When Jina Lee walked in on her roommate and her boyfriend making out last week, she didn’t quite know what to say – and it wasn’t because she felt awkward. Lee was unfamiliar with the ways Americans communicate discomfort and, as an international student from Korea, she didn’t quite have the language skills to voice that feeling.
So, Lee asked her American friend who she met through UC Davis‘ Partners in Acquiring Language (PAL) conversation program what she should do in that delicate situation.
“My PAL partner told me to just sit there and watch them, as a joke, and then say, ‘Don’t mind me! I’m just examining the difference between American and Korean couples,‘” said Lee, who studies statistics through the Education Abroad Program (EAP). “It was very funny.“
The PAL program, established approximately 30 years ago, partners U.S. students with international students who want to understand the English language better. The pair meets once a week for about an hour to talk about everything from daily life to the misconceptions each has about the other’s country.
“We talked about anything they wanted to talk about,” said Elaine Brown, who graduated in 2008 with a B.A. in sociology and participated in several quarters of the PAL program. “Sometimes we would share ideas that we had about each others‘ countries, and they were actually faulted. Most of them really do like Americans.“
How to be a PAL
Partners are chosen at the beginning of every quarter, and interested U.S. students sign up in the English as a Second Language (ESL) building in 108 Sproul. Though being a native English speaker is not required, an interested student should be fluent in order to be a sufficient resource for their international partner.
As U.S. students sign up, administrators in the PAL program talk to international students in ESL classes and EAP, encouraging them to participate.
“The PAL program is not required, but probably 90 percent of ESL students do it,” said Janet Lane, director of the PAL program and coordinator of the ESL graduate program. “The other 10 percent may live with a host family or have English speaking friends, so they don’t feel the need to interact with some one else.“
International students who decide to participate fill out an interest form, on which they include their gender, country, phone number, e-mail address and a few things they would like to talk about with their U.S. partner.
The U.S. partners then evaluate the forms and choose the student they think they would best get along with.
“Sometimes [the students] will have a hard time finding things to talk about [during their weekly meetings],” said Lane. “So the student information helps with their discussion.“
Should the U.S. students decide to participate in the program for university credit, they must take on an additional international student to meet with, write a paper at the end of the quarter reflecting on their experience and keep an hourly log. Otherwise, many just do the program for informal tutoring or other experience.
You’ve got a friend in me
After the partners are established, the pair meets in the location of their choice. Lane said that for the first few sessions, they will meet on the Quad or in the Coho, but after they get more comfortable with each other, they may go to a restaurant for lunch or dinner.
“Usually the partners become really good friends and it’s a really great experience for both of them,” said Stephanie Fallas, undergraduate linguistics adviser and ESL student adviser. “The international students love it because they get the chance to understand our customs and our way of speaking, and the English students can learn about their [partner’s] culture too.“
Aside from a language and culture exchange, partners learn from each other about studying abroad itself and the complications and benefits of it.
“My partner is going to study abroad next year, so sometimes we exchange information,” said Wanru Yang, a graduate student in the geography program. “I gave him information about funding and adapting to a different culture and he gave me useful suggestions for subleasing a room.“
Yang, like some other international students, will set up topics for discussion during their meetings. Others, like Lee, will simply meet and talk about what’s on their minds and any other concerns they have.
Crossing oceans of understanding
Lee said that one of the most difficult aspects of studying in the U.S. has been trying to understand American humor. She was embarrassed when watching the show “Family Guy” with her American friends because she was the only person not laughing.
“In Korea I was really outgoing, but here I seem really shy because I’m always thinking about grammar and how to form my words,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like I can’t show my real personality because I don’t have the language skills.“
Because of this difficulty, many international students find the transition from one country to the U.S. to be rough. Thus, the PAL program is designed to provide the international students with a mentor who can demonstrate how to fit in, use slang or deal with situations in a culturally sensitive way.
“These international students are really great students in their countries but because of language barriers, they may not be able to do as well [here],” Lane said. “They’ve watched the American movies and learned expressions in their text books, but it’s the listening comprehension and daily interactions that are so difficult.“
After the quarter of mentoring, many of the pairs keep in touch, some becoming lifelong friends. Lee herself was a partner as an undergraduate at UCD and still keeps in touch with her partner from Brazil. This situation is not uncommon in the program, she said.
Those interested can contact Fallas, at firstname.lastname@example.org or stop by the PAL office in 207 Sproul.
LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at email@example.com.