Time, Patience, and Support

Ayumi Hosoda, who arrived in the United States as a high school student, tells teachers how they can support international students in their social and linguistic adjustment. See Debbie Zacarian's The Road Taken column, Essential Teacher, December 2005 (pp. 10-11).

Eight years ago, I came to the United States from Japan as a high school student. I had very limited English language skills, but I had a passion for mastering English and an enormous curiosity about the American people and U.S. culture.

The process of acclimating socially and linguistically to the United States was long and difficult, as it can be for international students everywhere. Although the false images of U.S. school culture I had obtained from TV and the media went away quickly, I was disappointed to learn that mastering English was not as quick and easy as I had thought it would be.

Someone to Talk to

I cried during the class picnic on the third day of the fall semester of my first year in the United States. I felt lonely and overwhelmed. My dorm parent and some classmates came to check on me later. Though it was not the last time I shed tears in public, I quickly managed to make many wonderful friends, and the two years I spent in that high school turned out to be one of the best times of my life.

While experiencing cultural shock, I realized that it was important to have an optimistic view and to find people to talk to--U.S. friends who were interested in foreign cultures, international advisors and teachers who cared about foreign students, and international students who shared similar experiences and views.

Mistakes Are Normal

Making a linguistic adjustment, especially within a school setting, is a long and frustrating process. I struggled with homesickness, frustration, and embarrassment. Coping with English was the most stressful part of my everyday life.

My language skills did not improve as quickly as I wanted, yet they were crucial for completing classroom tasks and interacting with classmates and teachers. Because I went to a small high school and had to speak English from morning to night, my communicative English skills improved more rapidly than my classroom English skills. Although I soon picked up the most basic survival skills, such as introducing myself, making simple requests, and asking for permission, learning the language well took much longer. For many years, I carried my Japanese-English dictionary with me no matter where I was going.

Reading textbooks, writing papers, and participating in class discussions were extremely difficult because I was filled with anxiety about making mistakes. It took me many years to feel that I could do academic work in English. I learned that it was important to keep trying without being afraid of making mistakes.

What Should Teachers Do--or Avoid Doing?

You can help the newly arrived international students in your classes in the following ways:

  • Remind students that adjusting socially and linguistically takes a long time and a great deal of patience.
  • Encourage students to connect with other people and learn from them. In my case, social adjustment improved my English language skills.
  • Create a comfortable and secure place for international students. Let students know that you are interested in getting to know them and care about what is happening in their lives, and point them toward resources they can draw on.  
  • Temper high expectations with an awareness that international students are most likely passing through a difficult, possibly long adjustment phase.

Ayumi Hosoda (ayumi@dolphin.upenn.edu) is currently working toward a master of education at the University of Pennsylvania, in the United States.