Language Gaps: English as a Second Language at Yale-NUS
story | Francesca Maviglia, guest contributor
photo | Francesca Maviglia
How many students at Yale-NUS College speak English as a second language? This number is nowhere to be found. A quick glance at our website doesn’t help much. With lack of a complete breakdown of nationalities, it’s hard to figure out how many students come from countries where English is not commonly spoken. Singapore and the United States are the two of most represented countries, but we also have a number of students from other English-speaking countries such as Canada, India, Australia. The percentage of students who speak English as a second language is thus probably quite small.
Many of the students in this category, including me, have experienced living and studying in an English-speaking environment before coming to Yale-NUS. When I was 16, I left my home country, Italy, to finish my last two years of high school in a United World College (UWC) school; other people went on an exchange to the US for a year, or studied in international school in their country, or attended a program abroad during their gap year. My guess is that the number of students who begin their freshman year with no prior experience of English-medium education is very low. This means that the experiences of these students are not prominent and rarely acknowledged. What are their struggles? Is Yale-NUS a welcoming space for someone who is under pressure to quickly improve their English? I’ve never heard any of these questions being discussed publicly. We talk a lot about how this College is a high-stress environment, be it due to the academic workload, the fact many of us are living on our own for the first time, or the constant questioning of our values, opinions, and identities. I’ve rarely seen anyone wonder how these difficulties are exponentially amplified when completing your readings can take you twice as much time as it does for everyone else; when you have to look up half of the words in a paragraph before you can even begin to understand a writer’s argument; or when even socializing and chatting with your friends is an energy-consuming activity.
I’ve been through it. When I started studying at UWC, I remember spending the first few weeks constantly feeling like my brain was being stretched and pulled in all directions. I was tired all the time—not a physical tiredness, but a mental fatigue that made thoughts hard and conversations harder. That sensation went away after a couple of months. The feeling of inadequacy, the frustration of never being able to express my ideas as effectively as I did in my head, the sense of shame every time I didn’t understand what someone said and had to ask them to repeat it, took another couple of years to dissipate, and sometimes these feelings still suddenly resurface. English fluency, as well as accent and pronunciation, are tangled with many factors—from educational background to socioeconomic class—that make it hard to talk openly about. Today, I’m comfortable enough with my English that I’m able to confess these things, and laugh about my mistakes. But I had to get to a point where I already felt “good enough”.
I was fortunate enough to go through all this long before coming here, in an environment much more forgiving of social class and lack of polish than Yale-NUS is, where the academic pressure did not feel so strong and your formal achievements did not define your worth as much, and where debates (although just as brutal) were won by the strength of an opinion or perspective rather than by rhetorical skills and formal sophistication. Although I still struggle with these aspects of Yale-NUS’s culture, I do so with three years of experience living in English-speaking environments behind me, and with a level of fluency that’s generally sufficient for the things I want to do. I can’t imagine how much harder it would have been had my first entry in the English-speaking world been the beginning of freshman year.
I decided to write this article because I’ve been hearing of freshmen who are struggling to keep up with their readings, or are worried about their ability to write essays. I’ve been wondering if, in the context of silence surrounding English as a second language at Yale-NUS, these students are asking for help if they need it. I speak now to all the people who belong to this group: are you going to the Writer’s Centre? Are you asking your friends for clarifications on the meaning of a word you don’t understand? Are you requesting your classmates to rephrase a comment in a different way during class discussions? When someone points out a mistake you made, do you laugh or do you shrink a little bit? If you are one of the people who are struggling right now, I want you to know that you’ll be fine. Maybe you won’t get an A+ in your essays this year (together with many native speakers). Maybe you will never lose your accent. But you’ll be fine. It gets a lot easier with time.
Finally, as you deal with the difficulties, don’t forget to acknowledge the beauty that comes with being a second language speaker. While right now you might feel your status limits you in some ways, it will also make your experience uniquely yours, and give you possibilities for growth that other people won’t get. Your native tongue is a private space you can choose to go back to, where most of the community won’t be able to follow you. It grants you the option of pursuing some intellectual endeavors—having a discussion, writing an article—protected by privacy, taking a temporary break from public scrutiny. In an environment as close-knit as Yale-NUS, where the obligatory closeness to everyone else can at times feel claustrophobic, having a virtual space to seek refuge is a privilege to cherish.
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