English center offers help for second language learners
Celebrating Mardi Gras meant decorating masks and eating king cake for some students at The University of Texas on March 4. The UT English as a Second Language Services celebrates many holidays from around the world, hoping to get more students involved in cultural events.
ESL coordinates partnerships for international students, connecting them to American students at UT in a program called Partnerships for Advanced Language Study and Cultural Exchange (PALS).
Perla De La O, audiology junior at UT, is a PALS coordinator. She said connecting international and American students is difficult because they have approximately twice as many international students interested as there are American students.
“We need to figure out better ways to let people know about our group and our events,” De La O said. “Sometimes attendance is high, sometimes not. We want it to be more regular.”
Despite low attendance and partnership by American students, Teresa Baker, associate director of ESL Services, has seen the program quadruple in size since she joined the staff in 1999.
“When I started here in ‘99, we had about 100 students maybe,” Baker said. “We had seven faculty and staff. Now we have 50 faculty and staff and over 400 students so the biggest challenge is managing that growth.”
The ESL services offers English classes based on the level of work at UT, whether it is undergraduate, graduate, or working as a teaching assistant. All ESL instructors have graduate degrees and have either taught, traveled, or lived overseas. Baker said teaching English to international students in America presents unique challenges.
“If you’re teaching English overseas, you have a monolingual class,” Baker said. “Here, we have maybe eight different countries and languages in one classroom.”
Shuning Lu, a graduate journalism student and teaching assistant, is from China and came to UT in the fall 2013 semester. She has chosen not to take lessons at ESL Services because she does not feel the need to take English classes. However, Lu said studying and teaching in English has been more difficult than she thought it would be, and taking notes is the hardest thing to do.
“I know English from music and TV dramas, but communicating at school is hard,” Lu said. “Sometimes the professor will say something funny and the students are laughing, but I can’t laugh because I didn’t understand it. I can only laugh because everyone else is. And politics are very hard for me to understand.”
“In China we do exercises in English, but it is not the same,” Lu said. “We didn’t have enough practice speaking. Daily language is still very hard.”
Lu said teaching has been somewhat easier than she thought it would be. She said she worried about maintaining the respect of her students, but she feels that everyone has been patient with her.
Though one-fourth of the 5,000 international students at UT are from China, Baker said the languages most represented at ESL classes are usually Arabic, Spanish and Korean. Baker did not say what might cause this discrepancy.
She said students face challenges not only speaking in English, but studying, as well.
“They may get here thinking they know enough English but realize when they get to their class that they don’t know enough,” Baker said. “Trying to take notes and understand what’s a side note and what’s an important point can be difficult for them.”