Bridging the language gap

Junior Dustin Lewis and his conversation partner Larry have developed a friendship and meet multiple times a week. 

For many Castleton students, understanding homework assignments and adjusting to college culture can be a challenge. But for students whose first language is not English, it can be even harder.

One way international students can overcome these challenges is by talking with a native English speaking peer. That’s why Debbie Singiser, coordinator of international student services, started Campus Conversation Partners in the fall of 2015, pairing students who are English language learners with students who are native English speakers.

“The idea behind it is a way to help English language learners to improve their English language skills in a very intimate environment. They’re asked to meet for one hour minimum a week and it’s just a chance for the student who is learning English to ask questions they don’t feel comfortable asking a professor or me,” Singiser said.

This fall, there were 24 students involved: 12 English language learners, and 12 native English speakers. The time they spend together is unstructured to make sure the time fits the needs of the students involved, with the goal of a friendship growing out of the time together.

These conversation partners can also function as bridges between the campus community and the international student community.

“International students tend to stay together. Especially if they have a language in common, and if they do, it’s harder for them to reach other circles on campus,” Singiser explained.

Marissa Langley, a native English speaking partner and office assistant in the International Student Office, was paired with Frank, a student from China.

She said they had met previously when Frank had come into the office looking to ask Singiser a question, but at their first official meeting, Langley was nervous and didn’t know how the conversation would go.

Luckily, Frank already knew what he wanted to talk about.

“He already had a list of questions to ask me,” she said. “He asked about college culture, partying, and boyfriends girlfriends. The whole party culture is not really a thing in China and I know it made him feel a lot more comfortable because it’s happening all around them, but they don’t know how to take it in.”

Although the international students benefit, the English speaking students learn a lot as well.

“After the first couple of weeks, I felt like I was learning more from him than he was learning from me,” Langley said. “I’ve learned so much about Chinese culture from him.”

In December, the International Students Office held a holiday party for the students in the program where they decorated holiday cookies, giving the international students a chance to experience a very American tradition, Singiser said.

Although the expectation was that the partners would meet once per week in the fall semester, many pairs continue to meet this semester because they have become friends. Junior Dustin Lewis and Chinese student Lei Dai, who prefers to go by Larry, are one such pair.

Lewis, a double major in history and political science, attended Fair Haven High School where there was little to no diversity. He calls the experience of interacting with international students “refreshing.”

“You get to see a lot of personalities and a diverse way of thinking. They think differently and have a different set of values,” Lewis said.

He enjoys being able to share his life with Larry and learn about life in China as well.

“During break I took him ice fishing and he kept thinking he would fall through the ice,” Lewis said laughing.

Although they are from different countries, they have many common interests and Lewis plans on visiting China this summer for three weeks to see all the famous Chinese landmarks and learn about Larry’s life.

An important part of the campus conversation partners is to help the international student become more fluent in English, Singiser said.

Larry is not yet proficient in English and sometimes uses his phone or computer to translate what he is trying to say. But during their time together, Lewis encourages him to try to say it in a simpler way rather than relying on a translator.  Lewis noted that a big challenge English language learners have is understanding all the idioms and phrases in the English language that don’t translate directly to their native language.

Through the use of worksheets and informal tutoring, Lewis is helping Larry prepare for the TOEFL, a standardized test that non-native English speaking students take as part of their admission to Castleton.

“This year Castleton admitted a few students who fell short of the required score, but who otherwise were college ready. They still must meet this English proficiency requirement, however,” Singiser said, explaining that these students are provided with extra support and tutoring to help them prepare for the exam.

It’s important for the native English speaker to know if and how the international student wishes to be corrected when they make a mistake speaking or writing. This can be an awkward question to ask, but also very important, as Langley referred to a pair that did not work in part because the English-speaking student was not correcting the partner when they wanted the help.

Singiser and Langley have previously recruited for the program through word-of-mouth. Preparing for the fall semester, however, students interested can fill out an interest form in the Campus Center at a date to be determined with information about themselves and any experience they have with other cultures or languages.

There will also be a training session later this semester for the native English speaking students to learn about other cultures and how to interact with and help English language learners.

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