Multilingual Approaches Toward English Prose

Giving the languages we live with the attention they deserve.

Shilpi Suneja

T&W Magazine editorial board selected Shilpi Suneja’s “Multilingual Approaches Toward English Prose” as the 2022 Bechtel Prize winner. The prize was awarded for an essay describing a creative writing teaching experience, project, or activity that demonstrates innovation in creative writing instruction. 

The Bechtel prize is named for Louise Seaman Bechtel, who was an editor, author, collector of children’s books, and teacher.  She was the first person to head a juvenile book department at an American publishing house.  As such, she took children’s literature seriously, helped establish the field, and was a tireless advocate for the importance of literature in kids’ lives. This award honors her legacy. For more information, visit twc.org/bechtel-prize.

Teaching English literature and creative writing in Hawai‘i is akin to laying down a parallel track to an already busy, multi-lane highway. To my entrance survey question of “what language do you speak at home,” I receive a multitude of answers: Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Samoan, Tagalog, Ilocano, Afrikaans, Spanish, Portuguese, Okinawan, even Chamorro and ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i. Being multilingual myself, I relish the linguistic diversity of my students. I share these responses to the entrance survey, and a look of curious amusement animates their faces. Even on Zoom, I can tell I’ve piqued their interest by my interest in their “home” languages. They sit up, lean in. Shut off cameras turn on. They are looking at me with all their eyes. “We are going to build upon the rich lives you live in these other languages,” I tell my students. “Our mother tongues and grandmother tongues are going to help us write great creative prose in English.”

My aim with championing multilingualism in my classroom is to give all the languages my students live with the attention they deserve. Students are given the choice to make presentations, write creative nonfiction and short fiction in their “choice” or “home” language(s). “I want to hear about your relationship with this other language,” I tell them. “I know this is an English class. But I want you to write heartfelt prose about your love and longing for Asante, Chamorro, Tagalog. Go up your family tree. Go sideways. Investigate which languages your people have spoken in the past. Get historical. Do some digging. Do some research. Write a creative piece about the efforts you have made or you want to make to recover or incorporate this ‘other’ language in your own body.”

A few students blink back nervously. “Professor, I don’t speak any other language,” a handful confess shyly via private chat messages over Zoom. I acknowledge their hesitation. I repeat my request to fish far and wide. “I know some of you like to travel,” I claim. “Download Duolingo. There must be a language you’ve known or your parents have known that you, too, at one point in your life have wanted to know.” I mention Netflix shows like Emily In Paris, Money Heist, Squid Game, even Jane the Virgin for its near bilingual aspect, hoping their love for traveling will generate some ideas. From their expressions I can tell that many of them already know the language they want to write about.

When it comes time for their presentations and essays and stories, a small minority of students choose to profess their love for the usual European languages—French, Spanish, Italian, German—inspired by a semester abroad and by dreams of future travels. But the vast majority choose to celebrate and mourn their mother- and grandmother-tongues. In the context of Hawai‘i, these other languages are non-European and even Indigenous, reintroduced into their biologies after generations of torturous experience with a colonial power.

For instance, the case of ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i. An 1896 law replaced the Hawaiians’ native language with English as the medium of instruction across the school system (public and private) in Hawai‘i. Teachers of the language and practitioners of Hawaiian cultural practices such as hula were expelled from schools for breaking the law. ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i was effectively banned, and native Hawaiians were disallowed from learning their language. This prolonged separation from their native tongue, ku‘ualoha ho‘omanawanui writes, “contributed to the demise of ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i as a daily language for Kānaka Maoli at home, in government, in commerce, in education, and in the arts, as our lands, culture, and practices became subsumed into mainstream English-language-dominated American culture.” By the time ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i was reintroduced into Hawaiian schools two, three, four generations of Hawaiians had gotten accustomed to English. Students learning ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i today are often the first in their family to learn it.

I expect my students’ hesitation to write about their relationship with ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i and other Indigenous languages stems from this separation. My writing prompt must feel akin to describing a love affair that’s been going sour for over 100 years. In effect, I am asking my students to describe their heartache, guilt, and shame for not knowing ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i despite being Hawaiian and not speaking Chamorro despite belonging to Guåhan, even though their native tongue was cleaved away from them through no fault of their own.

Speakers of Thai, Vietnamese, Hindi, and other non-European languages can relate to English’s hegemonic takeover of their socio-cultural lives. In an essay titled “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan writes:

When I was growing up, my mother’s ‘limited’ English limited my perception of her. I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say. That is, because she expressed them imperfectly her thoughts were imperfect. And I had plenty of empirical evidence to support me: the fact that people in department stores, at banks, and at restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her.

My students feel this shame. I know because growing up in India, I felt it too. The shame of saying something grammatically incorrect in English at school or at a posh restaurant is almost as severe as the shame of appearing in public without your clothes on. Alongside the shame of speaking “broken” English is the shame of not knowing your mother- or grandmother- or great grandmother-tongue. But shame has a surprising way of slipping off and melting away when confronted in a forum with a community that shares your pain. Amy Tan deals with her shame by finding people who understand and speak her mother’s language. She discovers that even though some people may not understand her mother, she understands her mother, and that her mother’s language is “vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery.” Tan’s mother’s language is like any other complex human syntax—it conveys information, it brims with emotion. It has its own poetry. Tan comes to this realization when she gives her mother’s syntax the attention it deserves. My aim with championing multilingualism in my classroom is to give all the linguistic syntax my students live with the attention they deserve.

When the time comes to share their creative outputs on these “choice” and “home” languages, students produced heart-felt elegies full of striking metaphors. From the various branches of their family trees, they produce creative material on not one but two, sometimes even three “other” languages that live within their families. Devin Nakahara, who’s been learning ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i for years now, writes a story entirely in the Hawaiian language. In the accompanying creative reflection, he writes the following:

My mom and dad know a few phrases in Hawaiian, but nothing beyond that. My mother has recently tried to make an effort to learn Hawaiian through Duolingo as well as asking my brother and I questions. I think it is important for Indigenous peoples to realize the importance of their language, and not see it as inferior to English. In the essay “Our Own Liberation,” Meyer talks about the idea that intelligence should not be determined by one’s literacy. Those who spend their whole lives reading about farming kalo will never know as much as someone who has farmed kalo their whole life. This idea resonates with me because I realize that not all knowledge is learned from books. There is an ʻōlelo noʻeau (Hawaiian proverb) that goes ʻAʻohe pau ka ʻike ma ka hālau hoʻokahi, which means not all knowledge is found in one place. This is true for many things in our lives. Experience is often times invaluable. English literacy shouldn’t be the only way we judge others’ knowledge and intellect.

English literacy shouldn’t be our sole judge of others’ intellect. English teachers are taught this lesson, but we forget it if we focus too closely on grading our students’ use of Standard Academic English (SAE). To be clear, I ask my students to produce nuanced work in SAE, work that is thoroughly researched, complete with bibliographies formatted in the MLA citation style, where bibliographies are required. But I commend them on being able to “other” themselves by telling us about their lives lived in these other languages.

Eventually, even the students who claimed to not speak any other languages, the ones who make presentations on their high school Spanish class (complete with photos of tamales and enchilada recipes) catch my drift and swim up family tributaries. Lessons on subtlety, nuance, silence, layering, and emotional truth resonate. Listening to their classmates talk about long lost and recently regained grandmother tongues brings out more family secrets, a reflection on identity crises, and solidarity over the shared classroom experience of striving to preserve dying languages.

Eli, who wrote breathtaking prose about his high school Spanish classes, eventually reveals his troubled relationship with Hebrew:

Hanging on the wall outside of my parent’s room is a Ketubah: a traditional Jewish mural signifying a marriage contract. Its glossy venire has greeted me every time I walk across the hall to my room for my past 17 years of life. But for these same 17 years, it has been nameless to me, its significance squashed by my neglect for learning Hebrew. It was not always this way though. I was once much more involved with my Jewish heritage and even had the chance to learn Hebrew: the language of my ancestors, my roots. But I passed on the chance with great distaste. And now I regret it. All I see when I look at these words are lines. See, my heritage is like a connect-the-dots puzzle; my relatives and I are the dots and these Hebrew words —the ones I see as lines—are the lines that connect us. But often, I feel like I am a dot that the line never reaches. Because if I cannot understand these words then can I really understand my heritage, my roots—my identity? Am I really a part of this culture, or am I a stray dot? Maybe if I dedicated a couple of years to learn Hebrew as my relatives did then I would not feel this guilt. After all, it’s not the line that never reached me. I am the dot that never reached for the line.

Eli’s sentences get to me every time: “I am the dot that ever reached for the line.” I know that this sentence haunts him more than it haunts me. Now that he has committed this sentiment to paper, he will continue to work on this relationship, coming at Hebrew and his Jewish heritage from different angles. I know that his relationship will continue to grow, as will his powers to write brilliant English prose. “You’re on the cusp of a novel-length story, you know that, right?” I tell Eli. He gives me a shy but determined nod. “Can I send you some pages in a year or two,” he asks. “You have my email,” I tell him.

The dominance of English is a lie we tell ourselves. Like white supremacy, English’s hegemony is a construct. It must be exhausting claiming to be the absolute best all the time. So much more rewarding to be just one of the many greats. Which is why I rely on multilingualism to highlight that other languages, the students’ mother- and grandmother-tongues are great, too, and excellent subjects for deep analysis and creative outpourings. Not all my students will go on to study their home and choice languages at great length. But I know that they will build stronger and carefully critical relationships with those languages and with English. They will know their families’ journeys a little better, learn to question their own journeys better, and write shimmering prose in English, full of deep emotional insight.

For his final project, Devin writes a story referencing several Hawaiian meles (songs). As a bonus he performs a song. The mele is so moving, I ask Devin to share it with the rest of the English department at a forum celebrating undergraduate work. As soon as he picks up his ukulele and begins to sing, the whole lot of us, 30 English professors and 20 students, forget we are meeting over Zoom. Devin’s song transports us to our private heavens. “Thank you, kumu,” Devin writes to me after the celebration. “Because of your class and the projects we did, I know myself better.” I tell him, it is an honor to be called kumu. That word, a new addition to my vocabulary, feels like a newly acquired string instrument, promising melodies I cannot wait to explore.

Shilpi Suneja was born in India. She holds an MA in English from New York University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University, where she was awarded the Saul Bellow Prize. A 2018 NEA Literature Fellow and a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellow, her work has won a Pushcart Prize nomination and appears in Asia Literary Review, Bat City Review, Cognoscenti, Consequence, Guernica, Hyphen, Kartika Review, Little Fiction, McSweeny’s, Michigan Quarterly Review, among other places. Her first novel about the long shadow of India’s Partition is slated for publication from Milkweed Editions. Shilpi has taught creative writing at Boston University and the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

Shilpi Suneja

2 responses to “Multilingual Approaches Toward English Prose”

  1. […] Magazine is pleased to share the 2022 Bechtel Prize winning essay, Multilingual Approaches Toward English Prose, by Shilpi Suneja. In the essay, Suneja describes a writing activity with her students in […]

  2. Avatar
    Neena Wahi

    Very captivating. It reflects the passion of a teacher towards her students and stimulated them to enrich their passion for learning many languages, especially their mother and grandmother’s tongues.