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September 12, 2012

Foreign students get a leg up on language and culture at Stanford

Stanford's English for Foreign Students program helps international students communicate and cultivate a life on campus.

By Camille Brown

Students from Taiwan wrestle with questions about perception and nationalism during Stanford's English for Foreign Students Program. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

The international students who attend Stanford University's summer language courses know that communication is essential to effective scholarship.

Some are graduate students who want to be able to clearly communicate their research in English. Others are undergraduates who want to excel in the English-speaking universities they already attend. The participating high school students typically plan to submit applications to American universities and need to do so in English.

Visiting scholars like Masashi Suzuki, from Japan, build their confidence in English business presentations.

"We are supposed to give 3-10 minute presentations related to our field of study and our interests in the class … like state-of-the art-physics, introduction of Starwood hotels, beauty of Chinese ancient gardens, sales pitches of new business ideas … and effect of gravity in Korean military training, to name a few," he said.

These exchanges proved valuable for Suzuki's business background. "Presentation skill is a must in the business arena," he said. "The experience of practicing and giving presentations in English in front of classmates, TA, and teacher, awkwardly but very seriously, surely gave me confidence in it."

Another student from Japan, Fumiaki Ishihara, an undergraduate, attended a four-week long language and culture immersion course in August. Ishihara described the program as "life changing" because his improved communication skills have prepared him to successfully navigate his first English language academic experience, studying linguistics at the University of British Columbia this fall.

The English for Foreign Students (EFS) program sponsors the course that Ishihara took, as well as numerous other summer sessions. A division of the Stanford Language Center, EFS offers year-round language instruction designed to improve the academic communication of the university's foreign graduate and doctoral  students.

Boost for beginners

Established over 40 years ago, the summer programs were created to give students a leg up before the school year begins.

EFS director and linguist Phil Hubbard said that for graduate students, "the idea is to boost their English skills before they start to get into full-time study or, in the case of visiting scholars, giving them something that they won't have access to during the rest of the year."

More than just an academic resource, EFS provides a support system that guides participants through the challenges of adjusting not just to the English-speaking academic environment, but also to a new culture.

Through discussion sessions, lectures and interactive experiences, Ishihara said he learned "what studying abroad is like, what staying at a dormitory is like, what living in a different culture is like." In addition to gaining new friends, Ishihara said he has a new-found courage to study on an English-speaking campus.

Ishihara is one of the students from the EFS-affiliated program Volunteers in Asia (VIA) that brought participants from universities in Japan, Taiwan, Korea and China to Stanford to study English and Western culture.

Participants in the American Language and Culture Program (ALC), another EFS summer program, also get a crash course in American culture. There are sessions on everything from current events and local social issues to topics such as gender, Asian American identity and immigration. Stanford sociology PhD students lead many of the conversations.

According to ALC coordinator Robyn Brinks Lockwood, one of the most popular activities is a Monopoly-like game that accompanies the social stratification lecture.

"The game is styled much like the traditional Monopoly game and students are able to buy properties, such as Memorial Church or Hoover Tower," Brinks Lockwood said. "The catch is that different students have different rules." For example, the "upper class" gets to begin with $1,500, while the "middle class" begins with $1,200 and the "lower class" with $1,000. Brinks Lockwood said that by the end of the game, students "should have firsthand experience of the ease, for some, and frustration, for others, of playing a game by different sets of rules based on class factors."

Both the undergraduate and graduate summer programs include two lecture series: one that focuses on academic research and another that centers on cultural practices. This year the academic series included such speakers as law Lecturer Jonathan Greenberg, who discussed the concept of national identity, and Associate Professor of communication Jeremy Bailenson, who discussed new concepts in human-computer interaction. Law Professor Hank Greely explored the technical and ethical issues pertaining to the restoration of extinct species; business Professor Baba Shiv shared his thoughts on how emotion and motivation affect rational decision-making.

Community connections

In the lecture series focusing on local culture and casual communication, San Jose Police Auditor LaDoris Cordell recounted key experiences during her years as a California judge.  Associate Professor Don Barr drew connections between his work with the local homeless shelter and his role as a member of the Stanford faculty and Palo Alto community. And John Overstreet, a Santa Cruz winemaker, explained the winemaking process. SImps, Stanford's improvisation troupe, engaged the students in creative exercises to improve their understanding of how conversational patterns can be employed to signal status.

The SImps lecture was a favorite of one EFS student – Jianhui Xing, an MBA student with a doctorate in control science and engineering from Beijing. He was inspired by their acceptance of uncertainty in their performances. "In a show," he explained, "they do not know the exact lines they are going to say before saying them … Aren't they afraid that they are stuck in the middle of the show?"

Yet as the lecture went on and the performances unfolded, Xing had an inspiring revelation: "I realized that they enjoy the uncertainty and their natural reaction to the uncertainty. I was inspired by them and realized that I was here at Stanford to take risks to try a new way of life. So at the end of the speech, I volunteered to go on the stage and perform impromptu, endeavoring to take risks."

This performance mentality, in turn, helped Xing frame his study-abroad approach as a rehearsal. As he explained, "I have never been in the U.S. before, not to mention being involved in U.S.-style classes. So EFS provided me the best possible chance in summer to be get involved in group discussion, to practice public speeches/presentation, to network with classmates in parties and to speak up actively in class. I will most likely encounter the similar situations in my MBA program and after these rehearsal activities, now I feel more confident to participate in the classes and MBA study life."

Camille Brown is an intern with the Human Experience, the Humanities web portal for Stanford University.



Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities outreach officer: (650) 724-8156,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,


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