Lin Lu has a great sense of humor, but she might not get the punch line of your joke. Abdulrahman Alsuhaibani is outgoing, but he rarely used to talk to strangers.
For some international students at Ohio State, language barriers block more social opportunities than academic ones.
Alsuhaibani, a third-year in chemical engineering from Saudi Arabia, said his English instruction began at age 12 with lessons from his father. Before coming to the U.S. in 2011, his family paid for him to take extra English classes at the English Language Institute, Alsuhaibani said.
The ELI, located at a university in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, aims to “provide intensive instruction of English as a foreign language,” according to its website.
Alsuhaibani said those classes, though, didn’t completely resolve the issue.
“When I first came here, I thought everyone would understand me, but my English actually wasn’t that good,” he said.
Engineering courses came easily, but an English class that required group work and voicing opinions out loud was stressful, Alsuhaibani said.
“I hated that class, not because of the material, but because of the pressure to be understood by classmates,” Alsuhaibani said.
He said many international students think Americans won’t understand their speech, so they remove themselves from situations where they have to speak English.
Lu, a graduate student in educational technology at OSU who is from China, said the language barrier can make it hard for international students to become friends with American students.
“I make friends in China by making some jokes, but it’s very hard for me to make jokes in English,” Lu said. “Sometimes, we can’t understand what the points are in English jokes because of the language.”
Lu said she only understood about half of what her professors were saying when she first came to the U.S. a year and a half ago, but understanding her classmates’ jokes was still more challenging than comprehending lecture material, which led to other problems.
“It is very important for international students to make American friends because you are here, and you have to try to get involved with American culture, even though it’s different,” Lu said.
Both Lu and Alsuhaibani are participants in the English Conversation Partners program at OSU, which matches international students with American students to practice English and learn about U.S. culture. According to the program’s website, students participating are required to meet for at least one hour per week.
Charlotte Petera, a second-year in Korean, said she volunteers as an English conversation partner because she understands learning a language in a classroom doesn’t always prepare students for an environment where few people speak their native language.
“The other day I had to explain ‘fancy schmancy’ to one international partner and I had to Google a way to explain it,” Petera said. “I’m actually learning a lot about my own language use by teaching.”
Some American OSU students, though, lack patience with international students because they don’t understand how difficult it is to be expected to speak a language besides their own, Petera said.
“Being able to understand somebody else’s fear and still work with them to overcome it is an invaluable skill to have, and not everyone here has it,” Petera said.
Renée Bishai, program coordinator for global engagement in OSU’s Office of International Affairs, said international students are more likely to feel comfortable attempting to communicate when they are interacting with Americans who are willing to help and be patient.
“Sometimes it’s easy for both Americans and international students to stay comfortable within their nationality groups,” Bishai said. “However, it’s important that students know there are a lot of ways for them to get involved with other cultures other than their own.”
Bishai said the program generally has more international students than American.
“We always have so many more international students requesting partners,” she said. “I always hear from students who participate that they have a great time, and they learn and that they are also benefiting from the program.”
Taylor Larr, a third-year in psychology, said he is taking Spanish because it is a requirement for his degree, but added he would feel unprepared if he was to attend school at a Spanish-speaking university.
“I would try to find common interests with other English speaking students, but it would be hard to make friends and seem funny if no one could understand you,” Larr said.
Alsuhaibani said things have gotten better with time for him.
“In the beginning, it was outside of my expectations that people wouldn’t be able to understand me so I would just be silent,” Alsuhaibani said. “But now that I’ve gained some confidence with my English, that barrier has been removed and I can talk to anyone.”