Getting in gear (oops, ‘Becoming proficient’) in learning everyday English

There’s no way around it: English is hard to learn.

It’s really, really tough.

Our often illogical non-phonetic spelling patterns, our tendency to use conjunctions, and the fact that words like “hard” and “tough” can have the same meaning in the above context, but not in others, make it difficult for non-native speakers to even understand the first sentence of this article. “There’s no way around what?,” one might say. 

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For example, though Gina Martinez is nearly fluent in English,  she does admit that she struggles a little with the prepositions.

“When people say things like ‘on the bus,’ it’s still confusing to me,” said Martinez, a psychology student from Bogota, Colombia.

The University of Arizona now has  nearly 3,500 international students enrolled from about 140 countries. Like American students, degree-seeking international students are required to take two 100-level English courses, normally English 107 and English 108 – the equivalent of English 101 and 102, but for non-native speakers. Two-thirds of the international students admitted in the spring 2014 semester were eligible to sign up for English 107. However, the other third placed into English 107A, a class created to help students who have a shakier grasp on the English language. This semester is first in two years to have more than 16 percent of first-semester international students enroll in 107A. When so many students need extra assistance to understand the language taught in all of their university classes, it raises the question: is the language barrier too much for these students?

“The language barrier is always a concern,” said Nick Ferdinand, associate director of U.A.’s Center for English as a Second Language. “However, the number of 107A students responds to the demand of international students. Ideally, we want 10 percent of the student population to be international, and we’re a little below 10 percent now.”

But UA isn’t pocketing all of these students’ out-of-state tuition and then leaving them mute and illiterate in a strange country. They must prove that they have some English proficiency first. All international students must take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and score a 70 or above to be admitted to the university. This requirement was raised very recently; a few years ago, students only had to score a 61.

Martinez has been learning English since kindergarten; in Colombia, she received “basic” English lessons throughout childhood. Then, when she was 17, she and her family lived in the United States for six months, speaking only English the entire time. Though her family returned to Colombia, she came back for her education because she married an American.

“Some parts of English are easy, but the hardest part is speaking,” said Martinez, who is enrolled in English 108 this semester. “I often have to repeat myself to explain ideas. It’s easier for me to read English than to write it or do presentations.”

Sam Lau has also been learning English since kindergarten, but across the world from Martinez. A business major from Hong Kong, he says that memorizing our words is the hardest part.

“The vocabulary is really, really hard,” said Lau, who is enrolled in English 107 this semester. “It’s also hard to communicate with Americans because the culture is different and new.”

When asked if American slang was hard (oops, “difficult”) to get used to (oops, “accustomed to”), he laughed.

“A lot of times the professor says something that everyone thinks is funny, but we international students just don’t get it because we’re not from here.”

Speaking of the colloquial, sometimes our jargon makes little sense to international students, even if the words themselves do.

“When I first came here, people would ask ‘How do you like it here?,” said David Villa, an exchange student from Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico. “I would always think ‘Um, I didn’t tell you I liked it…’ In Mexico, we ask ‘Cómo está?’ (How is it?) instead.”

Despite the roadblocks in learning our bear of a language (pity the poor non-native English speakers grappling with that idiom), international students continue to flock to America and UA, and we will continue to accept them with open arms. As it turns out, we need them.

“There aren’t as many undergrads from the United States coming in because the natality rate has gone down,” said Ferdinand. “The United States education system has been expanding for decades, and has reached its capacity for domestic students. The number of students at the university will decline if we don’t recruit internationally.”

It’s a mutually beneficial situation, then, for U.A. and international students. The university gets higher enrollment and diversity, and international students get educated at one of the top 100 universities in the world.

“U of A is in the 50th of the top 100 universities worldwide,” said Ferdinand. “Some of these students, especially from China, save for generations of families just so one child can go to college.”



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