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Broken EAL student's monologue

Sculptural fragment from one of Akhenaten’s colossal statues in the Aten-Temple in Karnak.
Published by Julia Lane

It’s been 10 years since I came to SFU in 2008. Like other undergraduate students, I had to fulfill the WQB requirement, tried hard to declare my dream major and a minor, worried about my CGPA, browsed ratemyprofessors, and met with friends. The only different thing was that I am an EAL student. You might notice that I use the present tense. Yes, I am still identified as EAL, even though I have been studying in English at SFU for 10 years and am now in a PhD program.

Honestly, the identity "EAL student" has put me in a disadvantaged position in my studies. But I worked hard, extraordinarily hard, to succeed in school. I visited my professors’ office hours, bugged them about assignments, and learned to dig up past exams online to help me with my studies. However, the issue of language never left me; it was always up front in my face. When I received feedback on my course papers, the only comments that I could see were “grammar," “vocabulary,” “you need to go to the SLC,” and even, “you are not ready for university courses.”

When did "EAL" become an institutional label for failure? And when did the SLC become associated with the broken EAL student image?

EAL students struggle, yet they work hard. And yes, sometimes they give up, when the struggle gets to be too much for them. EAL students face cultural issues, personality issues, help-seeking issues, and a lot of other issues, even unspeakable ones. But, I don’t think these issues are unique to EAL students. And the university community needs to start thinking about whether the message they are sending to EAL students is that they are "broken students," in need of fixing, or worse, unable to be fixed. 

The reality is that language issues are for everybody, because the truth is that academic English is no one's first language! The truth that students from across the university -- at all levels, in all disciplines, and EAL or not -- struggle with academic language and writing has been validated statistically by examining a year's worth of SLC consultation data: Students booking consultations at the SLC tend to seek support for the same kinds of issues as each other, regardless of their native language. 

As an SLC writing consultant, I’ve seen EAL students write excellent and not-so-excellent papers; I have seen local students (so-called native English speakers) write "submission ready" and “not-so-ready” papers. Writing and learning issues are cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural. They do not discriminate. And neither should we.

What really matters is whether students put in serious effort to self-regulate their learning processes, to learn effective writing strategies, and to learn to enjoy the process of failure, because it is through our failures that we learn and that we come to experience the success that we seek. 

-- Daniel Chang 

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