Easing into ESL
International students overcome language barrier in writing
Claremont McKenna’s international students are one of our greatest assets. Providing a different perspective on world events and cultural issues to the college community, international students offer firsthand ethnic understandings to American students and give these students more accurate perceptions of their life circumstances in a global context.
For many international students, however, adjusting to the demands of American college life is not as easy as simply increasing their English vocabulary.
“It’s more than just a language hump that international students face,” explained Donald Delgado, director of International Place at the Claremont Colleges. “Rather, there is a whole set of cultural assumptions that the U.S. classroom makes that international students must navigate.”
With the second highest number of international students of all of the Claremont Colleges, 138 international students in total, 18 percent of CMC’s current freshman class is made up of international students, the most in the college’s history. As a result, the issues that international students face both in and out of the classroom are gathering more and more attention in Claremont.
“Non-native English speaking students are incredibly bright, but they face a certain obstacle,” noted Audrey Bilger, Professor of Literature and Faculty Director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse at CMC. “As a professor, if a student is struggling with some issue I want to make sure that that student has the best possible assistance.”
In addition to providing writing resources for the influx of international students at the Center for Writing and Public Discourse, CMC also hired a new Visiting Instructor of English as a Second Language, Suzanne Fontaine.
Fontaine will work with students on American idioms, essay-writing, note-taking, and elements of grammar. Furthermore, Fontaine will assist international students with pronunciation and accent control, discussion participation strategies, and presentation skills.
Many of the language difficulties that international students face in the American classroom, however, cannot simply be taught to them through ESL instruction or words alone.
“I don’t have problems with grammar – my sentences are right. When I give my essays to my American students and professors they tell me my sentences are right, but they just don’t sound right together,” explained Shitong “Stone” Shou CMC ‘14 an international student from China.
Shou also said that he takes his essays to the Center for Writing and has met with professors for help. “They help me a lot, but only for that one essay. It is very hard to verbalize these writing issues. I have improved a lot because I have been here for a long time and have been exposed to a lot of work, not because somebody has taught me,” he observed.
Language barriers are not the only issues that international students face in the classroom. Many international students at CMC cite Government 20, Introductory to American Politics, as one of the hardest classes they take in college.
“[In Gov. 20] I found myself with a lack of common knowledge that other American students had,” said Shou. “In China, schools do not require that you study politics, especially American politics.”
In addition to the basic knowledge of American government that is required for the course, class discussions, which require a student to think quickly and formulate responses to other students’ comments. also pose issues to international students, according to Shou.
The administration understands these difficulties and is attempting to provide international students with an orientation to cultural issues and the academic requirements of the American classroom through International Place. The freshman orientation for international students focuses on student-faculty relationships, how to con- tact other students and ways to participate in classroom discussions.
“We try to squeeze as much as we can into a 60 minute time frame,” explained Delgado. “Many students, however, come from a system where these issues are not the norm. For example, in some places, asking a ques- tion in class is an admission of failure.”
With these obstacles affecting international students’ learning at the Claremont Colleges, it is important for students who speak English as a first language to keep these concerns in mind.
“I think it is exciting that we have so many international students on campus,” Bilger remarked. “They provide a broader context for learning and our entire community benefits from them. I support the admission office’s recruitment efforts and I am excited to help provide resources for these students.”