While completing our service learning with the Master of Science in English Education program by meeting with our conversation partners throughout the semester we have each come across some difficulties our partners face. It is often difficult for them to pronounce certain words and syllables, using pronouns correctly, understanding our “slang” and social norms, learning to speak less formally, writing (sentence structure), and English words not having a similar meaning in Chinese.
Often when meeting with our partners they use a translator on their cell phones to be able to find the English or Chinese word they are having difficulty thinking of or coming up with. Aside from all the difficulties, we have learned a lot from our conversation partners. The typical American classroom is much more relaxed compared to the typical classroom in China, which is said to be very strict. It is highly regarded to be any type of teacher in China and they are paid much more than the teachers in the United States.
Since being a student at a university in the United States the Chinese students have witnessed the “party culture” colleges here have and do not understand it. These issues are common when it comes to English language learners around the United States. One thing we learned through this service learning project is how stereotypical our culture can be. When we think of other cultures, we put them all into one broad group. What we learned with our first meeting with our partners is how much different they are. One is from an ethnic group of China and is from a rural area which he said is difficult to come by.
His group is also allowed to follow different laws than the mainstream laws of China. Another one of our partners has been in the Philippians for the last few years and has near perfect English. He speaks and writes in standard English perfectly, as he has never had another dialect interfere with his English. A few of our partners amazed us on how much schooling they go through. Not only as individuals, but also as a norm in their culture. One of our partners is twenty-six and on his second master’s degree. To add to it, when he graduates after this semester here, he is going to the United Kingdom for his third masters in Anthropology.
After that he plans on getting his PhD to become a college English professor. Another one is also twenty-six and is on his second master’s degree and plans to get his PhD after here. This was eye opening to us because when we think of our culture and college, we try to get done with college as quickly as possible. Getting two master’s degrees, let alone three, is typically unheard of here. When having our conversation with our partners, we were also able to see some of the struggles that a lot of English Learners (ELLs) face when learning English.
Garrett and Holcomb (2005) note that one of the struggles they face results from their peers in schools. Because they often have a hard time hiding their language’s backgrounds, they can face mocking and discrimination in schools. This can result in ELLs choosing to not speak to prevent further embarrassment. Garrett and Holcomb give an example by talking about Amy, a Chinese immigrant student who would be laughed at by her fellow students whenever her mother spoke her native language.
Garrett and Holcomb also talk about Alejandro, a Mexican American student who faced isolation and discrimination from his teachers despite being in a Latino dominated school. This is a common social struggle among ELLs. Another struggle ELLs face is the learning of the English language itself. Banks and Banks (2016) give us some insight as to what can make the language learning experience difficult. When it comes to learning any language, it’s important to remember that language is made up of many subsystems that can complicate learning a language.
These subsystems include pragmatics, syntax, semantics, morphology, and phonology. The ELLs abilities to properly use all these subsystems might depend on their first language. For example, Spanish-speaking ELLs might say “I no like” for a longer period of time because of its likeness to the Spanish phrase of “No quiero. ” In this example, we see that syntax and semantics are different between Spanish and English. Something that can complicate ELLs’ language learning experience is the differences faced when learning languages socially and academically.
Banks and Banks (2016) make note of the fact that learning any language academically can take 7 to 10 years, whereas le any language socially can take 1 to 5 years. This is often due to the lack of context support in academic learning, where the learning environment is more structured unlike social interactions. One final struggle pointed out by Garrett and Holcomb (2005) is that it is sometimes difficult for ELLs to academically succeed in schools. ELLs that are immigrants often find themselves to be in an academic environment not familiar to the ones they were originally taught with.
Garret and Holcomb (2005) make reference to an early sixties study done by William Glasser. In Glasser’s study, it was found that it wasn’t the students in the studied cases that were failing. Instead, it was the adults, whether teachers, administrators, or parents, that were failing the students by not providing ideal learning environments. Preventing the failure of ELLS comes from the “creation of educational environments that are safe and conducive to learning, school climates that foster academic success, and empowerment of students” (Garrett and Holcomb, 2005). When compared with our experiences, some of these struggles are prevalent.
When it came to the learning of the English language itself, some partners would ask about what would be proper words to say and how to properly pronounce certain words. One example pointed out by one of the conversation partners is that Chinese people will often have trouble saying “Thank you” in English because there is no sound for “th” in the Chinese language. Chinese will often make the mistake of pronouncing a “s” instead of the “th”. One partner, while having no difficulties with word order when speaking, would have difficulties with sentence structure when writing emails.
When it came to the differences in academic environments, one partner pointed out that in China, it is the professors and teachers that move from room to room, rather than the students. And as mentioned earlier, one partner noted how American classroom are much more relaxed than classroom in China. Our experiences with our partners have not hown any possible judgement and discrimination for the language backgrounds. Even though there were various struggles, our partners were able to adapt and overcome them, and the program we acted through certainly helped them along the way.
Our service learning program provides a master of science in education program with an English emphasis through a partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and South Central University for nationalities in Wuhan, China. This program was established in 2001. It provides students in China with the opportunity to receive high-quality American graduate education. Along with the many things provided by the university, the program also provides the students with support activities while they are here.
Each Chinese student is assigned a host family from the city of Platteville and they usually see them once a month. The host family often invites the students over during holidays and family activities. They are also assigned a conversation partner, an American student who also attends the university, and meets with them throughout the semester. The conversation partner provides help, knowledge, and a friend. Not only are they here to learn but they also get the chance to travel a little and see what the United States has to offer.
The program coordinator schedules several trips on the weekends throughout the semester, such as, going to see the capital and downtown in Madison, Wisconsin to shopping, eating, and exploring in Chicago, Illinois. Many times, all the students plan a trip for Spring Break, this year the students all traveled to the West coast together. Each student will also meet weekly with the program coordinator for an advising meeting, this is to ensure that the student is doing well and to help with any problem, questions, concerns, etc.
The conversation partner program is offered to many other racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Here alone at UW-Platteville, students have this same opportunity. We have two different types of conversation partner programs. One is the Chinese conversation partners and the other is for English Language Learners. A major difference in the two groups here on campus is that the Chinese program is for graduate students from China who are here as part of their master’s degree in English.
In order for them to make it over to the United States, and join part in our Confucius Program, they had to be top of their class and have a great understanding of the language. This really aided in conversation as we did not struggle with as strong of social barrier. Originally, I was partnered with two Saudi Arabian English learners as part of the other conversation partner program on campus; however, due to their lack of commitment, I was exchanged to the Chinese program. I quickly became thankful for the transition as I ended up with two cool guys with great personalities.