Gained in Translation

By Liz Segal
Photographs by Roger Snider

For the 800 'internationals' who pass through USC's Language Academy each year, intensive English study opens eyes, ears, mouths and minds.

Surachart Ratchajanda comes from a small town three hours northeast of Bangkok, Thailand.Slideshow IconSurachart Ratchajanda comes from a small town three hours northeast of Bangkok, Thailand.
Japanese businessman-turned-USC Marshall student Norio Kaji.
Dilyara Kenzhegaliyeva is one of 10 Kazakhs attending the Language Academy this year.
Mazin Alahmadi is an instructor in industrial engineering at King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia.
Director Kate O’Connor and immigration and admissions adviser Gilbert Cho of the USC Language Academy.

Potato salad, fried chicken, coleslaw and Cokes – what better way to entertain scores of “internationals” on a hot Friday afternoon in July? The students have gathered for opening day of USC’s Language Academy, an intensive English-immersion program based at the University Park campus. It is a colorful and eclectic crowd: young Asian women wearing rhinestone-studded sunglasses; heavy-accented young men in oversized shorts and Vans; brightly smiling Middle Eastern women in jeans and headscarves. They seem excited, making side plans to see Yellowstone and New York City. “This is America!” says one beaming Saudi woman when asked if she will learn to drive here.

They have come to learn English, American style.

Beginners might land in a level one reading and writing class, where they are drilled on the basics. A week into the summer program finds some of them producing compound sentences at the direction of Language Academy instructor Priscilla Caraveo: “I have to do my homework, but I don’t have time!” volunteers one playful student to a chorus of laughter from her classmates.

Advanced students might land in level six (the penultimate level), where expectations are much higher. A visit to instructor Steve MacIsaac’s class finds some international students, a week into the program, analyzing an article from The Nation.

“We’re stair-stepping them to learn to write an M.A.- or Ph.D.-level paper, to familiarize them with the American style of thinking, writing, research and academic synthesis,” MacIsaac explains. “Many of them have never written a paper in English, let alone the other stuff.”

But they soon would. This particular class is earmarked for a cohort of internationals who, come fall, would start graduate studies in communication management through the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

Each year, USC receives more than 7,000 students from abroad (almost one-sixth of the student body). For some of these students, academic ability may be on target, but English usage falls short. Enter USC’s two English as a Second Language (ESL) programs: the American Language Institute (ALI) and the Language Academy.

The former, founded in 1959 and run by the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, offers ESL courses for academic credit. It is required for matriculated USC undergraduate and graduate students who score below six (on a seven-point scale) on the ALI-administered International Student English placement exam. Approximately 1,000 students take this test every year, and more than 600 of them end up receiving instruction at ALI. The program also offers advanced electives in academic and spoken English as well as dissertation writing. Additionally, in collaboration with USC’s Center for Excellence in Teaching, it provides a weeklong training session for all new international teaching assistants.

The Language Academy fills a different niche. Founded in 1993 in affiliation with USC’s Rossier School of Education, it provides academic English and English for professional advancement, and it prepares students for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and other standardized tests, such as the International English Language Testing System, the GMAT and the GRE. Available year-round and open to anyone, the Language Academy hosts nearly 800 internationals each year, hailing from more than 30 countries. Students can enroll in one of two six-week summer sessions and 14-week fall and spring sessions, receiving 18 to 21 hours a week of intensive English instruction, including oral skills classes and language labs.

“I’m always excited to welcome our Language Academy students,” says education dean Karen Symms Gallagher. “USC Rossier prides itself on its global engagement, and I know what a unique and positive experience it is for these young people to immerse themselves in our language and culture to enhance their academic and career pathways.”

Beyond the basics of American English usage, students get drilled in business English, project presentation skills, and the proper format and style of the American essay. Politics, history and culture are woven into the program, and so are field trips across the Southland. A Fourth of July outing to the Hollywood Bowl – to see fireworks and hear power-pop band Hall & Oates – was this summer’s highlight.

Different students come for different reasons. About a third come just to learn English, either for personal or career-enhancement reasons. Twenty percent will later transfer to programs at other universities, colleges or language programs. Almost a third come through special one-year master’s cohort tracks, which run in conjunction with several university academic units. In addition to USC Annenberg’s Master of Communication Management and Master of Strategic Public Relations programs, there are tracks for students in the International Public Policy and Management (IPPAM) program at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, the Summer Law & English program at the USC Gould School of Law, and the International Business Education and Research (IBEAR) MBA program at the USC Marshall School of Business. (Enrollment in the Language Academy is, in many cases, a prerequisite for admission into these programs.)

It isn’t easy catering to so many different types of students at so many different English-learning levels coming from such a variety of lands, cultures and educational backgrounds. Indeed, cultural differences in learning styles occupy a fair portion of Language Academy director Kate O’Connor’s time and attention. She points to instructor MacIsaac’s level six USC Annenberg cohort class, composed almost entirely of Asian women. Though these students all possess advanced English skills, drawing them out isn’t easy.

“In some cultures, there’s a natural reticence to offer opinions,” O’Connor says. “It can be a real challenge that goes on all semester: fear of making mistakes, lack of comprehension, sometimes feeling the need to defer, due to gender. So we’ve developed a whole list of strategies.” For example, she says, breaking classes down into smaller groups.

Warming to the subject, O’Connor delivers a little cross-cultural grammar lesson.

“In Arabic, for example, there is no ‘to be’ verb. In our beginning level class, that’s a whole new concept. Some students are really puzzled by that. But when they get it, the door opens, and there’s that ‘aha’ moment. It’s very grand, indeed, when that happens,” she says.

One might wonder, in these wired-up times when it’s easy to download a digital book, buy a Rosetta Stone CD or peruse the BBC Learning English website, is it really necessary for internationals to come all the way to Los Angeles to become fluent? Many say yes with their feet, despite the Language Academy’s not-inconsequential fees. The six-week summer sessions are $2,800, while 14-week semester sessions cost $5,350, not including housing, meals or transportation.

How do they afford it?

“Some students are government-sponsored by companies or ministries of education,” O’Connor explains. “Some are well-to-do. But the majority are self-paying and come from cultures where entire families will pool resources to get them over here.”

She recalls one student, a young Saudi Arabian man, who’d lost both parents in a car accident and was left to care for a disabled brother. “This guy had tremendous fortitude,” O’Connor says. “Both he and his brother were driven to learn the language.” He persisted for two years at the academy.

In recent years, the demographics have been changing. Whereas the academy used to attract mostly undergraduate applicants, these days it sees far more students preparing for graduate study in the United States.

“This may be due, in part, to increased efforts by universities overseas to enhance English-language and undergraduate programs in general, in an effort to capture a greater percentage of their own 18- to 22-year olds interested in English,” explains Gilbert Cho, the Language Academy’s immigration and admissions adviser.

“At the same time, foreign governments and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] have increasingly invested in scholarships to support workers who seek advanced training abroad in science, technology, engineering and math fields,” Cho says. Upon graduation, these students will return home to work in professions that support national and community development, infrastructure improvements and education reform. Cho notes that the Language Academy has seen this trend particularly among students from Libya and Saudi Arabia.

The global economic downturn actually works to their advantage. Exchange rates are favorable for the majority of internationals, who come primarily from China, Taiwan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Recently there has been an uptick in science and technology students from Kazakhstan. This summer saw 10 of them at the Language Academy, all here on government grants.

Banish any associations with Borat. The Kazakhs are “the new nerds on campus,” says Language Academy student Dilyara Kenzhegaliyeva, in wonderfully idiomatic English. “All we do is study and nod, passing each other in the library.”

There’s nothing provincial about them. “At home, we only have organic food,” notes Kenzhegaliyeva, expressing disapproval of the junk food and hamburger joints ubiquitous to Los Angeles. Many of her countrymen say they miss their native cuisine, which normally includes a lot of beef prepared in spices they can’t name in English. When asked at the opening day picnic in July how they fill the void, several brightly chirped in unison: “Chipotle!” referring to the popular burrito franchise.

Homesickness can be intense for international students. They beat it by spending quality time with peers in student housing – for those lucky enough to get the assignments. There aren’t enough spaces to accommodate every Language Academy attendee: Only 40 can live on campus.

The cultural adjustments can be equally stressful.

O’Connor tells of an excursion to a Lakers game and a close encounter with the larger-than-life Jumbotron. During a break in the game, two Korean students – just classmates sitting next to each other – were shocked when the ’tron captured them from on high during the popular “Kiss Me” diversion. The crowd spontaneously started to cheer, egging the two on, demanding some public display of affection. “They were completely embarrassed,” O’Connor recalls. “Should they shake hands? Hug? Kiss?” Finally, with great hesitation, he gave her a friendly peck on the cheek, to the approving roar of the stadium. They immediately sent photos home to friends and family, their 15 seconds of fame.

“We see this kind of thing a lot,” O’Connor says. “Students can be utterly baffled by certain customs, games, expressions. But they learn fast and are often happy to do so.” O’Connor finds it interesting when Saudi nationals come to the program as a couple. While the women, most of whom wear headscarves, don’t exactly let their hair down, they do start to become more vocal in a coeducational classroom, which is completely new for most of them.

This is not to say that the international students embrace America uncritically. Many comment on how rampant homelessness is in Los Angeles and wonder why nothing can be done about it. But in the next breath, they’ll express enthusiasm for American individualism, the American style of teaching and anti-rote methods of learning.

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