THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS: LINGUISTIC CHALLENGES

David Foster Wallace told the following story at the Kenyon College commencement in 2005.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

see here, here, and here

Wallace had his purpose for the story, but mine is to say that for humans, language is our water—it is the medium through which most of our social and intellectual lives transpire, and it is usually transparent to us, its myriad of structural rules and pragmatic choices processed subconsciously. Until we are confronted with a language we don’t know.

Many faculty and administrators are multilingual and well-traveled and therefore have a good idea what our international students are going through linguistically, but the experiences of most faculty are markedly different from those of our students. An adult traveler or researcher abroad enjoys the comfort of status and the knowledge that language issues are temporary and have few long-term effects. And those who venture to another country as a graduate student typically have the maturity and intellectual experience to meet their language challenges head on. A child or young adult who moves to a different country typically has the support of parents at home or lives with a local family.

However, the majority of our international students are young undergraduates who are short on experience living alone, confidence using English, and the immediate support that would allow them to deal effectively with living and studying in English. And the consequences when they don’t understand a lecture or a written assignment are enormous.

Likewise, to continue with the water metaphor, many faculty members are familiar with the ‘sink or swim’ approach to language acquisition and to learning methods that emphasize grammar rules and vocabulary memorization. However, the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and the applied linguistics of language teaching has grown tremendously over the past 30 years. To place students into classes and trust that they will pick up the language eventually is naïve given what we now know about SLA; rather, we can employ principled and systematic language instruction that will allow our students to more quickly develop relevant academic English skills.

For example, you might think that the best strategy for reading comprehension is to look up words in a dictionary as you come to them. However, studies have shown that this is not efficient and it distracts students from focusing on the main idea of the text. A better strategy is to use context clues and inferencing skills to make educated guesses for the meaning of unknown words. However, students should keep a journal of new words, especially to keep track of ones that are relatively frequent or especially important for understanding the content.

Finding the dictionary definitions for selected words and writing them along with example sentences will be very effective. But again, you might not be aware that not all dictionaries are created equal. These days almost every publisher who produces a typical English monolingual dictionary for native speakers also produces a “learners dictionary”. These typically contain far fewer words (the most frequently occurring 7 to 10 thousand rather than 30, 40 or 60 thousand) because each word has more information. What kind of information? Not the irrelevant history of the word, but the forms it comes in, examples of how it is used in authentic sentences, typical syntactic patterns and words that commonly co-occur including idioms, and notes that indicate whether a word is formal, informal, slang, or offensive—all information that is seldom in a dictionary for native speakers.

Furthermore, Mark Davies at BYU has produced one of the most helpful vocabulary learning devices on the internet. At http://www.wordandphrase.info you can enter a word that you want information about, search for it, and on one screen find out: how frequently it occurs in the 450 million word Corpus of Contemporary American English, and how frequently it is used in academic writing, contextual synonyms, and examples of its use in a variety of labeled academic domains.

In WordandPhrase.info, a search for the word ‘elucidate’ in the general corpus, will tell you that this verb is not among the most frequent 3000 words in English (it’s relatively uncommon), it’s typically used in the Academic register, it is usually followed by a noun phrase, typically appears in its –ing form or a the to-infinitive, and you can click to see synonyms that are either more or less specific.

A student who performs that same search but in the academic corpus only, can see that the word is among the 3000 most frequent words in academic writing, but most commonly appears in the Humanities and least commonly in Business. Students with different majors can use this information to be more selective and efficient in their vocabulary study

Students can also search for a phrase such as “elucidate the relationship” if, for example, they need to paraphrase a sentence that uses this phrase. By searching for this phrase and selecting contextually appropriate synonyms for ‘elucidate’ the student can quickly retrieve a list of far more frequently occurring words in this position.

I provide this level of detail for two reasons: 1) to give readers examples of tools that they can encourage their international students (or any language learners and students in general) to use, and 2) to emphasize that the teaching of English is an established field of applied linguistics; thus, students who are taught by trained professionals will gain English proficiency far more quickly than those who are merely put into regular classes and encouraged to socialize with English-speaking peers.