Categorized | Global View

Tangled Tongues

[board]Most people know that MSU has an extremely broad and far-reaching international community. Students are able to study in over 250 countries, 60 countries participate in MSU’s foreign exchange program and this year alone nearly 3,500 students are visiting from foreign countries.
But with students from so many different countries, how many different languages are spoken? And how does that affect students’ abilities to communicate? Taking a look into issues that have developed as a result of language barriers on campus, both local and international students give their input on cross cultural communication at MSU.
General management senior Shaye Miller thought attending school in a foreign country without knowing the language would be extremely difficult. “[It would be] very hard because we don’t really know any other languages here where we could help them. Most people only know English,” she said. Miller spent three weeks studying finance and international business in China this past summer. “When I was in China I did OK [not speaking Chinese], but a lot of the signs were in English so it was easier.”
Of the 3,500 foreign students, more than 50 percent are from Asia, hailing from either Korea, China, Japan or Taiwan. “Most Koreans [at MSU] have had difficulty with English speaking,” said Michelle Cha, a pre-med sophomore and international student from South Korea who attended Singapore International, an international college in Beijing, before coming to MSU. “[I learned to speak English] when I was in elementary school, but it doesn’t really help to speak [because] you don’t use it in Korea,\” Cha said.
Cha said most Koreans in the area take ELC courses, classes offered by the English Language Center, which are designed to help foreign students navigate the English language system. “There are two types of students,” ELC student advisor Patricia Walters said. “Some of the students are only here to study English and other needs to fulfill their English language requirements.” For these two types of students, there are two types of programs: the Intensive English Program (IEP) and English for Academic Purposes (EAP). The IEP is for students taking full time English classes, 12 credits or more. The EAP is designed primarily for students taking higher level English courses. It is for students who have been matriculated into the university but their reading, writing and speaking skills aren’t quite as strong as they should be for a classroom setting. Both programs are designed for international students whose native languages are not English. [tangledquote1]
Another MSU organization dedicated to international integration is the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) which helps students deal with the logistics of acclimating to American life, such as payment of tuition bills, acquisition of work permits and finding living arrangements. “We primarily help them deal with all the visa and immigration issues,” OISS assistant director Rosemary Max said. “80 percent of it is government work.” In addition to government work, the department also sponsors social programs such as essay contests, student tailgates, sporting events and one of the more popular events, International Coffee Hour, a weekly event where students from different cultures gather over coffee. Students who attend the event have not only gone to share and explore foreign cultures, but also to make friends in a setting less formal than the classroom or cafeteria.
For some, however, the prospect of conversing with people from other countires can be intimidating. “American girls talk so fast,” said Kathy Wei, an English sophomore and transfer student from South Korea. “It’s hard to talk when they talk in groups.”
Walters assists international students who are trying to improve their English and break into other social groups. “I know in residence halls there can be cliques and groups, and it can be hard to penetrate.”
Max agrees. “I think trying to find a niche in a big campus that’s overwhelmingly domestic students is difficult,” she said.
Despite the efforts of the OISS and the ELC, international students sometimes don\’t feel integrated into the rest of the student body. “I always wanted to meet Americans,” Cha said, “but I don’t know a lot.” International students often turn to each other for friendship.
“Most of them [my friends] are Korean,\” Cha said. \”Or they’re from Korea but are actually Chinese.\”
Mohit Pataio, a 23 year-old mechanical engineering teacher’s assistant, just moved to East Lansing from a city near New Dehli, India, in August. He said most of his friends are other international students and scholars whom he met on the flight over from India, and that he doesn’t know many Americans aside from those in his department. “Sometimes I think Americans are the ones who are shy, but sometimes I think maybe I’m the shy person and I should go say \’hi,\’” Pataio said.
According to Walters, the lack of interaction between groups is due in part to the self-assured demeanor of Americans and the timidity of foreign students. “Americans do feel and appear very confident with their friends,” she said. “They look so comfortable. They’re standing around in their residence halls looking really relaxed and cool and hip and a student trying to inject themselves in that, trying to get the look, the language and the body language right, it can be really difficult.”
Miller said she understood how this might be difficult. “I wouldn’t know how to talk to them, I’d just be really nervous [if I were an international student],” she said. “A broader issue is for students who are good in English, good with vocab and sentence structuring, but then you have pragmatic and cultural difficulties. Oftentimes, their intonation pattern is not correct. For example, Chinese intonations are very different than American. You can study grammar and vocab but still not know how intonation conveys meaning. ‘What do you want?’ sounds different than ‘What do you want?’ The quality of your voice, the softness factor, every language has a different pattern combined with intonations, which could take on a different meaning. And that pattern is really difficult to overcome because the person doesn’t know.”
[handshake]But Walters stressed that feeling comfortable enough to approach Americans is not solely contingent on the international students. American students have a responsibility as well. “Go ahead, make the first gesture to say hello and how are you?” Walters said. “They [international students] feel timid but they do respond. If Americans could just be sensitive to the fact that it is hard to make friends through your medium of a second culture, making the first gesture would really be helpful.”
Miller agreed that not everyone is sensitive to hardships of exchange students. “I think they’re aware of it, but because most people haven’t been in that situation themselves they’re not as sensitive, but they know, just maybe not to the extent that it is,” she said.
Nonetheless, she insisted MSU is still an open and accepting community. “I’ve had a lot of students tell me that they’ve never had a bad experience here. They said people have been warm and open to them,” Walters said. As within any group of people, there have been certain international students who have been more outgoing and flamboyant than others, and to them the language barrier means little. “It’s more than just learning the vocabulary and the grammar,” Walters said, “because [there] are some other students whose skills are very low. [If] their grammar is very low and their vocab is very low, they can be almost incomprehensible. But they aren’t afraid to get out there, and they have a personality that allows them to connect with other people.”
While the variety of different languages spoken at MSU can affect students’ ability to connect, it isn’t an impossible barrier to overcome. Walters said, “I think if American students themselves are trying to learn a second language, it could make them more sensitive to the complications, so I would really encourage every able student to take a second language.”
[left]In a country with diverse cultures, races, religions and ethnicities, relating to natural born American citizens is definitely not the only obstacle. Pataio said when he talks to international students from different countries, the same issues exist as with American and international students. These issues may be more complicated due to the conflicting accents and native tongues. “It’s harder to understand,” Pataio said. “You have your lingo, their lingo, American lingo, all of it. It’s hard.\”
Understanding and getting used to the \”lingo\” and mannerisms used by young adults of all cultures may be one key to intercultural friendships. Finding common ground or something to relate to is the easiest way to spark conversation and develop a relationship, but that doesn\’t make finding common ground easy. \”I must say lack of exposure [is a factor] because most students come from big cities [where] everyone is the same,\” Pataio said, \”Then they come here…everyone is different, you can’t always relate.”
Finding that shared interest or similar background may seem difficult, but is not impossible. The real difficulty may not lie in an inability to relate, but in a lack of effort required to make that connection. “I don’t think international students should be that out of place,\” Miller said. “I think that most people are [accepting] now because there are so many different religions and cultures and languages, that you have to be.”

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