When Jie Deng GRD ’20 moved from China to the United States for graduate school, he had already read plenty of English textbooks. But Deng, who is a geology and geophysics doctoral candidate, had never read a novel in English.
That changed when Elka Kristonagy, a lecturer in the English Language Program at the Center for Language Study, offered to meet with Deng every week to go over a portion of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“It helped a lot because … daily-life English communication is very important. I learned a lot about American culture, and I realized a lot of pronunciation that I had made incorrectly,” Deng said. “Erica pointed [these words] out and helped me to pronounce [them].”
Deng is one of a growing number of international graduate students at Yale who receive language support from the program. The increase in international students at Yale is part of a two-decade-long national trend at American universities, according to James Tierney, the program’s director. Although the program serves students, faculty members and visiting faculty members, most of the program’s participants are graduate and professional students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and in the professional schools.
In any given semester, the program offers courses, workshops and individual instruction to around 300 members of the Yale community, as well as an intensive three-week program for around 75 incoming graduate and professional students, Tierney said. Over half of the program’s students study in STEM departments, but the program also teaches a significant number of students in the humanities.
Tierney told the News that, although the students enrolled in the program’s classes exhibit a wide range of proficiency with other areas of English, they are, “without exception, multilingual advanced English speakers.” The program, and others like it, provide graduate students with the English skills necessary to be competitive in the job market, he said.
“Part of the reason I went into this field was that I was at another university, and I would see people who are graduating, and they’ve completed this great graduate program, they’ve done great scholarly work and they have to go on the job market,” Tierney said. “And if their English is not good enough, they won’t compare well to other candidates.”
According to Tierney, research shows that these students on average spend more than twice as long completing reading assignments than do their native-speaking peers. And students must adapt to a new educational culture that contrasts significantly with students’ previous experiences in their own countries.
The program’s official task is to certify students as proficient teachers. But according to Tierney, the courses and tutoring the center offers are not simply about passing a test. Rather, the program seeks to enhance students’ communicative capacities and support students throughout the entirety of their time at Yale, including during the dissertation and job search processes.
During the semester, some students are required to take one to three classes — the majority of which are at night — in the core English sequence, depending on their proficiency in the language when they enter Yale. The classes focus on academic vocabulary and communication, culminating in a third class that focuses on the language necessary and useful for teaching. Students can also take more electives, such as advanced writing.
According to Tierney, students do not typically have difficulties with the language of their fields. Rather, it’s the “peripheral” academic vocabulary that causes challenges. The classes focus on how to refer to graphs or how to cite arguments from academic works.
Kayoko Shioda SPH ’22, who is from Japan, told the News that, for the third class in the core sequence, “Teaching in the American Classroom,” she prepared three different presentations, which her teacher recorded and discussed with her after the fact to offer feedback and suggestions for improvement. Shioda said the course’s emphasis on teaching has helped her with her work as a teaching assistant this year.
Although the classes are primarily academic in structure, the program also incorporates information about American culture and social cues into the courses. Program participants learn how to effectively communicate with professors and how to politely decline an invitation, situations in which appropriate behavior is different across cultures, Tierney said. The ability to navigate these social situations with advisers and peers is “crucial,” according to Tierney.
“Once you build relationships with people, especially advisers and peers, your chances of success are much higher,” Tierney said.
Chiara Margaria GRD ’17, a former graduate student in economics who is now an assistant professor at Boston University, found the courses’ lessons on culture useful. For example, she learned that it is normal for American students to eat during class, something that would not be acceptable in her home country, Italy.
The program offers a three-week program in conjunction with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in August for incoming international graduate students. During that program, students are given stipends to participate in daily English lessons and social activities, which will help them acclimate to life at Yale and, more broadly, in the U.S.
Deng, who participated in the summer program, initially experienced difficulties in his lab. His lab professor, who Deng described as “old school,” would point out any word Deng mispronounced. Deng added that it can be “embarrassing” and “disappointing” when people cannot understand his pronunciation.
But Deng switched labs, and his pronunciation improved with help from the program. He now keeps a notebook with a list of all the words he habitually mispronounces, which he looks over often to improve his English.
“[The English Language Program played] the most important role in my English improvement,” Deng said. “ I really appreciate their work.”
Adelaide Feibel | firstname.lastname@example.org