Inept and Incompetent

by Onat Tasoz, Izmir University of Economics, October 30, 2008

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As most people know, it is hard to live in a foreign country. It does not matter whether you are a student or a business man. As Craig Storti said, “When you change jobs, after all, you leave a familiar situation, where you were very good at what you were doing, to go to a wholly unfamiliar situation, where you will initially be inept and incompetent.” (15) As an international student at SUNY Cortland, I certainly have experienced trouble with communicating in English. As Storti says, foreign students facing the challenges of the English language will inevitable feel “inept and incompetent.” You, too, may experience trouble as you enter the English-speaking world.

One of the difficulties faced in the USA as a student is that your process of learning a new language never ends. You might have spent a fortune to learn English but sometimes it is not enough. You must practice! To deal with the English language, every day, you must learn strange, new words and phrases and you must try to use them in your own sentences. For example, a strange phrase that I faced was “your shirt is hot.” What’s the hell is going on? Am I burning? What is that supposed to mean? Later, I could realize that it was just an idiom! It was so funny.

Learning a few words and idioms every day is not as easy as it sounds. You really have to concentrate and use your new words. Idioms are particularly difficult. For instance, the first time I heard the structure “I see” I perceived the literal meaning rather than realizing its metaphorical meaning which is “I understand.” I told my friend who said to me “I see,” “Come on man, I could see too. What’s that mean?” You must read some articles, listen to conversation and also speak to improve your level. The best way to do that is to read whatever you find, for example restroom magazines which are really funny, newspaper, comics and also the ingredients of products when you buy from the market. The more you read, the better English level you will have. Just try to catch idioms!

Speaking is the most difficult part of learning a new language. You can be really good at writing, understanding what you read or understanding what you hear, but if you have difficulty in expressing yourself orally, you cannot say your English is good. For example, last week, I was ordering a sandwich with my friends who are international students in Cortland. One of them warned me not to make an easy mistake by reminding me of his experience in Subway. He told me “Be careful, avoid making a mistake.” When ordering my sub, I asked to the person who makes sandwiches “What are the opinions?” instead of “What are the options.” Staring at me blankly, he was probably thinking ”This guy is crazy.” After that situation, we hurried to go outside as soon as possible. When we arrived outside of the building, we started to laugh and it was hard to stop laughing.

For international students, speaking is a challenge. When you are speaking, you should think and respond not too rapidly, not too slowly, but carefully; otherwise you can fail in the conversation like me. You can be misunderstood and you feel stupid and inept. In the orientation booklet, U.S Classroom Culture, the authors quote international students who are testifying about their experience. One student says, “ ‘Sometimes when I start talking, I know immediately that I can not express wholly my idea because it takes me a much longer time[than U.S students].’” (16) On the other hand, if you are really good at all parts of the language, you will fit into the culture easily. As an international student, you have to have a fair grasp of the language to come to the U.S. and study. A high score on the T exam is one important requirement to get into U. S. college programs because colleges want to be sure about your language ability. Otherwise they don’t accept you. They don’t want students to have trouble in English.

So you have to pass some special tests which will prove your language proficiency. Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is just one of them. TOEFL looks like a nightmare to most of the foreign students. To pass the TOEFL you have to work hard, have to have rigid study discipline, and unfortunately, have to pay lots of money. For example, some of my friends who tried to pass the TOEFL, spent most of their time studying. Like my friends, I also have studied for months. Most of us went to private lessons to prepare ourselves better. Our parents wasted a lot of money because of these courses, and also we spent our whole vacation and free time studying. While my other friends were on holiday, I had to study, study, study. We all gave up our hobbies and free time, our parties and even our sleep. I took a break playing the guitar because when I was playing guitar, I would lose track of time; therefore there was not enough time to study. Although this situation made me sad sometimes, this exam is significant for us because our future is based on it; therefore we take it seriously.

Remember, though, that the bad comes with the good. All these struggles open new roads to follow in your future life. TOEFL is hard, but I can improve my English and maybe I can find a really good job with my impressive English level in the future. A close friend of my mother found a great job a few years ago just by using her impressive level of English. She was a coordinator of the one of the biggest companies in Turkey although she had only a Business and Economics degree. Her job did not deal with Economics. The only thing she did in the company was to pay attention to foreign customers and foreign investors. She had such a perfect life in Antalya where the company is located. She earned much more money than if she continued to work as an economist. I would like to have her life, and I will if I can learn English well.

Often, courses in the universities are hard, but these will make me stronger in my future business life. Being in a foreign country is hard, but I am learning to look at the world from a different point of view. Based on the experiences I’ve had living in a foreign country, trying to learn its culture, learning a new language and encountering difficulties in speaking, I have been challenged because I am learning English. I am more flexible in thinking and more active in my life. With time, I can improve myself by struggling with the language and getting better at it. Though there are many hardships, there will be big returns in the future.


Storti, Craig. The Art of Crossing Cultures
U.S, Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2nd edition, 2001

Michal Smithee, Sidney L. Greenblatt, Alisa Eland. U.S Clasroom Culture
U.S Nafsa: Association of International Educator, 2001

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