When I was first beginning to consider applying for a job at the UCWbL, one part of the job that really caught my eye was the Conversation Partner appointments with international students. For those of you who are not familiar, Conversation Partner appointments are meetings in which DePaul students that are not native English speakers meet with an UCWbL tutor to practice their conversational English. According to the 3rd addition of the UCWbL handbook:
“Conversation Partner appointments give English Language Learners (ELLs) authentic interaction with fluent English speakers in a risk-free environment in order to support and augment their spoken language acquisition, which research indicates in turn contributes to their development as writers” (p. 111).
Conversation Partner appointments are a huge aspect of working at the UCWbL, especially when a tutor is stationed at the Loop Campus Writing Center where many international students live and have classes.
I was studying abroad in Mérida, Mexico when I first found out about Conversation Partner appointments. I thought about how the experience of being an international student is both insanely difficult and exciting; not only are you living in a foreign land with unfamiliar food, climate and cultural norms, but you are also immersed among people that do not speak your native tongue. As soon as you arrive, mundane tasks like getting on a bus, asking for directions, or going to the grocery store suddenly seem to be enormous undertakings.
Not only are you battling homesickness, but now even the briefest and most common of social interactions can easily become painfully awkward. Someone uses a phrase you haven’t yet learned, another talks too fast for you to understand, and then you’re asking someone to repeat themselves three or four times. Later, you forget how to say shirt, or maybe mispronounce the word for year—año—and accidentally say ano (translation: anus), and the person you are speaking with has no idea what you are trying to communicate and you both become embarrassed.
Based on my own experience, I think that best and only way to get over this hump of discomfort and self-consciousness and to really, truly learn the language is to speak the language with a native speaker who is kind, patient, and willing to help establish an environment in which you can freely make mistakes and be politely corrected. I’ve found that blunders make you better, and if you are with someone that you are comfortable messing up in front, then suddenly a lot of pressure is relieved and speaking becomes a lot easier. I think that conversation partner appointments make it possible for this to take place, and this is the kind of environment that I seek to create during every conversation partner appointment that I participate in.
While every study abroad experience is unique, I feel like I can relate to international students studying at DePaul. Here they are living in a foreign country far away from their families and friends, are working hard to adapt to a different culture and simultaneously learn a new language. It’s hard to deny that being an international student is a challenging, important experience. However, it can also be one of the most rewarding and life-changing experiences of a young-person’s life—I know for me it was. Conversation Partner appointments give us UCWbLers a chance to be a part of that, and I for one think that’s pretty sweet.