Hearing a foreign language triggers all sorts of instincts in humans, some noble, some not. A very common fear, probably exaggerated, is that people are talking about you. Of course, that ties into a normal fear, borne of narcissism, that you’re being talked about and listened to; there may also be a secret belief that all foreign languages are kind of a scam to fool you. This is mostly harmless, and often just a way to make life more interesting. Some people, unfortunately, are opposed hearing a foreign language in “their” country, despite the historical absurdity of American xenophobia. But, ultimately, there is little you can do about those kinds of individuals.
If you have international recruits at your school, you probably worry about the language gap, on both sides. It is a worrisome thing to think that your students are going to feel alienated by language skills- not just the actual language, but how to use it. Now, of course, they are going to have some English, as otherwise they wouldn’t be coming to the U.S., but there is a difference between having learned it and being able to really speak it. It is here that a comprehensive preparatory program can come in handy, but if your recruit doesn’t participate in this, they could find themselves behind the 8-ball.
Luckily, most students are not like the xenophobes mentioned above, and even if they secretly think they are being talked about, they’re high schoolers: they alternate between thinking that everyone is staring at them, and no one is paying them any attention at all. With any luck, you won’t have to worry too much about people being offended by language. What is more likely to happen is that your students will attempt to learn at least some of the language of their international classmates. The question is: will this help or hurt?
One challenge with American students learning to speak the language of their classmates is that they represent only one side of the story. Yes, for them, it would be exciting to speak Mandarin or learn how to say things in Portuguese. And it certainly is a valuable skill to be able to communicate in several languages. Depending on your school, they are most likely already taking foreign language classes.
But that is not really why the international student has come to your school. They aren’t here just to help with others’ lessons; they have come to learn and to polish their English-language skills, in order to fully participate in the world (where, for now, and the foreseeable future, English is the dominant language of tech, politics, and economics). Part of this is to fully immerse themselves in English, to not have many, if any breaks. Chances are, there are other kids from their country with whom they may speak, but in daily interactions in school or work, they should be learning English, or they are having a disservice done to them.
Both sides are learning. If the odd student (odd numerically, not emotionally) decides to try to learn some Balinese in order to talk to his new friend from Indonesia, there will be very little harm. Teachers shouldn’t teach in two languages, at least not in this circumstance, but there is nothing wrong with two cultures bonding falteringly over the shared awkwardness of broken tongues.
It is the kind of gesture that can a long way. One of the main points of having an international program is so that students from America and around the world can figure out commonalities that sometimes hide between the more glaring, but generally more superficial, differences. The attempts to learn another language are always good, but even just using a few phrases can have a huge impact on the way your international recruit remembers his time. Gestures are important, and the gesture that- hey, we may not understand each other, but we’ll sure as heck try- could end up being the most important one of all.
The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.