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Composition Forum 24, Fall 2011

Horner, Bruce, Min-Zhan Lu, and Paul Kei Matsuda, eds. Cross-Language Relations in Composition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2010. 262 pp.

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Coretta M. Pittman

Cross-Language Relations in Composition, edited by Bruce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu, and Paul Kei Matsuda, is a collection of essays divided into two parts: Part One: “Struggling with ‘English Only’ in Composition” and Part Two: “Responses to Struggling with ‘English Only’ in Composition.” In Part One, nine contributors offer critiques of English Only methods in the teaching of writing and in composition research. In Part Two, nine contributors respond to their colleagues’ essays from Part One. Ultimately, this collection highlights an ongoing reality that confronts twenty-first century writing teachers: many of the students we encounter in our writing classes are multilingual rather than monolingual speakers and writers. In light of this reality, the editors have gathered together essays that will hopefully encourage new discussions about language rights issues in composition. To that end, Bruce Horner, in his introductory remarks, argues that new norms need to be embraced in order to effectively address the needs of students writing in various “Englishes” or what he also calls “multilingual, cross-language writing” (3).

To initiate a conversation that rejects the English Only model in teaching and composition research, John Trimbur’s lead essay “Linguistic Memory and the Uneasy Settlement of U.S. English” discusses the role the founding fathers played in determining language policies adopted (or not) in the “late colonial and early national periods” (21). Trimbur contends that opponents of “English Only legislation” who embrace the founding fathers’ “refusal to give official status to English” (21) as an altruistic act misunderstand the intentions they had. Instead, he argues, such an omission or failure to legislate English as the official language speaks to the kind of ambiguity these figures felt toward the different languages spoken and written during this time. Rather than accept multilingualism as normative, the founding fathers and others surreptitiously adopted English as a language of expediency, commerce, and nationhood, which inevitably isolated groups of people who could not or were unable to—for various social, racial, ethnic, and economic reasons—learn to speak and write in so-called Standard English. Trimbur’s emphasis on historical attitudes toward language rights is useful precisely because it reminds us that we must always continue to challenge forms of linguistic hegemony in a pluralistic society.

One of the most compelling essays in the collection is Min-Zhan Lu’s article, “Living-English Work,” which begins by describing textually and photographically “two media reports on the popularity of tongue surgery [. . .] in two ‘developing’ countries: the People’s Republic of China and South Korea” (42). The procedure is “a snip of tissue, the frenulum, linking the tongue to the floor of the mouth” (42). The goal of the surgery is to help non-native speakers of English, particularly Asians, speak English without an accent. Lu’s article is a fascinating account of the extent to which non-native speakers of English seek to participate fully in the economic landscape of an increasingly interconnected global society despite the fact that linguistic erasure may occur. However “popular” (43) this surgery may be, Lu does not embrace such extreme measures. She calls on us as language users to employ and embody language practices that keep alive its dynamic formations, what she calls “living-English work” (55).

Compositionists who are interested in the relationships among access, literacy, technology, and agency will find the following chapter intriguing: “Globalization, Guanxi, and Agency: Designing and Redesigning the Literacies of Cyberspace,” by Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe with Yi-Huey Guo and Lu Liu. This essay explores the ways that “computer networks” (57) help users around the world maintain familial and academic relationships through their digital literacy practices. The authors also explore how learning/using English influences the communicative relationships among speakers and writers who are monolingual, bilingual, or multilingual by examining the literacy narratives of their co-writers. To situate how digital relationships exist among people in a global context, the term guanxi, which “means ‘relation’ or ‘relationship’” (57), is investigated to determine both the possibilities and limitations of “digital literacies” (76).

Paul Kei Matsuda’s chapter, “The Myth of Linguistic Homogeneity in U.S. College Composition,” is thought-provoking and somewhat confrontational. In fact, of all the essays in the collection, Matsuda’s is the most direct in its assault against the “English Only” model “accepted” (81) and adopted by the profession. He criticizes the profession for not altering its research agenda to fit the needs of an increasingly diverse student population in our composition classrooms. Writing Program Administrators considering curriculum changes will find Matsuda’s essay helpful.

Elaine Richardson’s (African American language), Kate Mangelsdorf’s (Spanglish), Scott Richard Lyons’s (Native American languages), and Shondel J. Nero’s (Creole and Caribbean Creole English) essays share a common goal: to explain the intimate connection between language and identity. To that end, these scholars’ texts reveal a stark truth: The English Only model has social and cultural consequences, and awareness of and respect for students’ home languages is an important part of the student-teacher relationship. I found all their articles very compelling. Writing teachers who want to explore the complexity of students’ ambivalence toward their native languages should take a closer look at Mangelsdorf’s essay.

Of all the chapters in the first section, A. Suresh Canagarajah’s provides the most detailed account of theory and praxis at work. Canagarajah begins by explaining that multilingual writers’ competencies may be “multilateral and generative” not “unidirectional” as the “monlingualist assumption” presumes (158). This is helpful because he explains his theory, then through several writing samples, gives readers an opportunity to see his theory and practice come together. His writing samples come from Professor K. Sivatamby, a “senior scholar in Sri Lanka” (161), whom Canagarajah believes shows researchers and writing teachers how multilingual writers can effectively “shuttle between languages and discourses” (159). Such practices exhibited by Sivatamby can be used to teach writing teachers how to embrace multilingual writers in their composition classes.

The nine contributors in Part Two of the collection offer their own unique responses to their colleagues’ essays from Part One, and, like their colleagues, the contributors in Part Two offer solutions to combat the English Only model that permeates the classroom and the global marketplace. For example, Shirley Wilson Logan proposes that language rights issues can be addressed by helping graduate teaching assistants to think differently about “language use” (188). Because Logan spends time explicating the important role of the GTA in our composition programs, I found her chapter very helpful. She explains, rather persuasively, because GTAs are often the gateway between our programmatic beliefs and our praxis, it is possible to start changing English Only attitudes with them.

Susan K. Miller-Cochran suggests that WPAs can play a key role in shaping how writing programs understand the linguistic diversity of their student writers. To do so, she offers a number of ways writing programs can implement strategic plans to honor the responsibility of the WPA while also honoring the linguistic diversity of their students. One suggestion is to “begin [to hire] faculty with preparation for working in linguistically diverse environments” (218). WPAs who want to find practical solutions to solve some of the curriculum challenges they currently face will find Miller-Cochran’s chapter valuable.

In Catherine Prendergast’s chapter, readers will find a unique perspective endorsed. Instead of embracing those moments of “comprehension” (232), when we understand one another linguistically and culturally, Prendergast suggests we accept “incomprehension” (232), moments when our linguistic and cultural lives collide. I find Prendergast’s proposal refreshing. It is my belief that this kind of misunderstanding and disruption is useful because it can help us reconcile language differences among teachers, students, and researchers.

In the final chapter in Part Two, Victor Villanueva asserts his belief that it is unfortunate that we are still fighting against the English Only model in the twenty-first century. While I agree with Villanueva’s laments, I am hopeful that this collection will reinvigorate the opponents of English Only to fight strongly for the “multilingualism and cross-language relations in composition” that Horner identifies at the outset (3).

I strongly believe this collection is very important. The scholars in the text continually remind us gently and cogently that we have an obligation to recognize and respect the linguistic differences of our students. They provide practical ways to alter course curricula to satisfy the needs of our home institutions, and a few provide sample assignments that can help us teach our students how to navigate the world of college writing while also respecting the writing abilities they bring with them to the classroom.

If there is one limitation in this text, it is the lack of assignments that illustrate how to respect students’ linguistic diversity while also teaching them writing conventions without disparaging or ignoring their native languages. That being said, composition teachers and researchers who are interested in language rights issues will find this collection thoughtful, engaging, and beneficial. And composition teachers of all levels who find themselves encountering linguistically diverse student populations will also find this collection helpful.

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