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Photographs by
Ric Evans

Seated side by side, they come from different parts of the world. They’re young and old, students and professors, small business owners and corporate executives. They have one thing in common, though. Their native language isn’t English, which has drawn them to the University’s English Language Institute.

In Plain English

Brieann K. Kinsey

Instructor Lynne Sunderman with members of her ELI class.
Jason asks the question slowly, accenting the word “do” and raising the pitch of his voice a step as the sentence draws to a close.

“Do me a favor, will you?”

He stares at his workbook for an extra second, then raises his eyes expectantly, awaiting a response.

The instructor, Lynne Sunderman, nods slowly and addresses the other students in the classroom, “What do you think? Was that right?”

The class is studying intonation, and Jason’s question is not a request; it is an example. In the English language, a speaker indicates that he or she is asking a question by raising the pitch on the last word, creating the effect of a musical question mark in the voice. In spoken conversation, this pitch variance is the only difference between the sentences “Did she ever tell him?” and “Did she ever tell him!” Because none of the students is a native English speaker, recognizing and making this vocal distinction take practice. In the next few minutes, the students recite a dozen sentences—questions, compound phrases, and lists—each with a unique nuance of intonation.

English is becoming the lingua franca, or common language, of the planet, thanks in part to recent trends such as outsourcing, regional integration, and the Internet culture. Increasingly, it’s important for people around the world to learn English as a way to connect with global commerce and events. In addition, foreign nationals continue to cross U.S. borders to live and learn. As a result, classes in English as a second language are much needed across the nation.

At the University of Pittsburgh, the English Language Institute (ELI), part of the Department of Linguistics, is at the heart of a significant international student community—made up of visiting scholars, students from abroad who are earning degrees here, and those who have recently moved to the area from other countries. Pitt’s English-language program is popular with many of them because of its faculty. ELI instructors typically have master’s or doctoral degrees in either linguistics or teaching English as a second language. Many of the instructors have lived in other countries or researched foreign-language learning.

The University welcomes the newcomers. International students enrich the culture and diversity of campus life, boost local economies, and promote cross-cultural understanding, says Alan Juffs, associate professor of linguistics, department chair, and ELI director.

As for the program itself, the ELI is among an elite group of similar programs nationwide linked to an academic department, says Juffs. The affiliation allows students to have the additional benefit of the latest research about how language is learned.

For example, the department and institute recently began a study of how people acquire vocabulary, in cooperation with the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center, which is a joint Pitt-Carnegie Mellon University project. The findings will be incorporated into how classes are taught. “The key is integration,” says Juffs. “There’s an awful lot going on here that benefits students.”

Typically, ELI attracts between 100 and 160 students each term. Last term, students came from an array of countries, including Argentina, Japan, Korea, Kuwait, Thailand, and Turkey. Full-time ELI students take 20 hours of core English-language classes each week in reading, writing, grammar, listening, and speaking.

The ELI also gives part-time classes for foreign professionals looking to improve their business English and pronunciation. In addition to taking classes, many students participate in ELI’s extra-curricular activities. In years past, the students have taken field trips to places like Washington, D.C., and Chicago to broaden their understanding of American culture.

Bridget Rudd, a Pitt junior majoring in linguistics, taught an ELI-sponsored elective class for students who wanted more conversation practice.

“I thought it would help me decide on a career, and it has,” she says. “I want to continue teaching English as a second language, just maybe not here in the United States.” Once Rudd has her degree, she hopes to teach in Russia or the Czech Republic.

“My favorite part of teaching this class was the cultural diversity, because I’ve had students from Russia, Nepal, Spain, and France. It was nice to see them working together, and even though I was the instructor, I learned alongside them.”

There are lots of issues to consider in teaching people to acquire a second language. ELI draws not only on linguistics but also cognitive psychology, educational research, sociology, and neurology to explore how second languages are learned by different individuals in different contexts.

The institute also considers the biological, cognitive, and social issues underlying second-language acquisition.

In the classroom, though, ELI instructors focus on the basics.

Sunderman’s Speaking 4 is a required class that teaches vocabulary, pronunciation, and other aspects of spoken English. Part of the course is devoted to “free speech time”—practice conversation. In learning the language, ELI students also learn aspects of American culture. Many, for instance, do volunteer work in the community. Today’s topic is how senior citizens should be treated; the target vocabulary includes words like Alzheimer’s disease, retirement, and exasperation.

The students are silent for several moments before Jason takes up the spotlight. “I think retirement homes are well for the, um, elderly. The families are busy with work and can’t take care of them. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and needs the round-the-clock care.”

Jason has trouble with the “r” and “l” sounds in “elderly.” No wonder. He is from Taiwan, and in languages such as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, there aren’t exact equivalents of these sounds.

Another student, Mohammed, keeps the conversation going: “My grandmother has the memory loss, too. When I talk to her, she asks me, ‘Who you are?’ and I say, ‘I’m Mohammed.’ Later, she will ask ‘Who are you?’”

“They always tell the same stories many times,” adds Jason, nodding vigorously. He throws up his hands in feigned frustration. “Again!”

Pitt’s ELI does not teach introductory courses; students must have some basic English language skills. But they still have much to learn before they are capable of communicating fully in a business or academic environment. English is a difficult language to grasp, particularly for those who are used to a different linguistic family.

A linguistic family is a group of languages with similar origins. English is a Germanic language, which means it is structurally similar to German and Danish. However, English also has ties to the Romance languages—French, Spanish, Italian, and others—in part because William of Normandy invaded England in the 11th century and brought his native French with him. Owing to the historical blending, someone from Western Europe, particularly Germany or France, has an easier time learning English than someone from Asia, because the rules and vocabulary in English overlap with those from their Western European tongues.

“The difficulty [in learning English] depends on your native language,” says Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistics Chia-Hui Huang, who is a non-native English speaker. “Someone who speaks, say, German would not have the same difficulty as [a speaker of Chinese]. For me personally, articles were difficult. I’m a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese, and we don’t have articles. The same with prepositions. I am never quite comfortable using prepositions.”

In Rudd’s conversation class, other complications arise. “In some of their languages, the short i and long e sounds are the same, so it’s difficult to discern English words like pitch and peach,” she says.

“One example that came up in class was sheet.” Let’s just say there was a lot of unintentional swearing, says Rudd.

As any traveler knows, these kinds of innocent mistakes often happen when visiting another country. Such culture shock can run both ways, says Rudd. “My students had all been here long enough to adjust, but they made me look at American culture differently. Most of them were doctors, engineers, or even both. They’ve accomplished more by age 25 or 30 than some of us do in our whole lives.”

For the students enrolled in the ELI fall program, the term culminates with a Thanksgiving dinner. Students celebrate their accomplishments and participate in a piece of American culture, all at once.

However, the feast is not exactly the traditional Thanksgiving dinner that most Americans envision. Sure, the ELI instructors provide turkey and stuffing, corn soufflé, and pumpkin pie, but the students contribute a host of international favorites.

The fragrant, steamy smells of curried chicken and sizzling pot stickers fill the church basement where the banquet is held. The instructors discuss holiday vacation plans while stirring tangy homemade cranberry sauce into the sweet sticky rice provided by a soft- spoken student from Thailand. Sounds float in the room: the scraping of folding chairs, the soft clatter of moving silverware, and conversations in a collection of languages.

In between bites, the students decorate placemats. They try to capture the essence of Thanksgiving with Magic Markers, stickers of fall leaves, and boxes of red and gold glitter. A woman from Argentina wins the decorating contest with a traced-hand turkey on a red and purple background. She tucks her chin to her chest and beams when her classmates applaud.

The current of voices dies down as the ELI choir, a group of students who sing as a way to practice their English, takes the stage for a performance. The group of about 15 students huddles around the microphone with solemn faces; one woman waves to her husband in the audience as she starts singing, along with the others, the classic Beatles song, “Yellow Submarine.”

Nearly all of them have cracked smiles by the time they reach the chorus.

As the concert finishes, the audience is on its feet, cheering and calling to friends on stage.

The pronunciation may not have been perfect for “Yellow Submarine,” but the crowd didn’t mind. The encore comes when one of the sopranos brings her toddler to the stage so that he can sing a Chinese folksong. He claps and laughs between verses. Few people at the banquet understand the words, but when he pulls off the microphone cover and runs for the door with a cheeky grin, no explanation is needed. Children will be children in any language.

Despite the differences in the menu and entertainment, this gathering boasts something many Thanksgiving parties do not: pilgrims. These pilgrims may not be escaping religious persecution, and they may not all intend to live in the United States permanently, but they are cultural explorers and ambassadors in a foreign country, relaxing after a season of hard work, thankful for the opportunity they’ve had.

Rudd has a hug for everyone. This is the last time she will see some of the students before they return to their home countries. “This is the one aspect of teaching I don’t look forward to: saying goodbye.”

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