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College-level English composition courses are designed to challenge any student's grasp on comprehension and command of the language. But imagine how difficult it would be for an American student to write a five paragraph theme in Mandarin Chinese? How much information would the average English-speaking student gather if the instructor only spoke Dutch? For many college students of foreign birth, this is an everyday situation, and one that must be addressed by English tutors assigned to help them. A good English tutor should be able to assess the general comprehension level of his or her charges, but that assessment can be made much more difficult with a language barrier between tutors and foreign students. Here are some ideas on how to deal with cultural and language barriers when tutoring a foreign student in English composition.

First of all, keep in mind that a lack of English skills does not correlate with a lack of native intelligence. If the course were Mandarin 101 or German composition, your student might pass with flying colors. The reality, however, is that an American college curriculum requires English composition, period. Your student may not be looking forward to the inevitable difficulties of the English course anymore than you would be if the situation were reversed. Respect this native ability, and never lose sight of the amount of concentration it may take for them to get through the course. By establishing a relationship based on mutual respect early on, you will make it much easier on yourself to introduce difficult material later down the road.

Listen to your student's concerns with an open mind. They may have the same basic complaints about the learning environment that other students do, but look beyond the surface with foreign students. If they say that a certain instructor is difficult to understand, try to find out if that instructor is difficult for everyone in the class. He or she may be speaking clearly enough for the majority of the class, but at a rate higher than a foreign student is capable of translating. One solution is to make arrangements to have the class lectures tape recorded, so the foreign student can replay the lecture at a more comfortable rate. This same philosophy applies to visual aids as well. If the foreign student has difficulty translating notes on the board, arrange for videotaping of the lectures. Some instructors simply will not allow such 'intrusions' into their lecture space, but others may allow this to be done, as long as the taping process is not distracting to the other students.

Sometimes the difficulties expressed by a foreign student are not specifically academic in nature. Cultural differences may adversely affect a student's concentration in class, so doing some research on your student's cultural background could shed some light on the situation at hand. A foreign student may have been raised in a culture where women are not permitted to wear certain styles of clothing, so the sight of female American students wearing 'revealing' clothing may be a serious distraction for the student raised in a more conservative culture. This may sound humorous or trivial to our American ears, but consider how some Americans view the customs of other countries, especially the Middle East. An instructor may inadvertently make a remark that is highly offensive to the student's native culture. This can put a very large wedge between the student and instructor, making your job as tutor much more difficult. Try to encourage foreign students to express these cultural concerns in a constructive way.

Find as many foreign translations of required works as you can. What is being emphasized in the classroom is comprehension, so reading the material in a language more comfortable to a foreign student should never be viewed as cheating. Their tests will still be in English, and they will have to respond in English during class discussions. All a translation will do is even the playing field enough for the student to participate in discussions. Othello's plot is still the same, whether it be in German or Japanese or English. Higher English courses may require a stricter interpretation of what constitutes acceptable reading material, but translations should be allowed by most basic English composition instructors.

While you might allow for some dependence on translations for comprehension, you should not compromise on the written material requirements. When going over a foreign student's theme papers, stress the importance of using proper English grammar and punctuation. Oriental languages are especially notorious for leaving out common articles such as a, an, and the, so make certain that your student develops the habit of including articles in their work. You are not being fair to the student or instructor if you allow obvious errors to go unchecked. Foreign students tend to write in much the same way they speak, which can lead to problems in tense shift and dropping of essential sentence elements. Again, part of this is due to the structure of their native language. Some foreign languages do not have 'tenses' to indicate time, as English does. 'I go to the store yesterday.' may sound acceptable to your student's ears, because their language does not shift tenses to indicate past or future action.

Finally, encourage a foreign student to continue their English education past what may be 'required'. An American student may decide to take only the core English curriculum in order to concentrate on their major course of study, but a foreign student should consider adding a few more English classes to their future plans. Learning English is a long process, with its numerous exceptions and idiosyncrasies. As a tutor, you are in a unique position to advise your student on ways to improve their English skills. Use that influence to encourage them to take the other core English courses as soon as possible. Tutoring English 102, especially to a foreign student, is much easier if you plan it as a continuation of English 101. Above all, reinforce your student's hard work and accomplishment with positive feedback. Foreign students appreciate knowing that their English skills are improving, so be sure to acknowledge that improvement openly and without reservation.