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March 28, 2012

Learning how to speak 'American'

Under Stanford's Language and Orientation Tutoring Program, humanities graduate students help international graduate students improve their English language skills and offer them insights into America's academic and popular culture.

By Kathleen J. Sullivan

"Using music to learn American culture and history is pretty fun," said graduate student Meng Xu. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

At Tongji University, one of the oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher education in China, Meng "Melissa" Xu designed a new fluorescent nanoparticle to detect pathological changes in the retina associated with diabetes.

Xu, now a graduate student in materials science and engineering at Stanford, is studying thermodynamics, nanobiotechnology and programming methodology.

Yet one recent afternoon, sitting in the Stanford Bookstore Café, she was puzzling over a decidedly nonscientific concept: "I'm proud to say she's my buttercup."

"What does buttercup mean," she asked Christopher Stroop, a doctoral candidate in history, pointing to the word she had underlined in the lyrics of All Shook Up, a rock 'n' roll song recorded by Elvis Presley in 1957.

Stroop is a tutor in the Language and Orientation Tutoring Program, which pairs graduate students in the humanities with international graduate students who are interested in improving their English language skills and also learning more about academic culture at Stanford and American popular culture.

Stroop, who explained the phrases I'm all shook up, My friends say I'm actin' wild as a bug and My insides shake like a leaf on a tree, told Xu that "buttercup," a flower, was a term of endearment in the song – and then explained "term of endearment."

"A lot of the expressions in All Shook Up are just playful," he told her. "They're meant to be silly. They're meant to be fun."

"Oh," Xu said, a smile brightening her face. "I thought it was a small cup for holding butter," she said, forming an imaginary cup in the air with her hands.

Since the beginning of winter quarter, Stroop and Xu have been exploring American English through the medium of song. It is a journey that started with protest songs, delved into classic country and continued with the blues and early rock 'n' roll. Recently, the duo began exploring the blues and jazz.

"Using music to learn American culture and history is pretty fun," Xu said.

Stroop said songs help teach American geography, too.

"You can't really talk about blues, jazz and rock without talking about New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago and Harlem," he said. "Nor can you talk about alternative music without talking about Seattle. Songs often make geographical references. We used John Mellencamp's Pink Houses toward the beginning of the quarter, which talks about people taking vacations 'down at the Gulf of Mexico.' We have pulled up maps on Google. There's a lot more packed into music that will help foreigners with both linguistic and cultural orientation than you might think at first blush."

Pairing up far-flung fields

This quarter, about 100 international graduate students are enrolled in the program, which provides free, one-on-one tutoring in weekly, one-hour sessions.

Stanford also offers group classes for international graduate students under the university's English for Foreign Students program.

Most of the international graduate students in the Language and Orientation Tutoring Program speak Chinese (49 percent) or Korean (45 percent) as their native language. The rest speak Japanese, Portuguese, Thai and Arabic, said Bronwen Tate, a graduate student in comparative literature who has served as a tutor.

Tate runs the program with Russell Berman, a professor of comparative literature and of German studies. The program was Berman's idea.

Tate said there is a wide range of English-speaking skills among international students in the program, which is sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education.

"Some have just arrived on campus and they're great scientists who read English really well, but are not at ease speaking it," she said.

"Some are in their third or fourth years of a doctoral program and are really pretty comfortable speaking English, but want to work on becoming more idiomatic, or on varying their vocabulary."

Tutors – currently, there are about 20 – receive $20 a session. Most of the tutors are PhD students in the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages and the Department of Anthropology.

Tate said 65 percent of the international graduate students in the program are studying engineering. Twenty-five percent are enrolled in the School of Humanities and Sciences. The rest are studying business, education, law and medicine.

"Pairing humanities graduate students with international graduate students, primarily from STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields, makes a lot of sense in both directions," said Berman.

"The international students get an opportunity to build their English and to learn about everyday culture, but the humanities graduate students – nearly all native English speakers, and all with excellent English language – benefit, too. They develop their profiles as teachers in this new setting, and they have an opportunity to learn from the STEM students about fields far from their own."

Tate's experiences as a tutor illustrate how far afield those fields could be.

For the past few years, Tate has been the managing editor of Mantis, an annual Stanford journal that publishes the work of talented poets, translators and critics around the world. As a tutor, she has conversed with a graduate student working in the Palanker Lab on an electronic retinal prosthesis; an earthquake expert working in structural engineering and geomechanics; and a PhD candidate studying at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics.

Howdy, Pardner!

Lisa Barge, a graduate student in German studies, said the students she has tutored fall into two groups. Some want to work on a specific project, such as a slide presentation or journal article. Others want to learn how to talk to native speakers in a casual way. For all, the sessions are safe places to ask cultural questions: Is it OK to ask someone their political party? Why do Californians sunbathe?

Over the past year, Barge helped an international graduate student prepare to give a talk on quantum mechanics to high school students by editing his slides, listening to his presentation and peppering him with questions during a mock Q&A.

"When students prepare for a presentation, it is nearly impossible for them to accurately predict what questions they will be asked during the Q&A, so they cannot plan what to say in advance," Barge said.

"Practicing answering questions with a tutor helps them feel more comfortable speaking freely about their topic, instead of from a script."

She has joined another student to watch the television sitcom The Big Bang Theory. He hits "pause" when he wants to discuss how a joke worked and why it was funny.

Barge used tongue twisters to help a South Korean graduate student practice the letters "r" and "l." They took turns reciting sentences like "Thirty-three thirsty, thundering thoroughbreds thumped Mr. Thurber on Thursday" and "Luke Luck likes lakes." Barge also recorded the sentences on the student's cell phone so she could listen to them later.

TED Talks – riveting talks by remarkable people – have been popular in the tutoring program. Viewers can toggle subtitles on and off on the videos, and can click on a transcript to find a particular moment in a talk. Once tutor and student have mined a talk for new vocabulary and discussed the speaker's ideas, the video provides a topic of conversation with someone else on campus – in the lab, at the coffee house or at the gym.

Also, emails have been the focus of many tutoring sessions. Tutors help international students understand the difference between informal and formal writing styles, so they can learn how to write emails in the appropriate register.

Some emails, though, require a "translation" only a native speaker could give, like the one a Korean graduate student received from a lab partner. It was an invitation to a barbecue written in cowboy slang – buckaroos, rootin' tootin', howdy pardner!

Humor me

Nonfiction books have been a focal point of conversation between Jihee Kim, a PhD candidate in management science and engineering, and tutor Jeff Knott, a PhD candidate in East Asian languages and cultures.

"I wanted to learn about American politics, economics and social issues, and Jeff was the perfect person to talk to about these things," said Kim, who earned a bachelor's degree at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology – the MIT of Korea – in 2005 and a master's degree in economics at Stanford in 2011.

One of the books they discussed was Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard.

During a tutoring session, Kim would read a paragraph aloud, and Knott would correct her pronunciation, intonation and flow. Then they'd discuss the ideas in the selection she'd read, with Knott providing cultural and historical context.

Kim said it helps that Knott speaks Korean, which has a different sentence structure – subject-object-verb – than English.

"Jeff knows why I make certain mistakes, because he knows what's going on in my head," Kim said. "There are certain vowels and consonants I try to avoid using, but Jeff encourages me to try them."

During their tutoring sessions, Kim takes notes on vocabulary, idioms and pronunciation.

Among her notes are the following idioms: "slip like sand through your fingers," "sleep like a log," "humor me," "under the weather," "awe-inspiring," "I was writing like crazy" and "It took longer than I thought (it would)."

"We've been doing this together for more than a year," Kim said. "We spend about half the time talking about random things – our lives, politics, the news, the presidential campaign – and rest of the time talking about the book. He's a really good friend now."



Elaine Ray, University Communications: (650) 723-7162,

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