Just Try Harder

Story by

Suah Min

From

South Korea

Major/Field

Social Sciences

Level

Undergraduate

After spending one year in Connecticut when I was 11 years old, and another year in Pennsylvania when I was 17, I thought I had a pretty good English skill. However, it was my mistake and I realized it when I came to Stony Brook University. During my first semester of freshman year, I had such a difficult time understanding what professor was saying. Not being able to understand the class material really depressed me, and I started to question myself why I was here. I did not want to go to class because I didn’t understand the material anyway no matter I go to class or not. Also, there were too much to read that I can never catch up. I was jealous of my American friends who get good grades by going to classes and reading book much faster than I did. I wish all the materials were in Korean, which is my first language. After excusing myself not getting a good grade and being an international student, my sister has given me a really big advice. She went to college and graduate school in New York, and she even got a scholarship while she was in school. She told me that I should never excuse myself from anything because this was the choice that I have made. Rather, I should try to find a way to overcome my barrier, and that will improve myself and help me move a step forward. She said that because English is not my first language, I should put more effort and take it as granted, instead of comparing myself to other people.

What I did first was to go to every single class. I heard many people saying that “Oh, you don’t have to go to this class”, “It’s an easy A class”, “Why do you go to that class? It’s a waste of time” or something like that. However, I thought that going to class was the minimum effort that I could put, and I tried to pay attention to what professor was saying. Also, going to class was one of the ways to let professor be more familiar with my face. The professor might not know my name, but I at least tried to make my face noticeable by sitting at the front row.

However, I knew that I was not going to fully understand the material by just going to the class. So, what I did was that I took notes, and recorded lectures. It’s pointless if you just record the lecture and never listen to it again. About a week before the exam, I listened to the all the recordings again and added some notes to the ones that I took before. It is a very tedious job and some might think it’s waste of time, but this method was really helpful to me. The reason I listened to the lectures again was that I thought lectures are the most important material and most of the questions on the exam are from the lectures. I tried to listen to lectures as much as possible to understand the material fully.

The last thing that I did was going to the office hour. Before, I was too afraid to go to office hour and ask questions. Because I thought that the professor might think I am too stupid or it’s just too simple question. However, I realized that I am a student and it is obvious that I don’t know the material well. Also, I see some people asking their friends or classmates if they have questions. However, I found that it is much quicker to ask professor and much accurate. Professors are people who teach the class, so it is better to ask them than your friends. I went to office hours every time I had questions, or I never hesitated to ask professors questions via email. They always answered with such a friendly manner, and they got to know my names. I think professor knowing your name is very important, especially when you want a recommendation letter from them.

After pushing myself to put more effort and trying my best, my GPA went up about 0.2 in a semester. I am still not as good as native student here, but I never think myself inferior to them. I just need to run an extra mile. I think that excusing myself is the worst thing I can do, and being an international student is something I have to bear with. So, if I can’t change the fact being an international student, why not just try harder?

Getting up to Speed in Freshman Year

Story by

Tanzeem Choudhury

From

Bangladesh

Major/Field

Business Studies

Level

Undergraduate

Before starting my first semester, I was overwhelmed when I came across the many advertisements about productive and leisure activities that were a part of campus life. At first, I planned to play sports, take part in undergraduate clubs, and visit nearby cities. But a month into the semester, these expectations were just pushed aside by the harsh realities of my academic workload.

As deadlines for assignments, class works, and projects approached every other day, I found myself sitting at the library all day and struggling to finish up my studies. There was no time for leisure activities. I started thinking that I was not enjoying college life at all. If studying at the library all day and every day of the week were a requirement to attain my degree, I thought I might need to rethink my life objectives.

However, I soon began to realize that things would change. After the first two semesters, I found myself able to finish up my assignments ahead of schedule. It is worth noting that my academic commitments did not decrease (indeed they increased), but I just became more efficient. I thought and worked faster, researched and read more efficiently, and wrote better as well. As a result of the increased efficiency, I started to find the leisure time on campus life that I was longing for.

In contrast to my development, some international student friends who started at the same college with me did not have the same experience. Faced with the academic pressures of freshman year and frustrated with studying all day, they succumbed to the workload and dropped out/or took semester breaks.

As a result of this experience, I have learnt that the intense workload is natural for all new international students. We come from different education paradigms, knowledge conventions and cultural contexts, this even makes it harder for us to adapt to the change. But we should not let these pressures break us down (like it did to some of my friends). Instead, I think we should embrace the initial challenge. Embracing it will force us to forego the fun of college life in the freshman year, but in the long run, it will bring us up to required speed. The pressures might even groom us to work faster than the pace of our curriculum. Once we reach that stage, a lot of free time for activities, such sports and cultural events, will open up.

Prepare for College Courses in Advance

Story by

Tanzeem Choudhury.

From

Bangladesh

Major/Field

Business Studies

Level

Undergraduate

During our final years at a high school in Bangladesh, I somehow bought into a flawed concept that undergraduate level business studies and politics did not require us to have advanced mathematical skills; for example, I did not pay much attention to pre-calculus and statistics. As a result, I only practiced basic algebra, and did not even bother to take the Math subjects on the A-level Exams (Our grade 12 exam conducted by Edexcel). I achieved top scores on the A-level business courses and I thought I would do the same in college. But that was soon to change.

A month into my first semester at university, my finance teacher assigned me a project to compare financial performances of two companies using statistical models. This was completely different from the types of business projects I had done before, which were only comprised of explanations and definitions.

Due to my insufficient background in statistics and pre-calculus, I could not find the confidence to go ahead and finish my project. I was even scared to meet my teacher for help because he only used numbers to describe problem-solving strategies. Although I was good at explaining how to solve the problems, I just couldn’t keep up when it came to crunching the hard numbers.

This mistake cost me a great deal of time and effort. I came to realize I was going to fail all my business courses with such poor command of mathematics. As a result, I had to take extra non-credit/ credit statistics and calculus courses every semester and in summer sessions as well, to build my mathematical skills in conjunction with my major field of study.

From this experience, I can say that effective academic transition and academic success for international students depend not only on how hard you can work once you arrive here. They also depend on how prepared you are for the direction you want to go even before you leave home. So one piece of advice I would give to my fellow international students is that you should start to build on your undergraduate academic foundations while you are still in your home country and preparing for college.

Different Writing Styles

Story by

Q Li

From

China

Major/Field

Engineering

Level

Undergraduate

The first class I took in the US was ESL class. I improved my language by taking this class. But the class also confused me about writing style. One day, the teacher told us that we should use “parallel structure.” In my high school in China, my English teachers always told us to change the sentence structure. They said that changing the sentence structure will make your sentence more interesting to read.

Another time, my ESL teacher said that we should not repeat the same word. I was confused because I was trying to refer to the same thing. For example, in my essay about difference in polite language between US and China, I used the word “polite” many times. My teacher in the US said that I should try to use synonyms like “courteous,” “respectful,” and “civil” instead of repeating the same word “polite” all the time. I still don’t understand why sentence structures must be repeated but not words. Maybe I will learn some day.

Another confusion for me in my writing class in the US was about “responding” and “analyzing” texts. In China, the teachers told me to not criticize the ideas of authors. The authors know what they are writing about. Students are learning new ideas so they should try to understand what the writer is saying.

In my second year, when I took a writing class in US, my teacher gave assignment to “analyze” the idea in article written by an economics author in New York Times. First of all, it was difficult for me to understand the text. Whatever I understand, I think the author was right. But if I only say that the author is right, I have nothing to complete the assignment. I looked at other student writing samples, and I saw that they disagreed with the author. But they did not give convincing reasons for their own argument. Again, I was confused how to do the assignment.

So I think that people don’t know that writing styles are different in different places. If you use the style of one place in another place, your readers may think your writing is wrong. Or they may think it is bad writing. International students should try to learn the new style so that their writing will look good. This is my opinion.

Waatar, Wota, Wadr?

Story by

Shyam Sharma

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Writing Studies

I’ve spoken English since I was four or so, and I have spoken at least five distinctive varieties of world Englishes. I know that it is okay to speak with an accent, because even “native” speakers speak with an accent that they’ve picked up from their national, regional, and sociocultural locations and backgrounds. And I know that as long as the content of my speech is meaningful, I should not worry too much.

But this “knowledge” about language does not prevent me from worrying. Part of this worry is a desire in me to speak the way other people do wherever I go. I don’t fully accept the argument that there is no such thing as a “native” version of English. I think there is such a thing as native-like proficiency. Nor do I fully buy the idea argument that there is no such thing as a standard English. I think there are a number of standardized Englishes in the world and there is much value in gravitating toward the standard of the majority of other speakers with whom you communicate.

Part of my worry about my accent, however, comes from the desire to blend in, to be not looked in the face too intently by other people–like when a woman at a local store in Tennessee did when I pronounced the word “water” in a way that she didn’t understand even after repeating four or five times.

Me: What aisle is bottled water in?
Storekeeper: What aisle is what in?
Me: Wo-ta, I mean wa-da.
Storekeeper: Sorry, what do you mean?
….
Me: W-a-t-e-r.
Storekeeper: Oh, water. It’s in…
Me: I’m sorry.
Storekeeper: Oh, you’re fine. And you’re gonna be okay.

I had just come to the United States and joined a graduate program in English, of all discipllines. In fact, I had been an English teacher in my home country for many years. My grammar, vocabulary, and knowledge of the language (and literature and literary theory and whatnot) was good. But whenever I moved from one place to another, the most basic parts of my English language proficiency suddenly malfunctioned. Like the word “water.”

When I returned to my apartment, I used my recently bought (fancy and, for a student on a stipend, expensive) language learning gadget–the Merriam Webster Dictionary’s pocket electronic device–to listen to the pronunciation of the word “water.” The voice said, “waadr.” I thought I had pronounced almost exactly like that at the store. Maybe not.

It was then time to go to my linguistics class (titled Culture and Language). With the electronic dictionary in my hand, I set out on the 15 minute walk. With the vivid memory of the woman at the looking into my face in her attempt to understand my word, I started giving myself an intense practice as I walked, something like this:

Okay, “waa-dr.” Wait, I gotta be careful: the first syllable must be the American wa-, not British wo-, and not ua- as I used to do in Nepal; and yes, the second is dər- not thə- as in British, not the shrill-sounding tər- of Indian English, or with the interdental-voiceless-stop -tə like in that of the variety in east India; then, the last consonant must be the American palatal-liquid-voiceless -r (though they practically make it voiced), not the Hindi type of alveolar-flap or Nepali trill; ok, now try the whole: ‘wader’—oops! it didn’t work, stupid, the whole is not the sum of the parts—try again: ‘waarerr’; that sounds even more ‘foreign,’ belonging nowhere (and most people silently hate those who speak “accents”); ok, try once again: ‘warer’—not too bad, though it sounds crazy when the t- changed into a mixture of ‘d’ and ‘r’ rides into the final -r, as if the vowel between them were not there—‘warer,’ yes, that sounds funny but slightly better or ‘baedrr,’ though it sounded too Southern—oh god, this is Helen Keller trying to learn words by feeling the mouth and throat of the speaker!

I saw a colleague outside the class and asked how he pronounced the word “water.” He said, “What? Why are you asking that?” I said that a woman didn’t understand me at the grocery store and I was trying to pronounce it correctly in the accent of the South. He kindly did it for me. And I wondered once again if my pronunciation at the grocery story was not almost exactly like my friend’s.

For a few months after the incident where the storekeeper didn’t understand me, I kept a list of words that I wanted to practice. I listened to myself while pronouncing those words, breaking them up into phonemes and syllables. I rehearsed how to use idiomatic expressions in my head before I used them in conversation with others. At times, I felt nervous about whether I would learn, even in the next six years, how to pronounce thousands and thousands of words in ways that people around me in that city would understand me. Of course, I never dared to pick up the slang, not even the daily colloquial language, for months and months after I arrived.

I wondered what to do with the theories of culture and language in relation to my disconcertingly jumbled linguistic development in the past, and at the time. At times, I felt as if I was split into fragments and I almost forgot where I properly belonged, what I can properly express, and with whom. I spoke several languages as a child but half of them were becoming increasingly like a child’s painting left in the rain, blurred; I saw my career in English but this source of my “power” not only ironically seemed foreign to me, it also came from a jumble of sources, accents, even errors that I had acquired in many different locations.

I don’t remember how the panic phase ended. Well, I don’t know if it “has” ended, in the seven years since then.

What do know is that I must try to worry less about whether I say “wathər” or “waadr”–as long as I have done my homework of thinking, reading, researching, writing, and having the content of my sentences clear and strong in my mind.

And I tell other nonnative speakers of English who seem worried about their accent (or about other areas of their language proficiency) that there is more to language than how we pronounce or put together our words. I tell them that if the idea that they are trying to express is good and clear, they’re gonna be okay.

My “First” Language?

Story by

Shyam Sharma

From

Nepal

Major/Field

Writing Studies

I had completed my master’s degree in writing studies at a university in southern US and joined the PhD program in the same discipline at the time. I enjoyed meeting local people from different social, cultural, and professional backgrounds, so I went to church, parties, and other places and events. Within the first two years, I had begun to forget that I was an international student from a different country and culture, someone who spoke a different language, etc. When it came to joining conversations about academic subjects in particular, I was convinced that English was my best option. But there was a small problem.

Every now and then, I was reminded that English is “not” my “first” language. One event stands out in my memory from among many related incidents like it.

One evening, at a party thrown by a wonderful local family for their friends and neighbors, I was talking to a nice woman who introduced herself as a retired high school English teacher when she asked me, “So what’s your first language?” She and I were actually talking about the complexity of language identity for second generation immigrants at the time, and the issue was on my mind. I paused for a moment and said, “Well, right now, English is my first language, because I cannot use another language as effectively as I use English to discuss the academic issues that we’ve been discussing.”

My fellow former English teacher didn’t seem impressed. “No, what language do you speak at home?” I knew that she was not going to be satisfied, but I also didn’t want to give her an answer that would satisfy her without it being fully true. I said, “My family spoke multiple other languages as I grew up, and I speak English most of the times now. In fact, even if you are asking what language I learned ‘first,’ I am not so sure, because when I was four, about four languages were spoken around me and while I might have used one of them with my parents, I was soon better with the other languages. The same is true of the kids of the immigrant families I know today; some of these kids are unable to communicate well in their ‘home’ language. So, I am not sure if there is any value in assigning one language as always the ‘first’ language for a particular person, regardless of how the other orders, orders of proficiency, order of preference or comfort, order of appropriateness by context and purpose, etc.” The good lady seemed almost angry with me.

“All right. What country are you from?”

I was almost offended now. But I just said, “Oh, is that what you were trying to get at? I’m from [Country X]. I thought you wanted to know what language or languages I speak.” I wanted to add that I grew up in a different country, that in both my country of origin and the other country where I grew up multilingualism–and multilingualism without any set order/hierarchy at that–was the norm rather than an exception, and so on. People spoke a home language, then a local language (which for some would coincide with the home language), then a state language (which for some coincided with home and/or local languages), then a national language (same here), then an international language (which was English). Often there were strict boundaries/expectations, so, for instance, if a kid from locality B spoke his language after school at locality A where most kids spoke a different language, he’d get in trouble; even more dangerous was the severe punishment we would all get if we were found not speaking in English. In other contexts like at home and in the market, people floated in and out of languages, often meshing them like curry medley. And even as kids, we understood both the presence and absence of borders between languages–as well as everyone being hexi-lingual septi-lingual as cool but completely natural (people who could speak ten languages or more used to boast a little, but they’d be laughed at if they overdid it). I wanted to tell my neighbor about that kind of situation is normal in a lot of places in the world, and that it should be that were here. As long as we are share a national language, our being able to use regional, local, other home languages enrich our culture, outlook, and understanding of the world and society. But I didn’t want to share all that with the nice lady at a party–even though I felt like annoying her in “revenge” of how she treated me.

As the conversation drew to a close (and both of us were ready to float on and talk to other people), because her question was about me, I had the urge to at least add that there is a very loose and complicated relationship between my language and the country I am from, because in my home country, which is smaller than the size of the average-sized US state, people speak a total of almost a hundred languages, with most families shuttling in and out of multiple languages even inside the house, even in most private situations. And I was part of that fluid linguistic/cultural space. In fact,  my relation between me and my country is also complicated because I have lived longer outside of it than in it, have greater attachment to different aspects of other societies/cultures than to my own, and consider myself as a happily homelessly culturally confused global citizen.

But I didn’t say anything more. I just made it look like she wanted to know my national background and left it at that.

How does your national background relate to your language identity or identities? Do you have a fixed language identity or is it fluid and complex? What do you think about being labeled as a “second language” person in relation to your use of English (or another language)? I would love to know, if you can please leave a comment.