To Resist or Not to resist:
a Question for Second Language Learners

Yaying Zhang


So the little boy's mind began to focus on the idea of surviving the hardships of school. Surviving. Getting through it. And that, he could tell, was estranging him from his family by opening pockets of solitude in the core of his being . No longer trusting and open with others, he fluttered his lashes over the treacherous innocence of his eyes, learning to leave some space between what his heart felt and what his mouth said. It meant surviving, I say, and dying at the same time. -- School Days, by Patrick Chamoiseau
When we were alone in some corner we did talk in our own language and if the Sister caught us it was, "You talk English!" That's where a lot of girls kind of forgot their language . They said it was better for us to speak English because we could learn English and read and write better if we kept our English, if we spoke English instead of talking Indian. -- "An Indian Remembers," by Mary Englund
Mama, I got an "A" on my language test today. But Cindy and Sandy said that I had cheated on the test. I didn't! I told them that just because I'm an ESL doesn't mean I couldn't get an "A" without cheating. Mama, do you believe that I got an "A" without cheating? -- Ryan, my nine-year-old son

I think Professors, and even TAs, should be more open-minded and tolerant toward ESL students. Some of them really have bias and prejudice. They give ESL students low marks when they write differently, but probably better, than native students. -- An ESL student at Simon Fraser University

As a gesture of resistance to the authoritative scholastic discourses commonly used in academia, I have started my presentation with voices from second language learners. Although these voices have their origins in different parts of the world, and the time span of these voices covers almost a whole century, there is an echo of resistance (more determined than my own) which threads through these voices and which embodies the unequal power relations involved in the nature and process of second language acquisition.

In recent years, the general schemes of power and language have been investigated from various research perspectives. Tony Crowley, in his Standard English and the Politics of Language (1989), has illustrated in historical terms the political implications of the study of Standard English in British history. In Britain, from the nineteenth century through to the first decades of the twentieth century, the concept of Standard English was identified as the speech of the ruling class and permitted the ranking and valorizing of forms of speech. According to this ranking, the speech of the lower classes is "diseased" or "afflicted," and definitely in an inferior position. Similarly, Susan Miller, in her Textual Carnivals: The Politics of Composition (1991), has examined "language learning [as] the crucial locus for power, or for disenfranchisement" (7). Miller argues that freshman composition was instituted for, and has continued to be provided for, "failures," separating "the unpredestined from those who belong" (74). Focusing on English language teaching, Alastair Pennycook, in her English and the Discourses of Colonialism (1998), has revealed that English, instead of being a neutral language of global communication, remains a language to which colonial discourses adhere and a language laden with colonial implications.

If we go beyond the theoretical frameworks of linguistics and composition studies, we will find that the reciprocal relationships between English and the discursive constructions of Self and Other have often been captured in conceptualizations of anthropology and postcolonial studies. In Culture/Contexture: Exploration in Anthropology and Literary Studies (1996), Valentine Daniel and Geoffrey Peck argue that any literary activity, and I would add, especially the teaching and learning of a foreign language, always has an anthropological component. In the Western intellectual realm, "getting to know the other has been anthropology's raison d'être" (Daniel & Peck, 2), and anthropology's three strategies of engagement with differences are "conquest, conversion, and marginalization" (Connolly, cited in Daniel & Peck). However, it would be mistaken to think that these strategies in dealing with the Other only apply to times of long ago and places far away. If conquest and conversion are two interrelated operations employed by anthropology in its engagement with the Other in distant lands, marginalization is probably the strategy employed by anthropology in its engagement with the Other among us. If we shift our gaze to the non-native speakers among us, it will not take long for us to realize that colonial and political implications could easily transfer from colonial schooling to modern day language acquisition of non-native students. If we take a look at the institutional forces and practices that institute the normal by marking and excluding the deviant, we will find that the performance of non-native students when asked to meet the expectations of Western instructors has often placed them outside the conventional boundaries of the white academia. Because of principles of inclusion and exclusion that go largely unquestioned, non-native students are often denied participation in the play of reading and writing that goes on within the boundaries of the Western academic community.

One of the institutional sites that can shed light on principles of inclusion and exclusion is the history of the canonization of Canadian literature. In a country such as Canada, the formation of literary canon plays a big role in the construction of national identity. Robert Lecker, in his "The Canonization of Canadian Literature: An Inquiry into Value," paints a unitary picture of Canadian critical landscape in 1960s that values "a relation among national consciousness, literary history, and a kind of idealized mimesis" (662). Lecker notes that during the 1970s, the so-called thematic critics, most notably Margaret Atwood, D. G. Jones, and John Moss, continued to valorize "realistic, linear, conventional novels that were the central, defining texts of the new Canadian tradition" (668). Thematic critics' interest in what literary works say about "Canada" and "Canadians" reveals that there is a unified view of what makes Canadian writing valuable. Their reading of Canadian texts became what Jeff Derksen calls "a sort of archaeological dig for hidden and universal Canadianness" (64).

Therefore, the formation and definition of the Canadian "Lit Canon" has constituted a privileged site for the unification of the citizen with the "imagined community" (Anderson) of the Canadian nation, while the canon simultaneously relinquishes local particularities and differences. Thus, it is not surprising that in critical guides to Canadian literature such as Margaret Atwood's Survival (1972), Atwood constructs Canadian literature as a site where the remnants of the old colonial relationship with Britain and the new colonial relationship with the United States could be resisted and subverted, and where a single Canadian national identity could be established. However, this belief fails to acknowledge hierarchical power relations within Canada; it fails to discriminate between postcolonial settlers and postcolonial aboriginals and racialized minorities. Such a view runs the risk of ignoring Canada's own position of centrality and dominance in relation to its "Other" ­ Canada's racialized minorities. Moreover, Atwood's exclusion of minority texts is also linked to the broader mechanisms for the exclusion of minority texts from literary production, which exist in a myriad of associated sites and practices, across a network of institutions - publishing houses, state granting agencies, the mass media, universities, etc. It is within these institutional sites that the hegemony of the Western, liberal-humanist discourse operates, informing the criteria used by the gatekeepers of literary production.

While such a canon provides a still centre in a turning world, our students receive and internalize these canonical assumptions. To revise these assumptions would involve more than adding some new token books to the existing canon - to usher in epistemological shifts which will challenge the lip service of the official discourse of multiculturalism, the very reasons for linguistic and cultural exclusion would have to become a focus of study and research.

Now, if we move beyond the content of canon, which is also the content of many university curricula, to examine some basic assumptions about teaching and writing, a further problem arises, one that involves the very nature of the canonical orientation itself. Let us take a look at the expectations on many instructors' assignment sheets: "Present your argument in a clear and logical way" (i.e. clear and logical to the Western instructor); "Your essay must have a central idea and your paragraphs must have topic sentences"; and "You must not give a summary of what you read. Instead, you are expected to show your critical stance, where you stand in relation to what you read." While university professors have long been socialized into these conventional assumptions of "good writing," they often do not realize how unsettling they can be to students who do not share their background. The rhetoric of these expectations, of clarity and logic, of a central idea and topic sentences, and most important of all, of the deadly critical stance, that fundamental ethos of the Western university, often presents problems for non-native students, students outside the boundaries of what is taken to be commonplaces or routines of Western academic discourse. When faced with these Western expectations, non-native students often feel estranged because their familiar cognitive landscapes have shifted, and because once-effective strategies have been rendered obsolete. I'd like to share with you my experience of the first grad paper, which was also my first paper for a Canadian professor. The topic for my paper was "the self-representation of Margaret Laurence." To write that paper, I did a huge amount of research - I read most of Laurence's novels, her biography, her autobiography, her nonfiction, and even her private correspondence with her close friends. I wrote a long paper about how Laurence constructed herself as a writer, as a woman, and as a mother, and I thought I did a good job. But when I got the paper back, the feedback was disheartening. The professor wrote: "you've covered a lot of ground in preparing this paper and have given a comprehensive account of how Laurence represented herself in her writing. But what I'm more interested in is how you, as an informed and intelligent reader, critically evaluate Laurence's self-representation." I felt so stupid, and to this day I still cringe at the word "critical."

Now to conclude my presentation, I'd like to return to my initial question which is also the title of my presentation: "To resist or not to resist: a question for second language learners." I have no answer for the question at the moment and I am not sure if there are answers to this question. Indeed, non-native students face a paradoxical situation: if they choose to resist Western discourse conventions and remain loyal to their own cultures, they may forever be shunned outside the boundaries of the Western academic world; if they choose to embrace Western conventions, their entry into Western academic discourse community might be accelerated, but in the meantime thy will probably have to go through the painful process of relinquishing their previous identities and creating a new sense of self. To have a better understanding of the complexities of writing situations for non-native-speaking students, and to answer Susan Miller's call to examine the political implications of writing, I hope to design a study, which will be part of my doctoral research, which examines the enculturation process whereby non-native-speaking students enter or attempt to enter Canadian academic discourse communities. Informed by the new conceptualization of genre that sees writing as a dynamic, social, and cultural activity, and postcolonial studies that challenge and destabilize the existing hierarchies of social order, my approach will privilege the perspectives of non-native-speaking students, situating them as occupying a central rather than a peripheral position. Thus, cultural assumptions of non-native-speaking students about Western discourse conventions will be embraced and Western assumptions will be held up for critical examination. I believe that to see the world through the eyes of "border residents" -to quote Gloria Anzaldua - will allow researchers to transfer their gaze and examine some fundamental assumptions and values embedded in Western discourse conventions.

My research site will be the multi-faceted writing contexts of non-native-speaking students at Simon Fraser University, with its large number of non-native students in its classrooms. The data for my research will be collected from observation of classroom interactions, interviews, hearing students "reading" the reception of their writing, hearing students' reflections of their composing processes, textual practices of non-native speakers, and participation in associations of non-native-speaking students. One of the factors that makes me feel privileged and that will offer me a meaningful perspective on the social, political, and educational implications of language acquisition is that I myself have gone through and am still going through the thrilling as well as painful process of acquiring literacy in a new country, and that I have a nine-year-old son who is in his second year in Canada and who has been sharing with me his adventures into the "treacherous" territory of learning English.

I hope that such a study will create opportunities for beneficial shifts in Western epistemological paradigms that might be gained from various resources brought by non-native-speaking students. I also hope that by privileging the subject positions of non-native-speaking students, this study will help us to come to a new understanding of the complexities of the diversity we blandly cite as the "multicultural" Canada. And I hope to have opportunities to share with you my findings someday.

Works Cited

Chamoiseau, Patrick. School Days. Trans. Linda Coverdale. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Crowley, Tony. Standard English and the Politics of Language. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Daniel, Valentine & Jeffery Peck, eds. Culture/Contexture: Explorations in Anthropology and Literary Studies. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996.

Derksen, Jeff. "Making Race Opaque: Fred Wah's Poetics of Opposition and Differentiation." West Coast Line. 18, Winter 1995: 63-76.

Englund, Mary. "An Indian Remembers." Academic Reading. Ed. Janet Giltrow. Ontario: Broadview Press, 1995.

Lecker, Robert. "The Canonization of Canadian Literature: An Inquiry into Value." Critical Inquiry. Spring 1990: 656-674.

Miller, Susan. Textual Carnivals: The Politics of Composition. IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1991.

Pennycook, Alastair. English and the Discourses of Colonialism. London: Routledge, 1998.


To the edited and distributed Inksheds on this presentation

Back to Inkshed 2000 "Live Archive"
Back to main Inkshed Web site