Unisphere, Corona Park, NY. Photo by Xin-Jun Zhang & Anna Galuza.
For the majority of international students, the biggest challenge is definitely the language barrier, which affects both academic progress and daily communication. For example, Magdalena Kiprowska (Country of Origin: Poland), a doctoral candidate at The City University of New York (CUNY), had to spend more time and effort to do well in graduate study compared to her peers who are native English speakers. As a senior Ph.D. student, Magdalena keeps a balance between doing bench work and advancing her knowledge through reading scientific articles and attending conferences in her field. In addition, she manages to attend relevant seminars and workshops whenever possible. The strategy she used to learn English was repetition, and more repetition, and then even more repetition; a lot of reading, talking, explaining to herself out loud, and presenting to diverse audiences.
As for me (Country of Origin: China), I struggle most in daily communication. The vocabulary words I memorized for the GRE are rarely used in daily life. Therefore, embarrassment, confusion, and misunderstanding are constantly haunting me whenever I deal with conversational English. One day, my friend and I were talking about food, and I wanted to say that some Chinese people eat “pigeons,” but instead, I said “penguins.”
My friend was stunned. With eyes widely open, he said, “What!!?? You guys even eat penguins???”
I said, “I know they are cute, but they are delicious to some people.”
“But, are there penguins in China?”
This time it was me who was stunned, and I replied, “Of course, there are penguins everywhere…!”
“Everywhere? But…how?” He still looked puzzled.
“Penguins can fly to every corner of the world!” I shrugged my shoulders.
“What? Penguins can fly!!??” At this point he was shouting and probably doubted whether we belonged to the same planet.
I nodded and was very puzzled that someone doubted a bird could fly.
He became speechless and googled a penguin’s image to show me… I scratched my head and stuttered, “Um…, I mean ‘pigeons’…”
There have been many silly moments like this in my life since I came to New York City and I know I am not alone. A friend of mine wanted to order cauliflower in a restaurant, but instead of saying “cauliflower,” she said very elegantly, “Excuse me, sir, I would like some ‘albino broccoli’ please, thank you!”
The President and Co-founder of INET NYC Mike Veenstra (Country of origin: The Netherlands), a doctoral candidate at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, shared his way of improving his English. Because he did not have many Dutch friends around, he mostly just talked with American friends and colleagues. He was forced to only speak in English and tried to watch TV and movies without captions.
How about you, my friends? Do you have these funny experiences about the misuse or misinterpretation of the English language? If you feel embarrassed about them, remember that we learn and grow through making mistakes. A good sense of humor also helps.
“There are many people that went through the same thing as you are going through now. Everyone made it out, and came to be something great after. If you struggle, find someone that went through the same and is successful now. Just talk to people, you will see how willing people are to help you overcome your struggles.” --------- Mike Veenstra
Many special thanks to Magdalena Kiprowska and Mike Veenstra for sharing their experiences with me for this article.
Author The author of the You Are Not Alone series, Yue Liu, is a doctoral candidate at Hunter College and CUNY’s Institutional Representative of INET NYC. Please email Yue at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any ideas for our future blogs.