Mufarrah Musaeva was discussing Uzbek dating culture in her class when a student asked whether couples in Uzbekistan talk about their sex lives with friends. Before she could answer, a student told her to “keep it PG.”
She didn’t understand the expression, so the student explained.
“I was so happy to learn,” said Musaeva, a graduate student studying English philology. “That is why I’m here.”
When she then told the class she and most Uzbek people are too shy to discuss intimate secrets with others, another student said, “So you don’t break the mold?”
She didn’t know what that meant either.
Using slang and figurative speech is one aspect of English Musaeva said she’s still learning.
But she loves learning English, she said. She has studied the language for more than six years, four of which were at a world-class language school in Uzbekistan. A Fulbright scholar, Musaeva was selected to teach Uzbek language and culture at IU, but she said she wouldn’t have been ready without her extensive education.
She doesn’t know how international students without such preparation do it, she said.
Of the 6,015 international students at IU, more than 75 percent come from non-English speaking countries. Most of them don’t have the sort of education Musaeva had before coming here.
Using English in an academic setting is a distinctive challenge as part of an international students’s experience at IU. Without adequate English skills, some suffer socially and academically. Although the language is so important to their learning, there are international students who arrive here unprepared to use English in the academic setting, despite being determined proficient by examinations.
The Test of English as a Foreign Language is one exam IU requires prospective international students to pass before they can be considered for admission.
Like Musaeva, junior Yimei Chen studied English for years, too. But instead of attending a world-class university, Chen took mandatory English courses at her public school in China.
“We didn’t learn English as a tool,” Chen said. “It was just something to test us on.”
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Chen said she discovered IU through its website. But before she could be admitted, she had to score well enough on the TOEFL.
She said her high school classes didn’t prepare her well enough and because she never used English outside of class, the speaking part was most difficult.
Chen’s friend Abby Peng, a sophomore finance major, said although she worked with an English tutor in China, the speaking portion was still difficult for her, too.
Peng sat among other students before an interviewer during the speaking test. “What’s your deepest regret?” the interviewer asked. Peng froze.
“I didn’t know the word ‘regret,’” Peng said. “But when I heard the other student’s answer, I understood what it meant.
“I told them my biggest regret was I didn’t prepare more for the test.”
Prospective international students who don’t have adequate TOEFL scores are encouraged to participate in IU’s Intensive English Program, IEP Scheduling and Testing Coordinator Beverly Rolfs said.
But the IEP is an academic limbo for many of the international students who pay for its classes.
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When senior Jaeyun Kim first came to IU, he wasn’t an IU student.
“I was an IEP student,” Kim said. “My original plan was to study English and then go back to South Korea and continue college.”
Rolfs said students who participate in IEP aren’t admitted to the University, but are here to learn English in a way that prepares them to succeed at an American university. She said although IEP students pay fees for the program, they don’t pay tuition to the IU, so they don’t earn credit.
Kim said he came all the way to the U.S. to participate in IEP because he knew he needed to study in an English-speaking country to become fluent.
IEP was difficult and stressful, Kim said, and speaking English was his biggest problem. He said he didn’t speak any English before he arrived. The instructors were all American, none of whom spoke Korean.
“I didn’t get a lot of help from the classmates either because they were international students,” Kim said. “No one spoke any English.”
After completing IEP in nine months, Kim said he chose to stay at IU rather than return to South Korea. Although IEP taught him enough to pass the TOEFL and gain admission, he said his English was still lacking.
“It wasn’t enough to start U.S. college life,” Kim said. “But I had no other choice.”
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Life inside the American classroom is sometimes very different from classes abroad. When international students are unprepared to communicate in that environment, social and academic problems abound.
Each of the five international students interviewed for this story said their classes at home involved less interaction between students and teachers.
Musaeva said her friend, who is an international student assistant instructor, was shocked when a student told her she was wrong in front of the class. She said her friend came from a place where students would never openly criticize their instructors.
“She really wasn’t ready for that,” Musaeva said.
The language school she attended in Uzbekistan offered a course that prepared students for teaching in the United States, Musaeva said, so she was ready when she got here. Musaeva said she suggests international student AIs take a course offered by Second Language Studies at IU, which also focuses on learning in the American classroom.
International students who are being taught instead of teaching might benefit from a similar class, junior Jia Yung Chai said. Before leaving Malaysia, much of his exposure to American classrooms came from American films.
“Before I came to the U.S., I wish I would’ve learned how to communicate better with native speakers,” Chai said. “We can’t learn if we can’t communicate with locals.”
Answering questions or offering his thoughts during class is very difficult, Chai said, because instructors and peers fail to understand him when he struggles to articulate.
Public speaking is what Yimei Chen, one of the students from China, said is her biggest fear when using English, adding she also didn’t realize students were expected to be more vocal in American classrooms.
“I have a lot of room to improve,” Chen said.
Writing in English is also a struggle for many international students, partly because citation conventions such as Modern Language Association style are alien concepts to students who come from places that have different cultural understandings of intellectual property. Chen said Chinese students might have issues with academic misconduct because of this misunderstanding.
“There are no strict restrictions on plagiarism in China,” Chen said.
The Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities, and Conduct is something Chen said she thinks most students don’t read, international or otherwise.
Understanding what’s in the code is a problem for many students, and they aren’t all international, IU Dean of Student Ethics Jason Casares said. Most of students’ exposure to the code comes from courses’ syllabi, he added.
Casares said he didn’t know if a disproportionate number of academic misconduct cases were international students’. But he said for the first time, the Office of Student Ethics was invited to last year’s international student orientation to educate incoming students about academic conduct.
“That was highly successful,” Casares said. “We saw them all last summer.”
But for international students already on campus who haven’t been educated about the specifics of academic conduct at IU, a problem still remains. Chen said international students from China might struggle with plagiarism not only because of cultural differences with regards to cheating, but also because they didn’t write many essays at home in the first place. And that’s not only true for Chinese international students.
Kim said he seldom wrote essays in Korean, let alone in English.
“I have a lot of problems with writing,” Kim said. “I heard there’s a writing tutor service on campus, but I never use it.
“I feel like they would give me only general advice.”
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Writing Tutorial Services doesn’t give general advice, but lessons that help students to grow as writers, WTS Peer Tutor Emma Vice said.
“I want to make people better writers,” Vice said. “We don’t proofread. Our number-one goal is to make the writing the best it can be.”
Painstakingly analyzing every clause and prepositional phrase doesn’t help students struggling with English achieve a better understanding, Vice said. But before she can help students write, she said she has to help them read assignments’ rubrics.
“One of the biggest struggles is simply understanding and meeting the demands of their assignment sheets,” WTS Director Jo Ann Vogt said.
Vogt said the majority of international students who seek help at WTS are well prepared to communicate in English and as time passes, their errors disappear.
But Vice said marketing is a problem.
“There are a lot of people who don’t know we exist,” she said.
Professors and AIs are their biggest promoters, especially in the elementary composition class, W131, she said.
“The first thing out of there mouths is usually ‘help me with grammar.’”
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Grammar is less Kim’s concern when it comes to English than having a healthy social life with his American peers.
“I love American culture and people,” Kim said. “I really want to communicate with Americans.”
Early in his time at IU, loneliness, fear and stress were the norm, Kim said. Struggles with English inhibited his social life, consequently exacerbating those problems.
Kim said it would be great if international students were strong English users because their social experience at IU would improve and some of the friction between American and international student populations would subside. He said if Americans made more an effort to help international students, tensions would ease, as well.
But he said he doesn’t blame American students for being disinterested in being friends with international students; many are shy and aloof.
“International students need to make an effort,” he said.
Abby Peng said since she made more American friends, her English has improved.
For Musaeva, interacting with her American friends and students has been easier. She said she’s had some experiences that help her relate with American students. Books by Theodore Dreiser and Jack London were part of her education, authors American students likely read in high school, too.
After finishing her time at IU, Musaeva said she wants to stay in the United States.
She’s passionate about two things: spreading her culture and learning English. The latter serves as a bridge.
“English has become a part of my life,” Musaeva said. “I want to be where English lives.”