Breaking down language barriers

This is an edited version of an article written by Drew Linton that first appeared in the May issue of Yak Magazine.

During a debate about whether Spanish should be used in Texan schools, the first female Governor of Texas is rumoured to have said, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ; it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”

Now, while my overall knowledge of things international and linguistic is arguably a step ahead of Governor Ferguson’s, there is still nothing particularly brag-worthy about how little I actually know. This was never more obvious to me than during the afternoon I spent visiting the University’s Language Centre. Not only because I originally had no idea where the centre actually was but also because almost all of the initial assumptions I had about the experiences of international students were so quickly proven false.

I had assumed, for example, that international students face their biggest challenges long before they arrive in Australia to study. I had assumed that raising the money to come to Australia, leaving friends and family, and spending torturous hours applying for student visas, were the biggest hurdles they’d have to face.

What I quickly came to realise however, is that the challenges an international student faces are actually not over once they arrive in Australia. In fact, it is safe to say that they face what is arguably their biggest hurdle once they arrive at the University of Newcastle. One that could see them miss out on studying their degree entirely and could result in them having to leave Australia and return home.

So, what is this hurdle? This hurdle is ELICOS.

ELICOS – English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students – is an intensive English language program, and a prerequisite for international students wishing to study here at the University of Newcastle – or, for that matter, any university in the country.

After being assessed and placed into an appropriate English level, international students begin a ten week course (or a series of ten week courses) that they are then required to successfully complete before they can go on to study a degree.

According to the Director of the ELICOS program, Seamus Fagan, this program is a hurdle for most students. “Generally, international students enjoy their English studies at the Centre,” Seamus says. “But they do face a challenge… ensuring that they reach the [required] English language proficiency.”

Seamus describes the ELICOS program as “high stakes” for students, and rightly so. If students don’t successfully complete their English course, not only will they need to pay to do it again, but they may also miss the next entry point for enrolment in their chosen degree. This could mean up to six months more in a state of academic limbo.

But for many students, the program is actually enjoyable.

“I enjoy it very much,” says Jackie, a student from China who is doing her postgraduate work here at the university. Despite the aforementioned stresses that come with completing ELICOS, Jackie feels that her experience is a good one.”I feel just so good because here is the place I really wanted to come,” Jackie says.

She feels that her participation in the ELICOS program has been crucial for her education, and is the way in which she will further develop her writing skills – skills which she says are “very important” for her to learn.

One feature of the ELICOS program, which helps international students in their day-to-day interactions, is something known as ‘speed conversations’. “Every week, depending on the classes, we have what we call ‘speed conversations’,” Seamus says. “Our Social Club Co-ordinator brings in 15 native speakers and [we] have them sit down with 15 students in the class and they have conversations.”

By working very closely with programs on campus, the Language Centre has also attempted to ‘engineer’opportunities for ELICOS students to meet with native speakers.

“That type of integration is one way of improving their English language,” Seamus says.
But both Seamus and Jackie agree that there is not enough interaction between international students and other students on campus.

Jackie pointed out that some international students hold back from speaking with other students because they are shy, they can’t speak English fluently, and are not so confident.

According to Seamus, international students would love to engage with other students but they are often scared to. Seamus feels that domestic students can help out by playing a role in ‘breaking the ice.’ “In general, most students on campus wouldn’t stop an international student and ask ‘where are you from’, [or say] ‘welcome to Australia!'” Seamus says.

He feels that it is important for Australian students to think about what it would be like to be in an international student’s shoes, and try to remember how brave they are by being here.
So that, I must admit, highlights yet another assumption of mine that was proven incorrect – it is in fact not rude to ask an international student where they are from, or to take an interest in their experience.

Not only will it help them feel welcome here at the university and give them an opportunity to practice their English, but there is also a good chance that you, like me, could learn something. Which, let’s be honest, is definitely something that will drastically reduce the chance that you will ever utter something similar to that of a certain 1920s Texan governor.

Yak Magazine is a free, monthly publication written and produced by the students of the University of Newcastle and published by UoN Services.

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