Perspective: Learning English and Acclimating to the U.S. as an International Student

by Christopher Fan, ’23

Sometimes it is hard to envision how it feels when everyone around you speaks a language different from your native language. So, I want to share my experience as a non-native English speaker in the US, doing my best to learn and master a second language.

As a student immersed in a second language, I have been through difficulties, especially when I first got to the US. We began to learn English in the third grade of my elementary school in China. We started with the most basic greetings and conversations like we do in Spanish I or French I, learning to say, “Hi! How are you?” for example. In order to get an offer from Severn School, I spent much longer learning and mastering English. In the end, I took the Test Of English as Foreign Language (TOFEL) for qualification and got a decent score. By the time I became a ninth-grader, my English was fluent. I was able to communicate in English without direct translation in my mind. However, when I did get to the US, some things were completely different than I expected.

Multilinguists Christopher Fan, ’23 (center), with Mrs. Townshend (left) and Ms. Campbell

Although people at Severn School were fantastic and friendly, the slang people use always confused me. This is a cultural difference, and I conclude that this difficulty results from culture shock. It often happened that everyone began to laugh as one of my friends told a joke, but I did not understand it at all. It was embarrassing and awkward.

Before my junior year, I “thought in Chinese” all the time — when I did my math homework, when I tried to remember names for history, when I talked to my friends, and even when I was dreaming. Since I was immersed in an English-speaking environment, however, a transformation gradually took place in me. Depending on the setting, I would think in different languages. When I talk to my teachers about academic work, English is dominant in my mind; when I speak to my family, Chinese takes its place.

With curiosity, I interviewed Mrs. Townshend and Ms. Campbell, whose native languages are French and German, respectively. Mrs. Townshend was born in the US to French-speaking parents but went back to Switerland for about a year. She then moved back to the US but spoke only French with her family at home until she was five and went to elementary school. Mrs. Townshend went to a Catholic school, but she could not speak any English at all. “I couldn’t talk to anyone. I felt isolated,” Mrs. Townshend said.

Ms. Campbell was born and raised in Germany, and came to the U.S. after she graduated from college, which made it easier for her because she had advanced her English quite a bit by then. But she said it was still hard at the beginning to integrate into a new culture. Indeed, it takes a long time and lots of practice to actually adapt to a new language environment. Both Mrs. Townshend and Ms. Campbell speak English beautifully now, but we should be aware that it was an arduous process, and they stepped out of their comfort zones and got through it. So while we enjoy their pleasant classes, we should appreciate their earlier efforts.

“Most of the time, I think in English,” Mrs. Townshend said. “But when I am anxious, I will do so in French. I even talked to my advisees in French when I felt stressed. I was not aware, of course.” Mrs. Townshend also said that she occasionally dreams in French, especially when she feels stressed or pressured.

“Although German is my first language, I think in English more,” Ms. Campbell said. “It all depends on the environment. I dream in English when I am immersed in the life at Severn, but in German when it comes to my family and hometown.”

It has been helpful for me to learn from the experiences of Mrs. Townshend and Ms. Campbell, who have navigated different cultures and languages for years. All three of us have adapted to these challenges and benefited a lot from a new environment. But when we need to communicate most clearly or urgently, the native language is still a warm shelter and where we belong. As the old saying goes: East, West, Home is the best.

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  1. Thank you for sharing your story, Chris!

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