By Connie Shoemaker
Twenty-one year-old Matsumi hurried to the Conversation Table where her new friend, John, a college student, was waving to her. “I am shy at home in Japan, so speaking English so difficult,” she said, “but now I practice with Conversation Partners and my home stay family.
Matsumi, who is a low intermediate level student at Spring International Language Center in Littleton, Colorado, has taken advantage of two programs that bring community friends into her life in the United States. Her home stay with an American family provides daily opportunities to speak English. The Conversation Partner program offers the chance to meet Americans of all ages at lunch and during listening and speaking classes in school.
Success as a language learner requires more than studying English during class time. Language and culture go hand-in-hand. Becoming involved in U.S. culture not only enhances your study of the English language but also gives you real-life listening and speaking opportunities with a cultural component. As Mia, another student from Japan, says, “I get ideas about restaurants and clothing stores from my Conversation Partners and learn about things to do here.”
From the moment you arrive in the U.S. you will encounter differences between your own culture and American culture. Connecting with people in the community you live in will help you to understand and become comfortable with these differences. You can do this in several ways depending on the location of your language study: a home stay with an American family, living in a dormitory or apartment with Americans, and active participation in your language school’s activities.
As a home stay student, you become a family member who is learning about new customs by participating in meals, activities, and typical routines of daily life. The family also supports you in the new culture by giving you advice, answering cultural questions, and guiding you in your new surroundings.
“I was afraid about how to get to school, but my host mother showed me how to take the train and bus and not get lost,” Matsumi said. “She helped me with words for questions like ‘how do I get to’ and ‘where is.’” Matsumi explains that she learned why Americans are so busy when she saw her host mother working at a job, taking her daughter to lessons, and cooking and cleaning the house.
In a recent survey, Spring International students listed some of their difficulties in adjusting to American culture: hard to communicate; everything is big, especially the food; answering questions quickly, and remembering American names were at the top of the list. On the other side of the question were the benefits of home stays: conversation practice, help when you make mistakes, support in a new culture, food, playing games with family, and close friendships.
If you choose not to live with an American family while you study, you can still participate in the culture by living in a college dormitory or sharing an apartment with American friends. When you choose a language school, be sure to ask what opportunities they have for interacting with Americans. Meeting high school and university students, business people, and retired people broadens your information about the culture. This can happen in a conversation partner experience, such as Matsumi’s, or in your own participation in school activities, sports, recreation events, and community events.
Connie Shoemaker, co-founder and Director Emerita, Spring International Language Center in Littleton, Colorado.