Troubles with Language Abroad

by Muhammed Akici, Izmir University of Economics, November 12, 2008

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It is hard to adjust to a new culture or a new country quickly. It takes time to learn about a new local culture or a new society. There are many difficult obstacles for students when they are in a foreign country. But I want to talk about language problems related to understanding and speaking in another language. Almost all foreign students need to talk and understand what local people say. Language is like a bridge between people, connecting them. Without
language, it is hard to have a good life in a foreign country.

Without a doubt, it is a big challenge to speak and understand another language because using a new language efficiently takes time. Not knowing a language well makes it hard for foreign students to be comfortable abroad.

When I first came to the USA, I had a very uncomfortable experience with language. I worked on campus at a Subway restaurant. I was responsible for putting vegetables such as lettuces, tomatoes, green peppers or onions on sandwiches. When customers told me what they wanted on their sandwiches, I got in trouble. I didn’t know the names of vegetables, and I kept asking them to repeat what they said. Even when they repeated themselves, I had no idea what they were talking about. Finally people
just pointed at what they wanted. It was too difficult for me to understand their words.

Subway seems to be a place for language mistakes. For instance, one of my friends made an error when he wanted a sandwich at Subway. We were waiting on the line together. I warned him about being careful with his language. I reminded him about what happened to me at Subway. He said, “Don’t worry about me. I can say what I want easily.”

The girl who was responsible for making sandwiches raised her voice and asked. “Who is next?”

My friend stepped up and he asked, “Can I get chicken sandwich?”

The girl said, “What kind of cheese do you prefer for your sandwich?”

My friend tried to say what he wanted for his sandwich but he confused words. Finally, he said, “What are the opinions?” But actually he wanted to ask for cheese “options” for his sandwich. He realized that he used the wrong word. Then he corrected himself. As this example shows, foreign students should expect to make mistakes with the language, and they shouldn’t be too hard on themselves when they do make mistakes. International students shouldn’t avoid learning from their mistakes.

There are rules about being formal and informal for students when they have a conversation with a teacher. These rules can change from one country to the next. But some of them are always universal for students, such as showing respect to teachers by talking with them carefully or by acting politely. Some foreign students face difficulty when having a conversation with a teacher. Sometimes they don’t know how they should talk or act toward a teacher. The reason why they don’t know could be that they are coming from a different culture or that they have a limited vocabulary in the local language. But they must be aware that they can’t talk to a teacher like a friend. So, conversations between students and teachers must be formal.

Here is a story about me. Generally “Cool, man” is used between friends. One day I was late for class and after class my teacher wanted to talk to me about why I was late. We started to talk and he said to me a lot of things that I did not understand. At the end of the conversation I just said, “Cool, man.” At that time, when I did not understand what somebody said, I always said “Cool, man.” After I said “Cool, man” to my teacher, students standing around looked at me because they were surprised by what I had said. Then they started laughing, it was funny but it was not appropriate.

Before they leave their own country, many international students study a language that they will use abroad. But when they go abroad, they discover that speaking and understanding is more difficult than they expected, because when students learn a different language, they learn grammatical features of the language. But they don’t learn casual speaking, idioms or slang words that are frequently used. They don’t learn street language when they are in language classes in their own country. For instance, there are millions of ways to describe getting drunk like “drunk as a skunk,” “sloshed” or “blasted.” But I didn’t learn any of them when I was in my own country because these words are only spoken by native speakers. When I first heard, “We are in the same boat” I didn’t understand because I thought that “boat” must be on the water. So in the beginning students feel really bad because they don’t understand slang or idioms. After a few months it gets better and they start getting used to understanding and speaking street language. But, in these few months international students can face language and cultural difficulties that will trigger feelings of loneliness or boredom.

In The Art Of Crossing Cultures, Craig Storti explains that “One of the principle[sic] means through which you can manipulate and control your environment and thereby enjoy a sense of well-being and security, the lack of language, not surprisingly, is one of the main reasons for feeling so helpless and vulnerable during the first few months abroad “ (98)

Foreign students hear a lot of strange words or terms that they have never seen or heard before such as “insulin” which is generally used in health science or medicine or “ceterus parabus” which has a meaning of holding other things constant in economics; when a foreign student hear these words he or she probably doesn’t understand their meanings because they generally learn casual words or terms. These kinds of words are more technical terms for foreign students. Even most native people don’t know the meanings of these kinds of words. On the internet site, Jim Whitehead discusses communication difficulties for international students: “One common issue with foreign students is their ability to express complex technical ideas in English, in both written and verbal form. This is a very complex activity even for native English speakers, and is doubly so for people whose native language is not English.”

International students struggling with speaking and understanding the local language long for the comfort of life in their own language rather than getting in trouble with the language that they encounter in the new country. But they shouldn’t miss speaking in their own language because when they are in another country, they have to speak in the local language. So they must be aware that even native speakers make mistakes in their own language. They must know that nobody is perfect with languages.

Storti Craig. The Art of Crossing Cultures. 2nd edition, 2001

Jim Whitehead. Whitehead

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