For Rundong Du, a first year mathematics graduate student, the two “happiest times of the week” are 12:30-2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, when he joins 10 other graduate students in a small UTC classroom for Alison McGregor’s English as a Second Language course.
Du is one of the many foreign graduate students who come to UT with limited English skills and must take ESL classes from the university’s international office. Michael T. Smith, director of ESL services at UT, said supporting international students at the University so they can be successful either as students or TAs is one of the main purposes of the ESL program.
“There is no large research university that doesn’t have ESL programs of some kind for a variety of reasons,” Smith said.
ESL services support international students, provide teaching experiences for students who aspire to teach ESL students and provide ESL classes to non-degree seeking students and members of the local community.
State law mandates that any TA who will have classroom contact with Texas residents must undergo English screening services. While technically, international graduate students without English fluency could choose to not take the classes, they would be out of a TA job, which is, for many, their only source of income. For all practical purposes, the courses are required.
Upon entering UT, Du was required to take an oral English assessment and an online workshop, the former of which tested his ability to speak about his subject and introduce himself to his class. The online workshop focused on understanding the classroom culture in the United States.
That classroom culture, Du said, is decidedly different from the culture he experienced in China, where he grew up in the city of Hefei.
“I feel more free here,” Du said. “I have less pressure.”
For Youngmok Yun, a mechanical engineering graduate student and a fellow student in McGregor’s ESL class, the biggest difference between UT and his undergraduate institution is the size.
“UT is really huge,” Yun said.
That’s why Yun appreciates the small size of the ESL class. Before taking the class, he lacked a community to talk about the problems of being a TA. The class gave him and the other students (all of whom are international TAs) a place to share teaching strategies, even though the class focuses on learning the English language.
“Before the class, when I taught alone, it was very difficult for me,” Yun said. “When I talked with the other TAs in the ESL class, they told me that one good strategy is to call students’ names and ask specific questions to specific students.”
The ESL class is also one of the few places where the TAs receive honest feedback about their pronunciation, as many native speakers are shy about correcting a non-native speaker’s grammar.
“My students are sometimes kind of afraid of me,” Du said. “I was asking them to correct my pronunciation but their reaction is like I’m asking them to explain something during lecture. They are frightened and don’t understand that I’m just asking them to correct my pronunciation.”
Luckily, professors in the ESL program are not afraid to point out mistakes in usage, but hours in the classroom alone cannot bring the international student’s English up to speed. Though the class is a place where, according to Du, “you’re never blamed, you never feel frightened,” it is also not the place where real English learning occurs.
“We’ve had lots of success stories,” Smith said. “But we’re just one of a variety of factors that helps [ESL students] be successful with language learning. It’s just not something that happens in a class, it’s gonna happen as individuals integrate into the Austin community and the campus community and the department community.”
Du said he hasn’t ventured out into the Austin community very much yet, but credited that more to his personality than to his language skills. When he does go out, he is accompanied by other Chinese graduate students. Though Yun has spent some time exploring Austin, he spends most of his time at home with his wife, who is expecting a child. When at home, the couple tries to speak English, but the clumsiness of speaking their non-native language often trips them into speaking Korean.
One of the main goals of the orientation program for international students is to make them aware of the importance of speaking English often and outside the classroom. “Cause it doesn’t just happen by magic,” Smith said. Unfortunately, neither does finding a community.
Printed on Friday, December 6, 2012 as: ESL classes offer relaxing learning environment