response to 'Effects of Colloquial English on Student Essay Writing' by Annab Abderraouf
Lone Cypress Workshop response to the essay:
The Effects of Colloquial English on Student Essays' Writing by Annab Abderraouf
This essay and response are in connection with my group "The Colloquial Essay" if anyone is interested
This may be interpreted more as a response than a review of the work in question. It was my intent to use it as a ‘jumping-off’ point after my initial research and considerations of the concept. There is no real criticism contained, only an attempt to create the genesis of my own comprehensive perspective on the subject and usage of the traditional ‘essay’.
This particular piece has been ‘inspired’ by an article penned by Abderraouf Annab, a graduate student and teacher at the University Abderahmane Mira, Bejaia. His essay is “The effect of colloquial English in students' essay writing” which resonated deeply with me on many levels, and precipitated my own response, not just on his own positions and the focus of his paper, but on the whole concept of the art of the essay, communication between cultures, and the ability to be understood when dealing with not only day to day exchange of information, but the importance of clarity when dealing with issues of intellectual complexities.
I am a student of the essay. Not through any formal discipline, but through a process of self-understanding and investigation. I knew at some point that I wanted to write, and to share ideas and concepts with others, but not in the traditional sense of through a novel or short story, or even an article or formal format essay. I soon introduced myself to the idea of the essay, but it had many shortcomings for what I wished to accomplish.
I am a passionate individual, but I did not desire to present my ideas as any kind of ideology or dogma. My spiritual and religious endeavours have been eclectic, to say the least. I know only that I do not know, so the imperative to follow my lead is somewhat suspect, but my insights lead me to believe that it could be advantageous to at least listen, and perhaps to contemplate those concepts that I too have investigated, and found some value and substance that has proven to be of benefit on my path of discovery. I am intrigued with the imperatives of actually playing the role of a teacher, and wish to share those philosophical musings that have been initiated through my own experiences, and yet only in a general way, not feeling that my calling is in the form of a sage. But again, this is not to say that a conversation could not be had, with focused discussions and reasoned arguments to search for clarity.
The bottom line is that I wish to share, and have been looking for a literary ‘vehicle’ with which to provide an environment where varied individuals can achieve an ‘engagement’ to a mutual benefit through mutual respect and agreement. To this end, I have over the last years come to see the essay as a possible alternative to achieve such an end. Though my research has not been extensive, I have come to have a unique perspective on the use of the essay, and a variation which I have termed the ‘Colloquial Essay’ that seems to possess some of the qualities that I believe can at least begin the process.
I realize that what Mr. Annab has presented has very little to do with my own expectations, and I am well aware that we come to this point from vastly different positions, and yet, I can’t help but feel that my own perspective does not conflict with his own. I may, of course, be wrong about that, and my intent with this essay is to try and present some possibilities that could be considered. It certainly could not hurt to listen to another reality. It is only some varied opinions, from a single individual from a far-away land. Where is the harm?
So my first point is that I see so few individuals, with positions developed over time, sometimes a lifetime that simply cannot find the ability to listen to someone that sees life through a somewhat nuanced lens, and this leads to an inevitable lack of communication and understanding. I in no way expect any specific response. It is simply something to think about, and dismiss or adopt as you will, and perhaps think about it in detail at some later date. Your country, my country, the world, is not talking, not communicating, is not listening, and is certainly not cooperating with those that do not conform to a stringently and narrowly focused ideology. I find it hard to understand why. With all of my writings, I simply wish for people to listen, to think, and to contemplate possibilities. This is no different.
Enough introduction. Let us talk about the ‘essay’. It took a while to make the determination that what I wanted to write was an essay. I had no real idea what it was in the beginning. Of course, I had heard the word throughout my life and thought I had a good understanding of the concept, until I began to research, and discovered that what I had been attempting to do was in fact an essay. At least from my own perspective. I will go into some detail in a moment. As soon as I began to describe my own work as an essay, I was immediately inundated with comments that I was not doing it right, I had to have an introduction, present my arguments in three body parts, and present a conclusion to tie it all together. There were words that should not be used and phrases as well, and of course, ‘colloquial’ speech was characterized without question as unwanted and inappropriate in an ‘essay’ and should be relegated to the trash heap of literature. I was somewhat taken aback. Then again, not really. A little surprised maybe, but my positions seem to often be the outlier within my life experience, so I guess it may have been somewhat expected.
I understand what they are saying, but I have to question if they, themselves, know as well. We all, at times, seem to talk when we should be listening and contemplating. Again, just an opinion. I would like to explain why. My investigations into the art of the essay immediately brought some interesting information to the surface. While the ‘formal’ format has basically co-opted the essay over the last few centuries, it was not always the case. Academia and science have all but relegated the essay to the ‘elites’ within a myriad of professions and disciplines. I acknowledge the fait-accompli as I resist the temptation to simply acquiesce.
The essay, as I understand it, was initially simply an opinion piece, a precursor to the op-eds and articles of today. There were no media print outlets. There were no newspapers, only scrolls, and no books, since paper was a rare commodity, and the printing press was centuries in the future. Who was going to read them anyway? The only people that could write were the educated, a small percentage of the population made up of the philosophers, the religious, the fledgling scientists, and the rich and powerful. As well as a ‘student’ community, which numerically was rather a select group. The readers were made up of the same constituents. A fairly closed environment.
I presume that the presentations of the first essays were probably a bit formalized, considering the clientele. I don’t argue the fact or even the need. When one talks about almost anything, it is necessary to present some kind of introduction to allow the reader to understand what is going to be discussed or presented. It also makes perfect sense to then proceed and make your points, and present opinion or factual evidence when it exists. The problem is that philosophy has been a matter of opinion since the beginning of time. Reasoned in many ways, but invariably nothing more than opinion in all cases. Science was more opinion than fact for quite some time, and even today a large part of science is ‘theoretical’. Again, often offering compelling opinion, but opinion nonetheless. The educators did not ‘create’ what they taught, it was more a regurgitation of what the philosophers and scientists, as well as the religious powers that be, gave them to disseminate to the masses.
In any case, my adoption of the format of the ‘colloquial essay’ has helped somewhat in the focus and direction of how I present my information to my readers. Many individuals, possibly most, are conflicted and may feel contrary, but there are those that are open to the possibilities. I have only begun to scratch the surface of what may someday be an actual finished product. Not sure I have the time, but that is something that I have little control over.
That is my introduction of sorts. I could go on forever, and sometimes do, as you will experience, but I would like to put some time into the authors' comments. Please realize that it is not meant as a criticism in any way. I recognize the environment that precipitated the piece, and the objectives you have in teaching your students to learn a language and to be able to communicate on both an intellectual level and with clarity of thought and delivery. Whatever I do not cover in response to your paper, I will attempt to cover in the conclusion(s).
I would have enjoyed examples of the students’ observations and remarks to get some additional context of what is being termed an assumed ‘mistake’. I am not sure I understand the concept of how lexical items can be ‘misused’. Is this the matter of informality or not understanding the content of the word or phrase, especially when used in an informal or ‘slang’ connotation? This brings us to one of the primary concepts I thought would be interesting, and the contrast between formal and informal writing in an essay.
When one talks of clarity, it is about the base concept of communication, and more importantly a true interpretation of the information being transmitted between writer and reader, is it not? While using an informal form, it may lose some semblance of the ‘professional’ aspect that most essays attempt to portray, but the formal words and phrases are too often incomprehensible to the reader since the semantics are a bit ‘elitist’. What do I mean by that? I do not often read formal essays, but while my vocabulary is fairly competent, I find myself unable to follow the conversation offered. Maybe if nothing but physicists are reading an essay, it makes some kind of sense, but is the intent to make things understandable or to make them so complicated and nuanced that an explanation is necessary to understand the initial concept once again? That is what I experience on a regular basis with the more formal format.
As Einstein has been quoted, ‘if you cannot explain it to a six-year-old, then you don’t understand it yourself’. I realize that is a bit simplistic, but it is very true as well. There are concepts that can only be defined by specific words and definitions, and yet to grasp any concept, one must be able to immerse themselves in the narration to be able to ultimately gain comprehension of the focus of the essay. Like legalese in the practice of law, it becomes the ultimate goal to make the argument of explanation so complicated that it takes hours of research to understand the concept or one accepts it on the assumption that the writer is so much more advanced than the reader, that they must be right. It is a matter of guilt and embarrassment that they do not achieve the level of comprehension necessary which prevents them from demanding further clarification.
Where is the level of communication in such a scenario? This would be the case in a large number of readers, especially in relation to students and the uninitiated, and aren’t those the most important to reach with the presentation? I am not saying that this is an absolute in any way, just that it is a possibility and a reality in relation to my own experience. This is also one of the reasons that I am investigating the usage of a colloquial essay for my own work. My goal is always to inform and to initiate thought and contemplation about some issue or philosophical (for wont of a better word) concept.
There can be no argument about the importance of writing in the learning of a language or the transmittal of education or even fundamental communication. Writing is arguably the most important aspect of the evolution of mankind in relation to other ethnicities.
The process of writing is without a doubt a difficult process to master. It does indeed demand an excessive amount of time and energy for proficiency, and that is only on the rudimentary level. For the execution of a formal essay, as opposed to an informal one, it takes an even greater focus, since the words, phrases, and concepts that exist in the professional disciplines are actually unnecessary in the ordinary life of a regular individual, which makes it all even more difficult to master. This is another argument for a less stringent discipline within the essay for those things that can and will be an obstacle to clarity and comprehension.
The need for this challenging level can only restrict those individuals that are learning a new language since the need for not only learning hundreds, if not thousands of words not often used in normal interactions, not to mention the nuanced definitions, puts them at a disadvantage as far as that level of proficiency mentioned. It is something that will make it that much more difficult to learn. I am not trying to make something less complicated simply for its own sake. I read many writers that use grossly esoteric words in their stories, and it makes it look like they are trying too hard. It’s obvious that they are sitting there looking up words just to impress the reader, and themselves, and they don’t realize that they accomplish the exact opposite.
Words have meanings, and they are quite specific. Within a discipline, it would be a mistake to not use a term that is in high usage, but otherwise, it is self-defeating. I don’t want to have to look up a hundred words while I read a story, and I don’t care if it is a novel or an essay. The number one goal of the writer is to transmit the information directly to me by the most efficient means possible, otherwise, they are not doing their primary function as a writer, educator, or communicator. I also lose respect for the writer, and it will influence my decision to read something from that person in the future.
A writer can certainly be ‘too’ informal, and distract the reader with disrespect for the subject matter, but it is true as well that it can be too formal, and disassociate the reader from the objective in writing the essay. There is a fine line between professional and pretentious.
I am not sure I agree with the intimation that informal writing creates a more serious problem of clarity. Lack of attention does that, and the level of the essay is not really the question. Maybe we actually agree, and simply are looking at this from a different direction. An informal essay can be every bit as professional as a formal one. A badly written formal essay, and there are many out there, is certainly inferior to a well-designed and expertly written informal one. I am not talking about bad grammar and punctuation, multiple uses of gratuitous slang and pejoratives, etc., and there is no need for jokes and gossip or rumours. That is not what we are talking about.
Personal delivery and passion are things that can be used in an essay, with great effect. It has to be done with style and decorum and talent. In fact, the formal essay would restrict these things as ‘unprofessional’ when we all know that these things exist within us all. It is a matter of control and discipline, in our daily life actions as well as our writings. I see no detriment in being a human being, just not a crass and irrational one.
I think your comment that a ‘higher level of writing performance requires deliberate practice and repeated training from both the teacher and the student’ is a valid one. Of course it does. Do these things not exist in the reality of the informal essay? We both know it is the student as well as the teacher that instills the skills to do so in their writing. A formula does not guarantee any particular result. Talent and integrity ensure that. There is a need for guidelines and perhaps general standards, but not a template and a rigid structural ideology in writing.
I realize that the formal essay is not particularly used for enjoyment, but I find it disquieting that all of the best aspects of writing are removed completely from the formal essay when it was not necessary to do so. Conformity is stagnation, no matter the discipline, and no matter the epoch.
Your comment as to the appropriate ‘academic’ word choice, as opposed to a more ‘casual’ word that they are accustomed to, is somewhat misleading. As previously alluded to, it is more the usage of a word and the context of the structure of the phrase or sentence that gives a word relevance and legitimacy. I think the concept of ‘casual’ can create a false negative when speaking of the presentation in relation to the intent of the essay. The objective will always be the clarity and ease of assimilation of the information contained in the essay moreso than the appearance of specific words or phrases or the rigid structure of an expected final product. I realize that the intent of the ‘formal’ is reason and balance, but I fail to see why it cannot include passion and excitement as well in the narrative. It continues to be about content and delivery and not about formula and template.
Statement of the Problem:
You speak of linguistic proficiency. Does this not mean discipline and control over the final product and not just the following of precedent? Is it not the teacher that controls the ultimate mastery of words in general and the writing itself in a larger sense? Casual usage does not negate the necessity or even the availability of dynamic and legitimate writing. Again, it is the presentation of the subject matter that is of ultimate importance, and not the format through which it is delivered. The teacher will challenge the writer to achieve the goals of clarity and comprehension, but how they achieve that goal should be open to interpretation. A rigid formulaic path is not always the best way to reach that goal. There is a favorite saying of mine, that ‘there are many paths to the top of a mountain. I will find my own way there’. I think that we need to allow the writer to find their own path to success. That is the essence of great writing, and I make no distinction between academic and fiction, or any other avenue within literature. Forgive me, it is nothing more than a personal opinion, but I have little else to offer.
You point to a problem with students achieving lower proficiency in vocabulary as well as the misuse of lexical items, but is that not a result of them having to, in essence, learn not one new language, but two? It is difficult enough to learn the language that would be necessary to talk with another individual born with said language, but you ask them to learn the academic language as well, which is vastly more complicated, like an ancient dialect, and puts an undue pressure in addition to learning the language itself. The use of long sentences and lack of punctuation is a matter of discipline and structure and primarily a responsibility of the actual teacher, as well as the student. At some point, the individual has to accept the obligation of the learning process.
Your reference to Kralove again points to extremely long sentences and incorrect words or phrases. I fail to see what this has to do with the formal vs. the informal format. I, myself, when I began to write, used undue long sentences. I realized at some point that my thinking was 'stream of consciousness', with my writing simply presenting the way my thought process worked. Realizing the reason why was instrumental in making adjustments. It had nothing to do with my informal intent with the narrative. Once the student is trained in the appropriateness of his actions or process, it is only a matter of repetition to create change. And this does not even address the fact that these things may be a part of their own process or style, which needs to be addressed from another perspective. Is the ultimate goal to develop a good writer, or to force all writers into a cookie-cutter formula, devoid of personality and creativity? The state of writing, in general, is somewhat disappointing, with the new and innovative being vilified while the mundane and predictable is applauded and rewarded.
I question the premise that informality is reflected in ‘highly informal’ and ‘conversational’ as well as ‘emotional’ writing. While I acknowledge that this ‘can’ be one of many results, there is no imperative for it to do so. Discipline controls this. There is nothing wrong with a conversational format, but I am a bit biased. I could make a case that it is more instructional and instrumental in communication and understanding as it makes the reader contemplate those things that may otherwise have been overlooked. Emotion can always be an impediment since it is rarely based in reason, but there is nothing preventing the writer from the inclusion of reason and factual evidence in whatever they are attempting to present. Passion is one of many emotions and does not demand mindless emotionalism. Passion also denotes focus and determination.
I applaud your inclusion of the importance and responsibility of the teacher in the process. Lack of time is indeed a primary cause for indifference and an inability to enjoy the art of writing. It is not presented well here in the U.S. either, so the excitement and enjoyment of communication are lost on many if not most. When we have an environment where the majority of our interactions with others, especially with younger individuals, are taken up with acronyms, emojis, and texts of no more than 144 characters what can you expect as a result? Without making changes to this paradigm, how can we ever expect any other eventuality? No one wishes to do something that offers little if any pleasure or satisfaction, and they will continue to resist if no incentives are introduced to the process.
I am not sure that introducing formal register practices is the answer to the sub-performance of individuals that are not finding any personal positives in the exercises of writing. It falls on the school and teachers to introduce ‘out-of-the-box’ motivational aspects to change their perspectives on the issue. If they do not ‘want’ and ‘anticipate’ the challenge, they will simply do whatever minimum is required to pass the course and get through the distasteful prerequisite.
I find the questions to be somewhat simplistic. Because it is easier, the students will want to use colloquialisms, not even understanding the reasons why. It would be of more interest and relevance to get the student to recognize and analyze the ‘why’ they do it. Using academic register teachings may well improve the structure of the writings as it pertains to following directives and staying ‘within the lines’ but as for better writing, I think that would be highly arguable. Will it actually result in ‘better’ writing? That is highly debatable on multiple levels as well.
I do not argue the stated goal of creating a ‘positive effect’ on the writings, only if it will indeed result in demonstrably better writing as a whole. Are all of these students going to be writing nothing but formal academic and philosophical treatises? If not, then is not a more comprehensive and balanced mixture of the two to be preferable? Truly formal disciplines tend to produce a highly structured product without personality and a certain lack of real interest and often diminished readability. I am not sure I understand the ultimate objective. The discipline that would be evident is always a positive, but discipline can be applied from many different perspectives and carry over to a myriad of levels, within any type of writing the student may do in the future. The academic register may be rather limited in an improvement in any other aspect.
Aims of the study:
I must question the statement that ‘colloquialism’ is directly affiliated with a ‘misuse’ of words. I see no evidence of this within my own writing or the writing I investigate with others. The misuse, when I see it, is more a matter of ignorance or laziness, and no direct correlation to the use of any colloquialisms. I think the comment is misleading and a venue for a false investigation, without further evidence. Clarity of message is, of course, a matter of concern, but again, that seems to be the prevue of the teacher, and not the responsibility of the student, at least in the initial stages of instruction. Once the understanding of what one is attempting to present, and said discipline is instilled in the process, I see no reason that these things cannot be a normal part of the creative process in the writing of the essay. A good writer can write anything well. Most things that are badly written are the fault of an inferior writer or possibly an inadequate education, and this will never change. Good writers will always produce a quality product.
“It is crucially demanding that writing in a second or a foreign language require a sort of linguistic proficiency that is lacking in many non-natives of the language”. I wholeheartedly agree, with a caveat being that even within the English language, the linguistic proficiency to do what you are suggesting is lacking as well. Very few of even post-graduates are capable of producing quality work as far as formal essays are concerned. Disturbingly, their ability to create other types of writing of quality is also suspect. They might not agree, nor their colleagues and professors, and yet the reality is that their work is mediocre at best, but of course that is only my opinion, and with limited, and yet consistent, examples. To be proficient in any language, even on a rudimentary and conversational level, is no easy task. On the level you are investigating, it is daunting and a real challenge.
I am not sure I understand the ‘contradiction’ of the colloquial language in the writings. I feel compelled to reiterate that it may not be the colloquial usage, but the inefficient and underdeveloped talents of the writers, as well as the teachers, in demonstrating that ‘mastery’ of the format that you mentioned earlier. A capable writer will not ‘contradict’ his own essay if the effort and ability are showcased. An incapable writer will fail in any case, as his competence and proficiency are substandard, and his inability to present a cogent argument is at a great disadvantage.
With the inclusion of planning, translating, and reviewing, it will increase the probability of an essay of value and substance, no matter who the writer. These things preclude the misuse of words and the lack of clarity that you have pointed to as negative aspects of the writing. Good habits in not just the writing, but the editing and development of an essay, and in many instances more important than the words themselves. It’s all about communication, right?
If these researchers can pinpoint the abilities lacking in the authors' skillset, should ‘that’ not be the focus of effort instead of the vague concept of some ‘colloquialism’? The fact that they believe that there are simple steps that must be followed is the crux of my conflict. We have more than enough individuals that are so sure of what must be done, without any real evidence. This exists in relationships, the economic workplace, our political environment and so much more.
We need to discuss and debate, and to ‘communicate’ with one another. That was one of your interests, was it not, communication? We need to have a conversation, which of course is just another form of colloquialism, and determine real objectives, and not etched-in-stone directives or diktats that do not teach, but indoctrinate and coerce. We need more discussion and disagreement, and the ability to try different alternatives, even when not in line with the powers that be, and the ‘conventional wisdom’ that often turns out to be anything but. This often results in change and progress, sometimes even in a positive way.
I would have to agree that the media and most of the social networking platforms are the sources of much of what is perverting our abilities to use language, and by extension, writing, to the point that they are a threat to the future abilities to participate in the communication that is imperative if we are to continue to make progress with the human condition. I see no options offered on how to deal with such a threat. If we do nothing about that particular issue, how then do we ever improve upon what you present here? The schools are a reflection of the surrounding society. You try to implement even more restrictive standards in essay writing, while allowing the society to completely disintegrate. One cannot change without the other making allowances on some level. These ‘other’ influences are in direct competition with the schools and any type of accepted historical behaviour. Are you not attempting to catch water in a sieve? Another perspective is required. Unyielding agendas and ideologies will only create more division and conflict. The die is cast. I have no real answer to the question.
This was not meant to be critical of the work you are doing. I came across your paper, and with your interests and the subject matter, I simply thought it would be an appropriate exercise for myself to insert some thoughts and observations in relation to my own work on my genre of writing, which I term the ‘colloquial’ essay. I realize that they are not talking about the same issues, and yet I personally find many relationships that could prove fruitful to myself, as well as others, if given some reasonable consideration.
Your interest in communication also tempted me to offer some insights. I find that the level of communication, in my country, my life, and my own writings, is at a low ebb in relation to my own lifetime. I am almost 68 years old, and I see a significant decrease in the ability of adults to have a meaningful conversation, and my opinion of today's students has even more concerns. I often ask myself for an explanation, and besides the superficial issues of educational systems and the insulation we build between differing belief systems, both religious and political, it is challenging and disappointing to see so few other individuals concerned at all.
In any case, I thought that there might exist some interest for someone such as myself, especially since I am from a different country and a perspective that you may not have encountered in the past. One of the aspects in these groups is the intransigence to change and the lack of open-mindedness to not only drastic opposing views but even those of a rather minor level. I am not much of an authoritarian, and will usually side with those that want more choice and creativity. But with reason and considered intent.
The formal essay, while I understand and support the teaching, it still stands to reason that it should have more flexibility, and allow the marketplace to determine what will be acceptable or not. I have little patience for those that will suffer no alternatives. The formal essay is one of those disciplines that is set in their ways. A very few people control the environment, and agendas and personal ideologies often subvert the intended goal of education. Again, just an opinion.
I enjoyed your dilemma. We need to improve writing, and to give options to our students and our writers in general, on how to conduct themselves and their words. I just want it to be more inclusive and open-minded. That seems like a reasonable perspective. I hope you agree. If you actually agreed to read this, and have finished it, I appreciated your time and effort, and wish you nothing but success in your endeavours. Feel free to contact me at any time.
And of course, I always wish you nothing but peace.
Lone Cypress Workshop
Lone Cypress Workshop