Pilot program helps international graduate students polish English skills

Kunihiro Kawasaki, a native of Japan, will begin his LLM degree in the Law School this fall. To better prepare himself for the rigor of his coursework as well as debate and discussion in the classroom, he chose to participate in a new pilot program offered by the University’s English Language Institute, which is housed in the Chicago Language Center and is a partnership between UChicagoGRAD and the Humanities Division.

In an effort to do more to help international graduate and professional students acclimate to UChicago’s academic life, the English Language Institute has developed the Academic English Pre-Matriculation Program. The program is intended to improve English language skills, prepare participants for UChicago’s academic and intellectual rigor, and to cultivate a working knowledge of Chicago’s history, neighborhoods and cultural diversity so students can more easily integrate with their new environment.

Kawasaki is one of 150 students who chose to polish their knowledge of English before the Fall Quarter commenced. All the participants—coming from 18 countries and speaking 17 different languages—do not speak English as their first language, and are living and studying in the United States for the very first time.

Kawasaki experienced a puzzling conversation with native English-speaking colleagues he had worked with at a Tokyo law firm. He shared the details of that interaction with the program instructor and learned how his intonation had caused a misunderstanding. When Kawasaki thought he was showing interest and surprise, his colleagues interpreted his tone as doubt about what they were saying.

“There are potentially 1,000 individuals with English language needs on campus.  They span all programs and divisions and include primarily graduate students but also postdoctoral scholars, students of the College and visiting students,” said Ezekiel Flannery, director of the English Language Institute. “And we want to help as many of them as possible develop strategies to ensure academic, professional and personal success here in Chicago.” Flannery designed the pilot curriculum in consultation with Catherine Baumann, senior lecturer in Germanic studies and the College, and director of the Chicago Language Center. 

For three weeks, the students enrolled in the Academic English Pre-Matriculation Program engage in three hours of intensive academic English a day. Additionally, workshops emphasize becoming an autonomous language learner, improving note-taking skills, learning how to paraphrase and quote texts, and even how to politely agree or disagree with others.

“There are linguistic and pragmatic elements that many people don't even think about. Many international students would use a directness in email that is inappropriate in English, and specifically in an academic context,” said Flannery. “We teach them politeness strategies using modal language like would, could and should to show an appreciation of hierarchies and a lack of presumption."

Getting off campus is crucial to the program, which uses the entire city of Chicago as a classroom to build oral proficiency in culturally specific contexts.

“The AEPP course is about exploration, which encourages us to go out of the classroom to embrace the beauty and attractiveness of the University and the city,” said Huan Xu, who came to UChicago from China to begin her PhD in neuroscience. “I started exploring every corner of the University: experiencing a bird's-eye view of the campus from the top of Rockefeller Chapel, listening to the sacred bell ring along the Midway, and exploring the best bookstore, library and coffee shop.”"

All of the students work on a project to explore one of Chicago's neighborhoods. Working in groups according to language proficiency levels, they might develop presentations on larger social issues such as inequality or gentrification. Or, the students might focus on how to interact with their environment as a resident of a particular neighborhood, thinking about which restaurants they would patronize and the activities they might engage in on weekends.

“In the past, I knew some basic information about Chicago's history,” said Xiaomeng Li, a Chinese student starting a master’s degree in the School of Social Service Administration. “I knew that Chicago is famous for its river, but I didn’t know the river is not a real ‘river’! Instead, it’s a canal built to solve the problem of its original sewer system.”

Films, such as a movie about the Maxwell Street Market, podcasts that showcased different Chicago accents, and a public television show in which Chicagoans highlight their favorite restaurants riveted the students.

“It’s not only an English course. The AEPP trains us to communicate and cooperate with others as a team,” said Xu. “It’s about being bold explorers, jumping out of our comfort zones to find the best possibilities for our lives and academic careers.”

The English Language Institute is one of many initiatives supported by UChicagoGRAD, a new office on campus dedicated to helping graduate students and postdocs navigate their academic and professional careers. Providing flexible training, UChicagoGRAD programs and services—from written and oral communication workshops to fellowship advising and career exploration—complement the work of the divisions and schools.