Program Helps Foreign Students Refine their English

August 17, 2007
Aug. 17, 2007 -- Kentaro Tanaka, a prosecuting attorney from Japan, explained slowly how he probed key testimony in a vehicle accident case. He spoke carefully, feeling his way through a foreign language — English.

Tanaka, who is enrolled in the University of Virginia's School of Law, is among 27 students from six countries honing their language skills in U.Va.'s "English for Academic Purposes" program, which seeks to boost the English fluency of international students admitted to U.Va.

 “[Either] they… wanted to work on their proficiency or this is something their department encouraged,” said Brian Ullman, administrator of the program. Ullman noted that some of the students will serve as teaching assistants.

“They have all met the admission requirements. This is to fine-tune them to start working in their fields,” said Dudley Doane, director of Center for American English Language and Culture, and director of the Summer Session.

 The 4 1/2-week program focuses on academic communication and writing, vocabulary development, oral communication and reading, using class sessions, individualized work in their fields of study and small groups. The classes are conducted in English, Ullman said, by faculty who have previously taught English as a second language.

“Prior to the program, we contact their departments and get a list of recommended readings they are likely to encounter as a law or anthropology student,” Ullman said. “We want to prepare them for success.”

Students are also given lessons on higher education in the United States, and on using the tools of the University, including the language lab, libraries, computer networks and available software. As part of the acclimation process, the students also take field trips to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and to Sherando Lake.

This year’s class, the largest ever, also includes five undergraduates. Nine students will attend the Darden School of Business. Four will  attend the Law School. Others will study engineering, music, anthropology, religious studies and accounting.

“The class conversations convey a great deal of educational material material in a relaxed setting,” said Melissa Maceyko, a Ph.D. student in anthropology with a master’s degree in linguistics, who taught the Academic Communications Skills class in which Tanaka gave his presentation. Maceyko instructed the students in how to hold an audience’s attention, perk up deliveries and handle questions.

“This is  useful as an entrance into American academic study,” said Tanaka, who said he was disappointed with his skill level in spoken English. “In Japan, I checked my skill by a paper test.”
It is important for lawyers to communicate, said Tanaka, who is  seeking an American law degree so he can work in international and treaty law. He wants to hone his presentations and discussion techniques. “I have to learn many things,” he said.

While they have a functional grasp of English, some students need to expand their academic English, said Jane H. Boatner, who taught academic writing for the course. The students also need to continue expanding their vocabularies, she said, “in order to keep up with native speakers and to express complex ideas in a second language.”

Wenshe Cheng, an engineering student from Taiwan, is working hard at that. “People with different cultures see things from different angles,” she said.

Cheng, who said she has limited opportunities to make presentations of her work in her native country, said the program helped her develop her skills in listening to English and being able to communicate with classmates.

“When I made presentations, I was very nervous,” she said. “But because we know each other and the teacher, it is easier to make a presentation and do better.”

As they work together, carrying on their discussions in English, students develop camaraderie among themselves and their teachers.

“This is like language summer camp,” Maceyko said. “We try to have some fun,  because it’s a long day.”

“Students enjoy being with others from their own countries and speaking their native languages,” said Boatner. “But they also enjoy being with students from other countries.”

“They are a group of students learning a new culture together,” Ullman said. “But they are also a resource for the institution and for other students. Hopefully they will share their culture with those interested in learning.”