Dr. Xuemei Li is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. Her research interests include TESL/TEFL curriculum and methodology, second/additional language writing, ESL support in schools and communities, migration and newcomer integration, and identity issues in additional language contexts. She teaches, supervises, and publishes in these areas. Dr Li’s current SSHRC-funded projects investigate language and social support for newcomers (immigrant, refugee, & international student) in Canada, and particularly in Newfoundland. She also explores EAP (English for Academic Purposes) writing instruction and teacher education in Chinese universities.
Interviewed by: Khalid Al Hariri and Hami Suzuki
- Could you tell us about your educational and professional background? What led you to becoming an educator that you specialize in?
I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in English literature and graduate diploma in TEFL in China and taught EFL at the tertiary level for ten years before I came overseas. I visited Nottingham University in the UK in 2000 and came to Canada in 2001 to pursue a Master’s in applied linguistics at Carleton University in Ottawa. During the two-year study, I worked as a tutor at the university’s Writing Tutorial Service and Enriched Academic Program. Upon graduation, I proceeded with a doctoral program in education at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where I taught the TESL courses online and in class.
What led me to becoming an educator in my research areas? A good question. I think I was born to do what I am doing. I was a passionate reader and writer in my mother tongue, Chinese, when I was young and fell in love with the English language the moment I started to learn it as a teenager. The seed of my interest in linguistic and cultural differences between the two languages was planted during my college years and sprouted while I was teaching college English in China. However, the sprout was more like a curious peek and poke than serious scholarship because the heavy teaching assignments did not allow me time for in-depth reading and reflection. I left my teaching position to pursue a research career. My research interests have developed from looking into languages and cultures to people who speak the languages and practise the cultures, in particular, refugees who do not have a choice of the new languages and cultures that they have to adapt to.
- You moved to Canada in 2001 and started to work as a Writing Instructor. How did it affect your choice of becoming interested in researching second language writing?
It was a defining moment in my life and career when I had to examine second language writing and my non-native-speakerness critically. As a writing tutor, I was privileged to have access to a variety of academic texts written by both native speakers and non-native speakers of English. However, non-native-speaking students seemed to have challenges more than language itself. I began to look into ESL students’ writing and their processes of learning writing. What was more, my own non-native-speaker status and my writing tutor role did not always look right for some clients. I was intrigued by the suturing point of language and identity. I discussed some of the issues in “Identities and beliefs in ESL writing” (2007) and “Identity puzzles” (2006). My interests expanded to other kinds of second language writers: bilinguals who write novels, memoirs, and reflections; international graduate students who write in Chinese; and Chinese graduates who write in English. Hence the articles “Souls in exile” (2007) and “Cross-cultural interaction, integration, and identity construction” (2015).
- In your article, “Genre and rhetoric awareness in academic writing instruction: Personal narrative and comparative analysis,” (2017) you talked about your personal experience in learning to write academically in Chinese and then in English. You mentioned how difficult it was to follow the rigid rules of academic writing in English compared to the more flexible style in Chinese writing. What do you think are the challenges that NNESTs may face in teaching academic writing in English when they come from a different writing background? How do you think they can overcome these challenges?
I think the biggest challenges that NNESTs are faced with lie in two aspects: one that can be improved through personal effort, and the other that cannot be improved by any one person alone. I’m talking about writing competence and social positioning. What I discussed in the article concerns the first aspect. Writing is the most difficult task for most second language learners. NNESTs have to demonstrate excellent skills in and thorough knowledge of the English writing conventions in order to teach their students well. Such skills and knowledge can be obtained through diligence. However, it is another matter for NNESTs to be recognized as authentic writers if they are unable to take care of the nuances of the written language. One can write beautifully following one set of rules or the other; but when the two sets of rules diverge too much, readers accustomed to one set of rules may find writing following the other set of rules unacceptable. The challenge is not simply changing our own ways of writing but to make it known to all that we follow different rules.
- What do you think are some advantages that multilingual or L2 writers bring to their composition practices in English? How can they positively transfer their rich knowledge of writing into unfamiliar writing situations in English?
They bring in their skills in first language writing and sharpness in examining the English writing conventions. Their knowledge of multiple cultures and languages gives them an edge in predicting instructional challenges, diagnosing students’ learning problems, and offering practical solutions. NNESTs also have the advantage of being a role model of successful English learner for their students, more than being simply an instructor. First language transfer can be a positive experience if the right strategies are used. In the same vein, first language writing skills can be transferred into English writing successfully. It may take a lot of practice, patience, and an open mind. An open mind is very important in today’s world, not only in English learning but in every way of life. It helps the instructor to see that learning a new way of writing is not a betrayal to the first language but an addition to it.
- How do you see academic writing in the context of World Englishes? Is there any chance that the rules of academic writing in English will take a new shape, considering the huge body of research that is published in non-English speaking countries?
Languages are created, maintained, and developed by human beings throughout history, and they can certainly be changed as human societies evolve. English was not the lingua franca before British colonization. However, different from other dominant languages in history, the status of English has not shown any sign of weakening thanks to the amazing spread of the World Wide Web and the use of English in post-colonial and neo-colonial settings. It’s been a quarter of a century since Phillipson’s (1992) Linguistic Imperialism and Kachru’s (1992) World Englishes were published. Linguists and language educators have had heated discussions on the role of English and the Englishes with local importance (Canagarajah, 2002; Kaplan, 2001; McArthur, 2001; Pennycook, 1994, 2000; Saraceni, 2010). Such discussions should persist. Eventually, we will see new shapes of academic writing being recognized as legitimate and valuable. Meanwhile, when knowledge published in other languages is powerful and influential enough to be translated into English, readers will be influenced and their subsequent writing will be affected. It’s a matter of time.
- In your personal and professional journey, who has played a significant role in your professional development as a confident professional in this field? What was it about their mentorship that was particularly memorable or helpful?
Many people have played a role in my personal and professional journey. Here I will single out two individuals, my supervisors in Carleton’s Master’s program and Queen’s doctoral program. The writing and revision of my Master’s thesis, under the guidance of my supervisor, Dr. Devon Woods, was the biggest boost to my confidence in English academic writing. His patience for students was truly admirable. In my doctoral program, my supervisor, Dr. Eva Krugly-Smolska, gave me plenty of room to roam freely and explore what interested me. She never pushed me in any direction or restricted my work, knowing that I was a motivated, independent learner. Her encouragement and her confidence in me made me a prolific writer and I published quite a few articles during my doctoral studies. I owe my supervisors, both retired now, a big thank-you for their support and mentorship. I learned from them to be genuinely kind to students and to tailor my approaches to suit the students’ needs.
Thank you for sharing us your valuable experiences, Dr. Li!
Canagarajah, A. S. (2002). Globalization, methods, and practice in periphery classrooms. In D. Block & D. Cameron (Eds.), Globalization and language teaching. London: Routledge.
Kachru, B. B. (1992). World Englishes: Approaches, issues and resources. Language Teaching, 25, 1-14.
Kaplan, R. B. (2001). English – the accidental language of science? In U. Ammon (Ed.), The dominance of English as a language of science. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Li, X. (2006). Identity puzzles: Am I a course instructor or a non-native speaker? In M. Mantero (Ed.), Identity and second language learning: Culture, inquiry, and dialogic activity in educational contexts (pp. 23-44). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.
Li, X. (2007). Souls in exile: Identities of bilingual writers. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 6(4), 259-275. Available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15348450701542256#.UjHxfcY2bvY ]
Li, X. (2007). Identities and beliefs in ESL writing: From product to processes. TESL Canada Journal, 25(1), 41-64. Available at http://www.teslcanadajournal.ca/index.php/tesl/article/view/107
Li, X. (2015). International students in China: Cross-cultural interaction, integration, and identity construction. Journal of Language, Identity and Education, 14(4), 237-254. Available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15348458.2015.1070573
Li, X. (2017). Genre and rhetoric awareness in academic writing instruction: Personal narrative and comparative analysis. Asian EFL Journal, 18, 3. Available at http://www.academia.edu/30034034/Genre_and_rhetoric_awareness_in_academic_writing_instruction_Personal_narrative_and_comparative_analysis
McArthur, T. (2001). World English and World Englishes: Trends, tensions, varieties, and standards. Language Teaching, 34, 1-20.
Pennycook, A. (1994). The cultural politics of English as an international language. London: Longman.
Pennycook, A. (2000). The social politics and the cultural politics of language classrooms. In J. K. Hall & W. G. Eggington (Eds.), The sociopolitics of English language teaching. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Phillipson, R. & Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1997). Linguistic human right and English in Europe. World Englishes 16(1), 27-43.
Saraceni, M. (2010). The relocation of English: Shifting paradigms in a global era. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.