation and reformulation are the two largest threats that prevent multilingual writers from developing their own voice. Appropriation is when tutors take control over the writers’ text (Severino 53). And reformulation, as a tutoring method, is the act of correcting and revising multilingual writers’ writing in order to make it native-sounding (Severino 52). So, if the majority of a text has been reformulated, we might say that the tutor appropriated it. By appropriation, tutors nativize the language and pose a threat to the writers’ ownership and authorship of the text. However, during the tutoring session, multilingual writers may still ask for appropriation and reformulation, as they are willing to sacrifice their voice for “authentic” American language. The international students I interviewed said that they would feel so relieved and happy if the tutors could do the work for them so that they could save time and energy. Tutors’ reformulation satisfies their desire for sounding native. In this case, do tutors still let writers take the directive role of the session and pay attention to their requests? Due to the different cultural backgrounds of multilingual writers—not all are the same—as well as their difference from American writers, tutors need to be flexible in deciding whether or not to take a directive role in the session with multilingual writers. As tutors, we need to understand the needs of multilingual writers rather than follow their requests and needs without scrutiny, meaning that we need to take the directive role when necessary. When writers ask the tutor to reformulate their language, we need to take the directive role and turn their attention from the language to the global aspects of the paper. Or, if the language is really a serious concern—that is, blurring or misleading the meaning of the text—we can point out some problems in their language as examples, offer them some rules or advice on handling specific errors, and let them improve the writing on their own, thus training them to become self-editors. The line is that we can’t edit the papers for the writers, and we have to reject their request for reformulation and avoid appropriation when this request is made. By letting multilingual writers be directive in improving their own papers, we encourage the use of their original voice and do not deprive them of their authorship and ownership of their papers.


Other Strategies

Besides the above methods targeted to deal with specific challenges that prevent multilingual writers from developing their own voice, some other strategies can also be helpful in addressing multilingual writers’ dilemma of voice and identity.

First, as I mentioned above, multilingual writers’ obsession with sounding more “American” is related to their education, cultural background and beliefs; therefore, it is important to show empathy for their dilemma of being caught between different needs and desires. In order to have empathy, tutors need to understand the frustration and confusion multilingual writers are going through during their writing process and put themselves in the writers’ place. Lu, a Chinese immigrant growing up in America, compares the academic discourse to a swimming pool, and language as a tool for surviving in the pool (444–445). For multilingual writers, they can either produce the tool, which means develop their own voice, or try to acquire and use the tool made by others, which means adopt “authentic” American voice (Lu 444–445). Either way, multilingual writers struggle hard in order to survive. This metaphor shows multilingual writers’ great difficulties, frustration and confusion with American academic discourse. With empathy, tutors can better provide support by withholding judgment and comforting them so that they know they are not alone. Empathy gives multilingual writers’ courage and strength to keep going on the way to find their own voice in writing.

Second, tutors who are also multi-language learners can help multilingual writers establish confidence and comfort in their own voice. During the tutoring session, besides discussing the expectations of academic writing in the U.S., tutors can act as culturally informed peers who note that diverse voices are accepted and it’s fine for multilingual writers to be themselves and not use standardized English. Through multilingual tutors, not only do other tutors in the writing center understand more about multilingual writers and learn to accept diverse voices, but also multilingual writers can feel that they have a space at the writing center and feel more comfortable about their own voice. So, writing centers need to recruit multilingual tutors who understand different education systems outside the U.S.. Through staffing and training, the writing center can be a more inclusive and culturally-informed place for diverse discourse.

Tutors face a lot of challenges in helping multilingual writers develop their own voice in writing, including multilingual writers’ fear of sounding different in American academic settings, their obsession with perfection in standardized grammar, and their desire for reformulation. While facing those challenges related to different educational and cultural backgrounds, tutors need to have empathy for multilingual writers and resist the temptation to appropriate their writing and, rather, accept different Englishes and even other languages in the writing center. In terms of the staffing and training, writing centers can recruit multilingual tutors as cultural informants for other tutors and for multilingual writers. By discussing the expectations of academic writing in the U.S. and assuring the acceptance of diverse voices, tutors give multilingual writers freedom to choose the writing style and voice with which they feel most comfortable.



Kiedaisch, Jean, Dinitz, Sue. “Changing Notions of Difference in the Writing Center: The Possibilities of Universal Design.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 27, no. 2, 2007, pp. 39-59.

Lu, Min-Zhan. “From Silence to Words: Writing as Struggle.” College English, vol. 49, no. 4, 1987, pp. 437-448.

Nauman, April D., et al. “What Makes Writing Good? An Essential Question for Teachers.” The Reading Teacher, vol. 64, no. 5, 2011, pp. 318–328.

Petit, Angela. “The Writing Center as ‘Purified Space’: Competing Discourses and the Dangers of Definition.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 17, no. 2, 1997, pp.111-122.

Severino, Carol. “Avoiding Appropriation.” ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors, 2009, pp. 51-65.

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