Student-led Culture and Conversation group allows foreign exchange students to hone English skills, American culture

Photo by Ethan Clark / MTSU Sidelines 

William York first learned what it felt like to be alone in a foreign country, struggling to communicate, when he studied abroad in Japan for a summer.

“You don’t really realize how dependent we are on being able to communicate until you go somewhere where you can’t communicate,” York said.

York learned firsthand how hard it can be to immerse oneself in a different culture. Language courses and studying help, but it takes more than just classes to understand a country’s culture and its idioms.

York’s struggle to communicate is the reason he decided to form the Culture and Conversation group at Middle Tennessee State University’s Writing Center in Room 362 of the Walker Library. Since he and his friend Nick Dalbey started a year ago, a handful of exchange students from all over the world come every Thursday at 3 p.m. to discuss and better understand American culture in a judgment-free environment.

The meetings cover everything from general grammar rules to explaining American slang terms.

“We teach them all the things, like what’s a ‘hot minute’ and ‘what’s up, bro,’” York said. “They learn those things and then go out and use them. So, when you do that, it gets you a little bit more intimate with the culture.”

York is an English major with a concentration in writing, and Lambey is a graduate student studying medieval literature. Their experience in their respective majors has allowed them to teach students about the nuances of communicating, such as how putting emphasis on different words in a sentence can change its meaning.

For several years, there was an informal group in the University Writing Cente that helped exchange students who were learning English as their second or third language. However, when the group organizers disbanded due to busy schedules, York and Lambey saw the need to revive it as a formal organization.

“We decided to bring the group back as a place for them to converse and work on English skills and answer any cultural questions about America,” York said. “Nick and I started this up again … last year, and we’ve been doing it every semester since.”

The weekly Culture and Conversation group meetings attract a diverse group of students. A recent session included students from China, Ethiopia, Japan and Nepal. Each student has a couple of words or phrases on their mind when the meetings begin, and York and Lambey help explain them all.

“It doesn’t matter how much knowledge is in your head,” said Keshav Paudel, a graduate student from Nepal. “It doesn’t matter if you cannot express that thing in a simple way.”

Paudel has been in the United States for over a year, and he hopes to find a job here after graduation. When he first started studying at MTSU, he looked for a place to hone his English-speaking skills, and he said York and Lambey’s Culture and Conversation group has helped him better understand the English language and its American quirks.

“I’m glad to be here,” Paudel said. “It’s really helpful for us because there’s a lot of things we have to learn.”

The lessons are not always about explaining slang words and language, though. York and Dalby will take the time to explain American culture and how ideas, such as individuality and directness, are valued in the United States.

“(America) teaches independence quite a bit,” Lambey said to a group of students. “(Independence) is good, but it can also be taught to a fault because you stop learning how to ask for help and working with others.”

York and Dalbey have encouraged anybody with friends who are exchange students to invite them to future meetings.

“This is very unlike a classroom setup, where a professor’s lecturing,” York said. “We’re going to cover things that they’re never going to cover in a textbook or in a classroom. Things that are much more personal on the level of what they’ll do with their peers and communicating in a very casual space.”

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

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  1. Vanessa Neptune
    Nov 16, 2017 - 07:18 PM

    I don’t think most Americans understand just how hard it is to move to another country and learn their language. Learning another culture’s language and ways of life is not something you can just learn overnight. It is especially harder to learn another language when you are older compared to when you are younger. I have a lot of respect for those that immerse themselves in another culture and really put in an effort to learn their language.

    I love how MTSU has so many foreign exchange students from countries like Saudi Arabia, China, Germany, Mexico, etc. I feel proud to be attending a school with such a diverse student body. I love how these students created a group dedicated to helping foreign exchange students learn English. It’s great because it helps them feel like they aren’t alone and have someone to help.

    I myself am hoping to study abroad in Germany this coming summer. I’m currently taking German language courses, and just like one of the students said, taking classes will only get you so far. You won’t fluently learn the language or their culture until you are in that country. It helps hat my mom is from Germany and we still have family there, but I need to experience being that country by myself to get the full experience.

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