May 18, 2021

language barrier

One of challenges when learning aboard is the language barrier. Said many.

I still vividly recalled after a friendly soccer match in SFC field, a friend name P. trucked us to In-n-Out's burger near the Scottsdale and 202 intersection. By the way, In-a-Out's burger is not a big name chain but a really delicious one. It was my very first time to order a burger. Ordering is a big word because I did not in control of what I want. I were dizzying of sounds by staff behind the counter asking what type of burger do I want. But the sound is look like this "wha-da-u-wah?" in maybe two seconds. I were literally frozen. My brain had no response to the staff's question. "wha-da-u-wah" is not what I heard that time. Did I hear anything at all? This is the sound of my reconstruction after a few years in the U.S. and few times ordering burgers or burritos. And even, I was ready to response "BIF BUGEh, pliz" (not plEAZ, and not beef burger). It was a game when a waiter asked me "wha-da-u-wah-f-drink?". I only heard DRINK most of the time, and most often, water please!

A week earlier, on the fight transit to Phoenix, I had a nightmare about missing the plane or boarding a wrong one. When a attendant asked me if needed help, I asked her if I were, indeed, on the right plane. And yes, I was taught to learn say hi, order food, ask help, and how to travel on almost any English class. To assure, I took out my ticket and asked her again, that if this ticket for this flight? Taking a small task under high pressure here.

It was getting better, and the language barrier was becoming lower, so I thought. I had two weeks before the class started to settle in. Find apartment, open bank account, know routes to get to school, to supermarkets and back home, that kinds of information. So I had a fair exposure to speaking pace and pitch how Americans speak.

Fast forward two weeks into the first Fall term, with two courses and six credits, the learning should be low-paced. Another six credits was usually research & conference which means you carried out research and daily tasks set by the advisor or an assigned supervisor. My first two years applied to the later which my daily research activities as a supporting role: mostly clean big glass carboys, prepare growth medium for microalgae (BG-11), do something else that seniors did not want to do. If I were complaint to much, I have been aware that undergrads needed to register at least 12 credits to be considered as a full-time students. I were older and considered to be selected (I was a grad), so what was the fuss did I had.

Six credits per term which one credit equals to 45 hours during each team and 15 weeks per term, that would means one credits requires 3 hours per week. The total time in class are 50 minutes each by six, and 10 minutes break in between and twice a week, so that is 12 hours each week in class. One hour of large group meeting, one hour of small group meeting, alternate one hour of meeting with the project research team or a sort of conference meeting, and one hour seminar on Tue's noon.

Spending three hours in class during the first year was incredibly challenging. Here are some context to set you in. For the first two years, grads took 50x level class which often offered to undergrads as 49x for grad credits. So you have both grad students and some rising stars from undergrad who planed to take grad school or to use that advance credits for grad applications somewhere else. Learning with seniors (that is 4th year undergrads) was frightening. They spoke fast and fluently. By then, those seniors was experienced with class and materials. I, supposed to be a scholar myself, was under pressure to perform well. My scholarship was a contingency to my term grade, which has to be 3.0 or more (B or better). Those seniors, especially, two ladies, one I heard that she went to Stanford, and another stayed in town for a master degree, responded to the professor's question in a three-full-sentence with clarity and concise. Now, supposed you were me, expected and assumed to be more experienced and knowledgeable than most of the classmates suddenly lost your tongue to find a word, not even a sentence, to participate in the class discussion or open questions. I were not so sure how long I could survive then. I was known to a professor as "speaking broken English" and "you always said in half sentences". I knew that my English was moderate, but to here such comments, no matter constructive and good-will, cut deep.

Another day when I listened to Angela Duckworth and Stephen Dubner's No Stupid Questions podcast, she mentioned about the limit of the brain. The limits can be in capacity or bandwidth. For example, you can not remember everything would be an example of the capacity limitation. And if you can not both reciting a poem and add prime numbers, that would be an example of the bandwidth limitation. Looking back, since I found many times in class, I were felt asleep after pinching myself in upper arms and thighs, my ears was dinging so what was happening inside my brain?

One explanation is the drain of attention. After 30-minute in class, listening to the professor and first, trying to understand what the context and filling in the blank of some words I could not fill in, my brain returned a blank page or a full draft page. It would refuse tuning in to process and connect words. I felt unable to render the session topic and pressure to learn materials and making every bit of information flurry, dizzy and cannot be locked down in memory. It was a wrong type of data to be written to my memory, so to speak. I went out to restrooms, tapped cold water onto my face, and then dried with paper towel and hand-wiped out wet paper on my face.

It is also the case of limiting bandwidth. To process a foreign language, we recruit quite large of amount of resources: your ears and your eyes. Raw data are overwhelmingly flown in. You collect all types of sound, all types of mouth movement, then transfer all of those into deliberate part of brain, a part that processes information that others can't or new to them, and suddenly, the brain has too many data to handle. On top of that, you need to write note, you are prepare to answer question, you constantly monitor your physiological signals. In very short time, you spend lots of energy, lot of waste products in the blood stream, you feel fatigue and almost non-response. Time to take a break, if you have any bandwidth left to convey that routine. Many of us just felt into a nap and jerkily waken up. Caffeine drink was my way to jolt my brain and shake it off right before it went into the sleepy mode. It helps. Some prefer Coke or Pepsi; then you get both a caffeinated sugary drink.

Overtime, your brain started picking up patterns of the language. You don't have to tune in 100% percent to understand what was said. Instead, listening is less energy-intensive. For English, intonation is critical. As non-native speaker, you couldn't hear e-ve-ry syllable enunciated. What you hear is Up and dowN pattern of a word, and then a sentence. For example, you heard something like "Fif-di' and other times 'fifTi:n', was that 50 or 15? Often, as person from a faraway land to the US, I replayed the question: five zeRO or one Five? Now you don't need a whole range of sound wavelength to know if that was 50 or 15, but rather an up then down or down and a long up with a starting F-sound. Less bit of information was involved. The brain works a light mode with the automatic part. Those patterns often called "chunks". It is not limited to language but the method that the brain built up its tool to deal with repetitive pattern. If you only use English one a year, that pattern will come and go, but if you deal with this everyday, the chunks are more permanent, and gradually overtime faded away if using less.

Another approach to deal with foreign language is the prepare or foreseen a group of vocabulary or topic in different settings. Going in for seminar talks in biology will need different vocabulary than going out with friend in happy hours. Don't less happy hour fooled you, you actually not heard much during that meet up. People will speak at their normal pace with slang, sport euphemism, and group cue. Your only hope that people in the background was not too loud, you or your friend was not so tipsy, so at least, you caught some sound to decode what was this about? Formal talks with loaded terms and experimental data are the best place to practice your listening skill because you are kicking back to hear the sound, watch slides and no pressure to ask the question. In most seminar, international students looked like observers because no shortage of smart fellows going to ask question to express their agreement (and often disagreement) with experiment data.

But those barriers or obstacles are applied to any bodies coming to the US for working or reuniting there. It is even harder for many of them that even for many years living in the US, they can only speak their native language and a basic command English. As a grad student, barriers keep piling up. The upside for them is they are young, smart, fully exposed to academic English and given opportunity to learn by trying.

If we remove all the common English and day to day conversations, language barriers when one went to the US for study could be in three forms:

  1. class participating, including following class materials, class discussion, and giving seminar talks as required by some courses
  2. specificity to vocabulary used in research setting from naming and pronunciation of tools in the lab, the species experimented with, and chemicals involved.
  3. fluently to use English to convene academic work. This is the highest level of using language. To be eligible for graduation, students need to write up their thesis and deliver few formal presentation.

On the point #3, I was in luck and beaten up with detailed and meticulous in writing by my advisor. After the first year, I took the comprehensive exam that qualifies if a grad student could move on as a PhD student. I failed that time. I went around asking other professors why I did not pass, and there was a hint that my writing needed improvement. Till this day, I believe that my advisor made the call and rightly so. I would not consider that four-page writing is a work of soon-to-be PhD student. It would be generous to characterize that writing of a mediocre undergrad.

Even with my final dissertation the fulfill my PhD degree, I cannot recall how many times advisor commented and asked for improvement for the first page in Chapter 1. My roughly estimation is about 10 times. He even crossed out his writing in the previous round of improvement. So when language barriers was not just making everyone hear what you say or responded to classmate and professor. It has nuances and textures. Some spoke lovely English and others spoke half-sentences.

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