Teach Me How to English

As an international student, I learned a lot about American
culture by observing. Americans smile and hug more than average Czech people, who compose the majority of my neighbors and friends back home in
Prague. I have also observed that Uggs, black leggings, and a North Face jacket are a
go-to outfit. These are some of the more apparent observations that come along with
learning about a new culture. On a less tangible and more sinister note, I noticed that I was not as proficient in English writing as I thought I was, and it
became a challenge for me when assimilating into Pomona College’s academic life.
Despite my professed talent
for foreign languages, I faced the issue of every English as a Second Language (ESL) student—I was
proficient, but not perfect, in English. 

There are essentially two problems that ESL students
face. The first is an easily fixable issue: We don’t always have a complete
grasp on idiomatic and academic grammatical structures. Well, it is easily
fixed as long as there is a kind native speaker willing to go over your paper
and point out the grammar errors. This can become problematic if a student does
not feel comfortable asking other students for help or has yet to meet American
students at the beginning of the first year. 

The second problem is a tougher one: We often use awkward
wording and phrasing in our academic writing. English textbooks don’t teach us
about the little nuances that bridge the gap between the advanced and the
native language level. We can’t read our essay aloud to know if it sounds
awkward because we simply don’t know when something sounds off. Another reason
why essays may sound awkward is due to the different writing styles in other
languages. My English 123 textbook
“forgot” to mention the five-paragraph rule (however problematic you find it),
the importance of transitions, and an explanation of an argumentative thesis.
You may find this bizarre, but before coming to the U.S. I had never written a
critical paper and was dumbfounded by the idea of a strong thesis. In the Czech Republic, we
wrote very little and all written works were graded based on my command of Czech
grammar (I kid you not, Czech grammar is crazily difficult). Inserting my own opinion
into essays was therefore completely new to me. It is important that ESL
students understand these critical components of academic writing in the U.S.,
as professors can interpret unclear writing and grammar mistakes as signs of an
unconvincing essay.

The problem is that there is no language resource
for ESL students to address these concerns. The Writing Center is not designed
to correct our grammar mistakes, nor are the Writing Fellows equipped to help
ESL students answer their grammar questions. The language fellows at the
Foreign Language Resource Center, on the other hand, assist students with
grammar in Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, German, and Russian, but
not in English. Finally, the I-Place website claims to help international students
with their academic transition, but in reality it is geared toward integrating
these students into the American environment rather than facilitating their
academic adjustment.

I have been relying on the kindness of my American
friends and my professors so far. At the beginning of each semester, I tell my
professors that English was my third language and that I would appreciate it if
they pointed out specific awkward words and structures in my essays and suggest
changes. I feel very grateful for the caring student body and faculty here, as
they have all been receptive of my needs. Nevertheless, with an increasing
number of international and ESL students at Pomona, this is not the most appropriate
or sustainable solution for addressing these issues.

The Writing Center has recognized this issue and is
trying to host a few ESL workshops over the semester. While this is a step in the
right direction, there is a need for a consistent and specialized resource that
ESL students can turn to at any point during the semester. For example, Claremont McKenna College has a program for International Student Language Support as part of the Center
for Writing and Public Discourse that offers a one-on-one session to target the student’s language needs.

Addressing the challenges of ESL students in a
workshop during the orientation week,
continuing with the Writing Center’s ESL workshops, a peer-proofreading program for international students,
and a permanent ESL essay tutor are all viable solutions to this issue. As
international students, most of them ESL, represent over 10 percent of our
student body, it is important that there is a resource to facilitate our
understanding of English as a second language, as it constitutes an important
aspect of our college experience. In order for ESL students to learn and grow
academically and to take advantage of the intellectually stimulating classroom
experience, they have to first feel comfortable. Assisting ESL students in
overcoming the language barrier is therefore of vital importance for Pomona
College as a whole.

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