First Language? No, Second Language

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By Siqi Wang for The Daily Iowan

Page. Pitch. Peach.

Three words, three very different meanings.

But do you think I can pronounce them very well? Let’s just say it took a lot of practice — and I’m still having trouble with the middle one.

I’m told that Americans don’t have the same trouble with these words. But for a Chinese speaker such as me, the vowels prove to be very difficult.

When I first arrived in the United States more than three years ago, I could not even differentiate the voices between two American women. They sounded exactly the same to me.

Now, as a senior at the University of Iowa, I still have a long way to go (full disclosure: I do get help with these columns from a native English speaker). And I’m not the only one; many of my friends have trouble keeping up with our American peers. I think many Americans use slang words we Chinese are not used to — and plus, there’s the problem of simply speaking too fast. It’s hard to catch up.

And yet all of the Chinese I know had to take a number of exams just to pursue an advanced degree here in the States.

First of all, we need to take an English proficiency exam — such as the TOEFL, which is meant for American academic institutions, or the IELTS, which traditionally was required by European and Australian institutions. We also need to take the SAT in English to get accepted here. It’s not difficult to pass the English-as-a-second-language exams. The SAT is really hard. But the tests are one thing — actually living here and relying on our English to get around and go to class is something else entirely.

Because it can be so hard and overwhelming sometimes to speak and understand English, I tend to spend a lot of my time with my Chinese friends — speaking, of course, Chinese. This does not help my English.

I would like to see the UI provide more opportunities or clubs for international students to mix with American peers, so that we can get together as a group and talk about television shows, or movies, or food, or other cultural issues. This would provide a transition for those of us who would like to be more comfortable while living here. Such a club would also help those of us from other countries to talk about our experiences, to share our mistakes, and to make friends.

Eight years ago, the number of Chinese studying at the University of Iowa was 591. In 2011, it was 1,737, according to China Daily. I will bet that number will increase further. This community needs more cross-cultural opportunities for those of us who really want to improve our English and understand the American culture better than we do now.

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