Lost in translation?

Faculty and students weigh in on the question, “should ‘Berg add English as a Second Language (ESL) courses?”

The number of international students at Muhlenberg College has grown at an average rate of 131.4 percent each year over the past five years. This exponential increase has left professors and tutors wondering who is responsible for teaching English at Muhlenberg?

English Language Learner (ELL) students often have a clear understanding of the course material, but struggle to communicate their ideas fluently in English. And while native English speakers are offered grammar, listening and speech classes when taking semesters abroad,  Muhlenberg does not offer equivalent English language immersion classes for international students. This is particularly shocking given the fact that most of the international students who come to Muhlenberg enroll for a full four years. Since it is necessary to have near native fluency in English to perform well in classes taught in English, it would make sense to hire at least one full-time English Language professor. But hiring a full time professor is expensive, and the proficient scores of Muhlenberg’s ELL students make hiring another professor seem frivolous.

Memorizing grammar rules and syntax might guarantee a good test score, but it does not guarantee a good writer.

Before they are accepted at Muhlenberg, international students are required to prove their English proficiency by submitting their test scores from the TOEFL, IELTS or SAT Verbal exams. But some students learn how to “beat the test” rather than master its content. In situations like these, high scores don’t reflect a student’s actual level of comprehension. Memorizing grammar rules and syntax might guarantee a good test score, but it does not guarantee a good writer.

“We’ve considered the question of whether or not to offer a [language] course either preliminary or along with the FYS,” said David Rosenwasser, who as a co-director of the Writing Center, is a key figure in the effort to assist ELL students, “but at this point we’re not going that route.” Rosenwasser cited several concerns about such a program, such as where it would be housed and how it would fit into the requirement structure. Rosenwasser then referenced American education scholar Mike Rose who argues that remedial courses separate one part of the population and suggest that an individual can’t have ideas until he or she knows how to abide by the grammar and punctuation conventions of the language. Rosenwasser asserted that at Muhlenberg “we don’t want an ELL structure that works like that.”

During the fall semester, representatives from the Academic Resource Center, the Office of International Student Support and the Writing Center periodically met to discuss how to best serve the ELL population at Muhlenberg. The representatives decided to hire a professional to lead a two-day workshop on tutoring ELL students. Kate Tomaskovic-Moore, an expert in ELL and TESOL training, was selected to lead the program. Writing tutors and peer tutors were the target audience because they had already been trained in tutoring pedagogy and could dispense what they had learned among their peers.

The core lesson of the workshop was that tutors should give ELL students a chance to answer their own questions and correct mistakes. To do this a tutor should elicit knowledge from the student to discover how much he or she already knows about the language. Tomaskovic-Moore also recommended that tutors get students to notice the gap between their actual ideas and what’s being communicated on the page so that they can work together to find the best way to express what the student wants to say. If these tactics should fail, Tomaskovic-Moore maintained that it is okay to show students how to do the work until they can do it on their own.

According to Thomas Janis, Muhlenberg’s director of international student support, it would be ideal to see “stronger students in a smaller number” coming to Muhlenberg. By ‘stronger’ Janis did not mean ‘smarter,’ but rather, better suited to Muhlenberg. He asserted that some students are surprised by Muhlenberg’s academic rigor and he claimed that mastering English is not always high on their list of academic goals. Consequently, Janis is not sure if an English language program would be particularly attractive to international students. After all, “many of these students come to the US hoping to receive a holistic experience of the American culture,” and to gain “marketable insight[s]” – not to learn English. He argued that if Muhlenberg selectively recruited international students looking to master English, establishing a formal ELL program would make more sense.

Yuqian He, an international student from China, was asked if she would be interested in an English language class and she responded with a resounding “No, definitely not!” and insisted that most international students at Muhlenberg would respond the same way. Although she appreciates that the one-on-one tutoring sessions help her refine the papers she must submit, she claimed that learning English is not one of her primary academic interests.

Establishing an ELL program might not be the right move for Muhlenberg right now. But, if Muhlenberg starts recruiting more international students that are interested in mastering English, it would help if the College already had a formalized ELL program in place.

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