Professor helps international students sharpen their English skills

This past summer, approximately 20 international graduate students traveled from their homelands to the Philadelphia region over many hours and through multiple time zones.

With intentions to begin a one-year master's degree program in finance at Penn State Great Valley, the students soon found out that getting to their U.S. destination was the easy part. For first time visitors, even having studied the English language for many years in school, it would take a while to grasp the quirks and nuances of American language and culture.

Lynn Hartle, professor of education at Penn State Brandywine, developed an informal orientation course to engage the students in various conversational activities to sharpen their English skills before the fall semester classes started. Certified to teach English as a Second Language (ESL), she was delighted to have the opportunity to help bridge the cultural differences.

"These students were dedicated but also fun-loving," Hartle said. "They welcomed opportunities to expand their English syntax and grammar as well as fine-tune their pronunciation through activities related to American culture." When Hartle asked what aspects of American culture they might want to know more about, Deheng Shi, from China quickly replied, "Everything!"

Hartle incorporated activities including watching and analyzing short videos, dramatizing poems, reading and discussing newspaper articles, singing and analyzing songs and playing games to practice using American idioms. The students even taught Hartle some Chinese card games.

The students arrived with varying degrees of fluency. Mahmut Kadir Isguven, of Turkey, was among the few who had spent some time in the United States completing an undergraduate degree at another university. His speaking skills were up to par, but he appreciated the refresher course nonetheless, especially to re-familiarize himself with the American way of doing things.

The orientation course was offered for four hours each day, and although it was optional, many newcomers attended because it helped them brush up on their English skills and become acclimated to American customs, some similar to, and different from, their own. Tipping was one of the differences.

"In Turkey, you don't give tips," Isguven said. "Here, I feel I always have to."

In China, it is even considered improper to give a tip. "We don't give tips in hotels or restaurants," said Patti Tang, a resident of China. "Another difference is the cost of hiring people to do work in your home, like a plumber. It is much more expensive here," she added. Students were surprised when they found out that Hartle, a professor, did not have a housekeeper due to the high cost.

Tang found the daily conversations with Hartle and the rest of the class to be very helpful. "My husband and I are both Chinese, so we speak Chinese all the time," she said. "When I went to Professor Hartle's class, I got the chance to think and speak English for a few hours. It made a difference. Languages are like communicating tools. You have to use them every day to keep them polished and improved."

Now that the fall semester is underway, the students are glad to have had the preparation over the summer. "I'm doing well in my class so far," Tang said. "I can totally understand what my professors are talking about. However, I'm still afraid of making presentations since I'm really nervous when talking in front of people. Practice makes perfect. I'll keep practicing."

Hartle said the students were a joy to be with every day. "Deheng said that the four weeks seemed like four days, and I agreed with him," Hartle said. While laughter and fun inspired every class, the students worked hard and asked questions to improve their English pronunciation as well as sentence structure skills. Hartle hopes additional international graduate students will choose to come to Penn State Great Valley next year.

Lynn Hartle standing with her class by the Lion Shrine