Andrea Strasser-Nicol, a junior from Sierra Leone, wasn’t as excited about meeting Americans as she was about books. As an English major, Andrea took Introduction to Society and Culture, Theater, and African Literature this quarter. While she enjoyed the readings required each week, it was a heavy workload. The only culture shock she experienced so far is students’ overall behavior in class.
“I once looked at someone and thought: ‘You are wearing that to class?’” she laughed. “In my country, we are usually more respectful towards older people, but in here everyone is casual. Students express themselves in front of professors without any restraint.”
Thanh Vu, a sophomore from Vietnam, shared the same idea.
“In Vietnamese, you talk to elders in a different way, adding a polite word (‘ạ’) behind almost every sentence and using another word for ‘yes’ (‘vâng’) instead of its usual translation. That really shapes the attitude of younger people.”
Many struggles international students face are related to language barriers. Lua Nidia Salomon, a senior from Ecuador, took a French class this quarter to prepare for her Medieval Archeology Master’s in France next year, and found it difficult to deal with 3 languages at a time. Lua had to translate everything she read from French to Spanish, which is her mother tongue, and then to English to participate in class discussions and to understand lectures.
“One time when taking a test I knew what this French word means in Spanish, but totally forgot the English word for it,” she said.
Difficulties in language also happen outside the classroom. It is difficult for some international students to fully understand one another at times because each person has a different accent, as the way they speak English is influenced by their mother tongue. Then there are differences in cultural jargon and humor.
“When I eat with American friends, they talk about something then laugh and sometimes I cannot understand why,” said Gladys Mendoza, senior from Mexico. She could hear the words they said but she didn’t understand why that was funny. These are the kind of sociocultural differences that international students can’t read about in books to understand.