An adjustment international students must make when they get to Northwest is speaking English on a daily basis. For those who don’t have a community of students who speak their native language, the only time they can speak it is when they call home.
The University has 444 international students enrolled, according to a news release published Sept. 24. They represent 6% of Northwest’s student body and hail from 40 countries. The majority of international students come from India, Nepal, South Korea and Nigeria.
Junior Lucas Harel never used English outside of his classes at school in France. He was required to take one English class every year since he was 11 years old. Still in his first semester in the United States, he often uses WordReference.com LLC to look up the words he wants to use or understand in his daily conversations.
Harel said he isn’t discouraged when he has to use a translator on the internet because it’s part of the learning process. He remembers words he looked up previously and gradually becomes more familiar with how to use them.
“I’m here to learn English better,” Harel said. “I think it improves it. … I like that because I know it a lot more.”
Other international students have known English for a longer time. One such student is sophomore Vitaliy Tsytsyk from Ukraine, who started learning English when he was 4 years old. His mom was an English and German teacher, so she taught him early.
More than half the people around the world — an estimated 60-75% — speak at least two languages, according to a 2016 BBC article. On the other hand, the United State Census Bureau reported 21.6% of the nation’s population speaks a language other than English at home in 2016.
Tsytsyk said he was required to learn two foreign languages, so he learned both English and German. However, he learned British English throughout his school career, so he had to quickly adapt to American English when he spent his senior year of high school in Cameron, Missouri, in 2017.
“Some of the words are just different,” Tsytsyk said. “We were taught to speak more properly and a lot of slang words weren’t taught. A lot of that was something I had to learn on the go.”
One instance when Tsytsyk had to change his use of English was when he used up his eraser during class. He asked his teacher for one — using the British term which is “rubber” — and was met with silence. As he repeated himself multiple times, the class erupted in laughter. He didn’t understand what was funny, so he clarified he needed to erase a mistake. Then his classmates told him it was called an eraser.
Tsytsyk also noticed a difference in the way people used English in different regions of the country. His host family took him to New Orleans during winter break, and he said he remembers having difficulty understanding the dialect people used there.
A difference Tsytsyk said he immediately noticed when he started school in the United States was how often informal and grammatically incorrect English was accepted. A common phrase he said that frustrated him was when people would answer the question, “How are you doing?” with “I’m good,” because the grammatically correct answer is “I’m well.”
“A lot of professors tell me I speak more properly than I need to with word usage, word choice and such,” Tsytsyk said.
While he said he tends to speak more formally than most, Tsytsyk doesn’t think a proper English exists.
Assistant Professor in the Department of Language, Literature and Writing Heather Hill agrees proper English doesn’t exist because the language is always changing and its use varies from place to place.
“There are dialects of English, and one of them is what we call standard academic English,” Hill said. “That’s what everyone thinks of when they think proper English, and that's only one kind of English.”
In her Studies in Language class, Hill shows her students a documentary series called, “Do You Speak American?” to show them how people use English differently across the United States. It examines the idea of whether or not a “correct” English exists.
Hill said each dialect has its own accent, sentence structure, grammar and vocabulary. She said a couple of commonly recognized dialects are African American Vernacular and southern.
“People who do not speak standard English are very often looked down upon,” Hill said. “It comes across as not as well educated or not as smart as someone else. … Those people are just as smart and probably just as well educated as anybody else, but the way they talk causes people to have a bias against them.”
Hill said she values language diversity and encourages her students to write in their personal dialect, but she has to balance it with teaching them how to write in standard academic English because they’ll need it in other academic fields and in the professional workplace.
“If we're expecting them all to use perfect standard academic English, it's very much putting people who don't use that dialect naturally at a disadvantage,” Hill said. “Language is so tied up with identity. If I say you need to talk like me, then I'm telling you that you need to change your identity and be more like me. If that person is a different race than me, that comes across as really racist to me.”
Trevor Meyer, another assistant professor in the Department of Language, Literature and Writing, said English is a language of power because it has been used to suppress the identities of certain groups.
“We live in a country and a nation that has a long history of white supremacy, nationalism, slavery and genocide of Native Americans and people of color,” Meyer said. “Talking about the power relations that are involved (in) working for linguistic racial justice is an important part of teaching people how to word without simply being another cog in this machine of oppression.”
Meyer argues that proper English is inherently oppressive and isn’t necessary for effective communication. He said the idea of proper English is based on how well the message fits in the specific context; it doesn’t require perfect grammar if it gets the speaker’s point across effectively.
“Yes, there is proper grammar, but it’s proper grammar to the genre and purpose,” Meyer said. “The grammar that is proper — that is fitting — to a text message is different than the grammar that is proper to an application letter or an email or a news story. … If it gets the job done, what more do you need?”
In contrast, Tsytsyk said knowing the grammar rules for a language is vital in fully understanding it. He studied Spanish during his senior year of high school, but he didn’t consider it learning because he was only taught general words and phrases.
“One year is definitely not enough, and I don’t think four years is enough to learn it,” Tsytsyk said. “(Learning grammar) might be boring and might not be the way native speakers use it, but I think that if you know the grammar and how to construct sentences, then it’s a lot easier to learn the language.”
Tsytsyk said knowing the proper rules and structures for each language allows him to be able to think in the language he’s speaking. He said it’s easier than translating between Ukrainian and English which takes up more time and energy.
Similarly, Harel is slowly starting to think more in English than French as he uses it more often. However, he said he sometimes forgets to switch back to English after calling a friend or his mom in France and speaks to his roommate in French for a couple seconds before he realizes that his roommate doesn’t understand.
Since he learned English when he was young, Harel said introducing foreign languages earlier in the American school system could be beneficial.
“I think it could be good because it’s cool to know different languages so you can travel anywhere else and speak to people there,” Harel said. “It can open your mind.”
In order to achieve the fluency of a native speaker, children must start learning the language by age 10, according to Newsweek. They still have the ability to learn the grammar of a new language until they’re 17-18, but their ability to speak fluently is diminished.
Tsytsyk also said learning another language is valuable, specifically on a cultural level.
“In general, the more you know about other cultures and other countries, the easier it is to communicate and to overcome those prejudices and stereotypes,” Tsytsyk said. “I think learning foreign languages is also great because it’s so much better to watch movies and read books in the original language it was created in because you lose a lot of the jokes and references when you translate the language. … It broadens your horizons too.”