It’s a pretty bold statement, but let me explain why.
I am an immigrant. I know… You couldn’t tell with my excellent Canadian accent. I get this all the time ‘but you speak English fluently, how could it be your second language”.
Let me tell you a short story of how I learned English.
We moved to London, England. I was put into year 2. There was no such program as “English-Second-Language” for foreigners. It was simply “just put her in and she will get the gist”. On my first day of the school, I walked up to the teacher and pointed to the top of a piece of paper with the letters: N-A-M-E. She looked at me puzzled. “Your name”, she said.
“My name is Anastasia”, I said back. I pointed back at the four letters. She looked at me again and said: “yes, write your name”. I shook my head “no”.
That’s when she realized I didn’t know HOW to write my name in this new found alphabet. She then handed me a new assignment for the day. Write my name in the Latin alphabet:
I remember the next day when I received a new assignment and I saw those four letters: N-A-M-E. “Yes!” I thought, “I’ve got this” and proudly wrote my name: “Anastasia”.
There’s a difference between growing up with a language and learning the language when you are young. By the time my family and I immigrated into Canada, I was put into year 4. During this time, children were writing short answer questions and short essays for their teachers. On top of this, children in an english-Canadian school learn french during this time. So not only did I have to learn how to write coherent sentences in English, but I also had to do the same in French!
My first french class was even worse than my first English class. I really had to go to the toilet in the middle of class, and back in the day, you had to ask the teacher whether you may go to the bathroom.
“En française” the teacher said to me, after I asked her in English. I turned to the girl sitting next to me and asked her what the deal was with the teacher. “You need to say it in French, Anastasia” the girl said to me. You’ve got to be kidding me… “How do i say it in french” I asked.
“Est-ce que je peux aller aux toilettes” the girl said, but really all I heard was “Es kew poo hoolay twoolet”. And that’s what I proudly asked the teacher.
Throughout school, English was my worst subject. I realize now it was because I never learned grammar, spelling, or sentence structure. I was just thrown into the deep end of English, and told “float with the knowledge you can gather yourself”. And that’s what I did.
I read back on my old high-school, or dare I say, elementary school essays, and they are atrocious. I would receive a B+ from a teacher and a comment “I’m not exactly sure what you were saying here”. I re-read one of my 5th year essays where I wrote about my ballet recital. But instead of recital, I kept on saying how I performed in a “ballet concert”, and I got marks taken off from that and received that famous comment “I’m not sure what you mean here”, literally because I did not know the word “recital”.
So then comes undergrad. I survived high-school on my high marks in math and science. Good thing I chose Biology as my Major. Much of my first few years of undergraduate were multiple choice assessments. Easy Peasy.
And then in my last term of my 2nd year, I took a course where we had to write a scientific magazine article. We handed in a detailed outline that was marked first. I received a 65% on that outline. I didn’t understand. Was it not creative enough? Did the scientific description not make sense? I went to speak with the Demonstrator for the course to see how I could improve for the final assignment.
She quickly read it over, and I heard those famous words “I’m not sure what you mean here”. I explained what I was trying to convey on the paper in my own words.
“Ooohh” she exclaimed, “I understand, you just did not articulate this well on the page”. She bumped me up to an 80% for that assignment.
But I still did not understand what I was doing wrong. I knew what I was trying to convey on the paper, why were people having such a hard time understanding my writing?
In my fourth year I was interviewed and accepted for two summer paid internships with two very prestigious professors in our university. I told one of the professors, that I am most likely considering the other internship. “I can offer you an Honours project on top of the internship” he wrote back. Still I preferred the other internship, so I figured I’d haggle. They both wanted me, what do I have to lose?
“I’d prefer to take this internship professor” I said confidently, “But I’d like you to offer me an Honours project as well, as the other internship that I have been selected for is offering”. I figured this was a done deal. If they both wanted me, why wouldn’t they both offer me an Honours project?
“I’ll have to think about it Anastasia” the professor said. “You’re just not a good writer and an Honours project involves a lot of writing”. My heart dropped. I was fighting back tears at these words. “Right, of course”, I said “I understand”. And I walked out of that office, before he could see me crying.
Why did no one ever tell me this! Why did no one ever correct me, or give me advice on how to improve my writing! Why were my marks on written assignments always adequate enough that no one batted an eye to tell me I was not a good writer!
Shortly, I received an email:
“Anastasia, I have considered your proposal for the Honours project on top of the internship. I would like to accept you for the internship, as well as an Honours project. On one condition. I would like you to take a Writing Course alongside your Honours Project to improve your writing”.
This writing course was a huge eye opener. It taught me grammar, sentence structure, paragraph structure, the difference between effect vs affect – although I still have to google this one to ensure I am using it correctly.
I learned so much in that one semester of a writing course, than I did from my English elementary or high-school teachers. Now, I don’t blame my teachers. They knew I was a smart kid, I just wasn’t good at putting it all out on paper. I just wish I didn’t have to find out in my 20’s that I needed help in writing!
In addition to the writing class, I also used my universities writing center, where the advisors would clearly outline why people weren’t understanding my writing, and how I can improve it.
All in all, I don’t think I am the best writer. But I do think I am much better than I was, and I am certainly improving on a daily basis with the more feedback I receive and the more I practice writing.
If you disagree, then at least I can ask to go to the toilet in french better than you.