For many international students, mastering the English language is one of the biggest hurdles to conquer when settling into life studying abroad in an English-speaking country.
With this in mind, along with a handful of other universities, the University at Buffalo (UB) in the United States is developing better language support in an attempt to break down these barriers and create a more inclusive, engaging environment for international students.
UB Vice Provost for International Education Stephen Dunnett told UB Now he often hears from students who, despite enjoying their time studying abroad, found the language barrier isolating at times.
“The sadness for me was I was never able to form any meaningful relationships with American students. My English did get better […] but I can’t say I made a best friend. I wanted to, but it just didn’t happen,” said Dunnett, relaying the story of one international graduate.
UB Professor and Associate Dean for International Education and Enrolment Peter Biehl said providing language services doesn’t just benefit international students but “will have lifelong benefits for […] domestic students, as well. It will make them more tolerant, more adaptable and more marketable on a world stage”.
Any institution that hopes to become a global university must improve “the environment and services for international students” and have this as a “clear priority” Dunnett asserted.
“I think it is fair to say that every international student who gets on a plane to come to the US has a dream of earning their degree and making American friends,” he said. “For many, their biggest challenge to realizing this dream is English language proficiency.”
The university’s English as a second language (ESL) program and its English Language Institute (ELI) “do a lot more than just teach English. They teach study skills, which make a difference for many students who are in the US for the first time,” Senior Associate Vice Provost for International Education John Wood told UB Now.
“Coming from different cultures, some of our international students are accustomed to memorizing everything. They don’t know how to read carefully, to know what you need to remember and what you don’t, so the courses have a cultural component as well,” he said.
No matter how many years students have spent studying English language, it can be jarring to suddenly be thrown into a new environment and having to practice language skills.
When international students “arrive in the US they are taking on a very complex, challenging and cognitively demanding task”, Program Director for UB’s English as a Second Language Instruction Timothy Cauller said.
Navigating American culture, meeting hundreds of new people from all over the world and balancing their studies can be overwhelming for any student but having to cope with language barriers on top of all that can feel isolating.
“For some of the students who are the least engaged, it is due to their lack of proficiency in English,” said Cauller.
UB hopes to initiate conversations between domestic and international students who study similar subjects and have similar interests to ease international students’ anxieties.