Kiratmani Saran | April 27, 2023
Language gives us access to the world; it is through language that we come in contact with reality.1 However, language is not neutral: it transforms what is into what is for us, to wit, it is perspectival. This semester, I was embedded in Writing and Culture, and consequently helped many students for whom English was a second language. I could sense frustration, and perhaps even dejection, as students struggled to find a way to express their thoughts in a foreign language.
Jessica Williams in her article, “Undergraduate Second Language Writers in the Writing Centre” (2002), observes that second language writers who come to the writing center are new to the written as well as the spoken language. Coming from diverse social, cultural, and educational backgrounds (Williams, 2002), these students are learning to navigate a “new discourse community” (p. 76). However, as Williams notes, tutors are trained to deal with “writing issues” and not “language problems” (p. 75); they lack the requisite know-how to become adequate guides. One way of dealing with this problem is by adopting a more instructional approach in interactions with second language writers and speakers, with the possibility of “negotiation of meaning among learners and their interlocutors” (Williams, 2002, pp. 80-1). This allows for a dialectical approach to language pedagogy so that the student may participate in his learning. In the final analysis, the approach must be appropriate for the student in question (Williams, 2002), which requires regular interaction.
My experience at the Writing Centre this semester confirms Williams’ findings: the increasingly common2 challenges of helping second language writers can be overcome only if we, the tutors, understand these challenges. Moreover, today, we must also account for the influence of artificial intelligence and the role it plays in language education. As Huang et al. (2023) claim, the studies pertaining to the role of AI-enhanced language education are “under-investigated” (p. 112). In other words, the effects of technologically-enhanced language learning (TELL) are not yet known. Thus, assertions such that “AI has great potential for language education” (Huang et al., p. 112) are not only premature but also extremely dangerous, for the non-neutrality of language extends to semiotics in toto.
Focusing on the specific challenge AI poses—or rather that we (human beings) pose in first developing and then using AI—to second language learners, offers a microscopic view of the larger issue, which, if it does not already, will soon occupy the thoughts of most writing tutors. This disquiet is a consequence of a serious, albeit exaggerated, challenge to our humanity; with the development of more sophisticated AI we face the risk of becoming means, or as Henry David Thoreau put it two centuries ago, of becoming “the tools of [our] tools” (2010, p. 32). This relates to the issue stated at the outset, namely, of second language learners at the writing center, because we must realize that we are not merely teaching these students how to write; rather we are opening up the world to them in a new way. This is, at once, a hopeful and fearful task, for we may point them to the summits of humanity or condemn them to a subhuman future.
Huang, X., Zou, D. & Cheng G. (2023). Trends, research issues and applications of aritificial intelligence in language education. Educational Technology & Society 26(1), 112-131.
Thoreau, H. D. (2010). Walden. Library of America Paperback Classics.
Williams, J. (2002). Undergraduate second language writers in the writing center. Journal of Basic Writing 21(2), 73-91.