Dear students: congratulations that after much preparation and travelling, you are now successfully studying in the U.S. and beginning a new chapter of your life at the university–you should feel proud of yourself!
In the first several weeks of the semester, you might feel both excited and nervous, particularly if you are studying abroad for the first time in your life, but these are common feelings for novice and experienced international students moving from one place to another, domestically or internationally. No matter where you are from or which language you speak, you will soon find that becoming multilingual and multicultural is both an asset and a challenge. In the U.S., English is not an official language of the country but is almost always positioned as the language of power and an indicator of socio-economic status (Weng, 2016). As you are becoming an expert in your own discipline, pursuing a degree in a second or foreign language, you are much more well-educated than almost 80% of Americans (“Number of People”, 2019). However, as users of English as a second or foreign language, your English language skills may feel like an obstacle to getting opportunities in your program, writing a grant proposal, applying for a job in the U.S., etc., but the most important purpose of language is communication. With practice and adaptation, anyone can become more effective at communicating. Whether you feel like you struggle to communicate or not, a writing course can help you become more conscious and shrewd about how you use language in writing–it may surprise you that most American students take similar courses at some point in their academic career. Rather than assuming that “ESL” means a person has “bad English”, it is more accurate to say that their language needs to be better adapted to the needs of an American university life, something which virtually every student, domestic or international, must address at some point in some way. For you, to ease your transition to a new lifestyle with lots of unique communication challenges, we are addressing that now.
Many think learning English is just about mastering grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structures in a decontextualized way, that is, without thinking about the context or how the language is being used, such as in many textbooks. Yoon (2008) and Weng et al. (2020) remind us that English language learners have linguistic, social, and cultural needs which create a framework defining their actual needs. This means a few things:
- To be successful in another culture, you have to learn its language as well as social and cultural conventions across different academic spaces (e.g., in classrooms, individual meetings with professors, and conferences).
- Also, people around you may not simply see you as an international student. At the graduate level, you could simultaneously be a teacher, researcher, and organization leader. Navigating all these different roles entails professional communication skills, both written and spoken, with professors, colleagues, peers, and students. English, therefore, is no longer about whether you should use “is” or “was” in a given sentence, but rather about how to express your ideas accurately and concisely to the target audience.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, because the context of each student varies somewhat, the language needs of each student could be very different. A high school or undergraduate language course may have modest goals, but a graduate language course is intended to equip you as a professional, and that requires specialized and invested effort from the instructor, but even more so from the student: in short, no one can teach you all the skills you need to know, but we can help you to learn them, and to be better prepared when you encounter new language needs in the future. You are the most important person in that process.
As mentioned, the purpose of this book is to empower you as a scholar in your field and as an English user by increasing your awareness of your past successful and non-successful professional experiences, promoting your agency in learning within and beyond your disciplines, and preparing you with social, cultural, and linguistic knowledge on how to read, write, and speak across academic spaces in the U.S.