Language and Culture Deficiency

Chinese students identified language problems as a major adjustment problem. Two areas were identified by Chinese students as providing the most difficulties: listening comprehension and oral communication. As for listening comprehension, especially when they first arrived in the United States, the majority of the respondents felt that Americans spoke so fast that it was impossible for them to follow. An accounting student recalled how he felt about American speaking when he first got here:

Americans rush everywhere, they rush in their talking too, and so have little patience to wait for me to understand, or do not adjust their speaking so I may follow conversation. (Participant 6)

Apart from high-speed talking, a public administration student attributed the listening problems to a “cultural deficiency”:

You know, somehow, I feel it is hard for Chinese students to fit into American society. It is okay for us to study or work here, because academic and working settings are kind of standard environments; people do not use slang very often. For me, I think I can handle classroom discussions, but I do feel stressful when I chat with my American friends. I am overwhelmed by the rich and living English idioms and slang. Because of lack of contextual knowledge, I [am] frequently lost in their talking. There are lots of subtleties I cannot understand. (Participant 11)

Lack of background knowledge impaired the ability of Chinese students to fully understand their American friends’ topics of conversation. A male bioengineering student stated:

In many cases, I think [my listening] problem was not always due to the language itself. You know, the most frustrating thing [is that] I know every word being said, but do not have any clue about what the speaker meant. I can give you an example. I was working on my master’s degree at the University of Chicago, and I used to live in the area known for its poverty, chaos, and murder. Several of my friends warned me that they were robbed when they returned to their apartments at night. I was kind of scared when walking alone at night. One day, after I watched a football game at the campus stadium, it was so late at night that nobody was on the road. I was in a good mood that night, because our school team won. So I even forgot what my friend told me until a Black guy suddenly approached me. He looked very excited and said, “Hi, buddy, give me five.” I was so scared at that moment that I found five dollars and handed it to him. The guy looked sort of astonished and did not accept the five bucks. He smiled and ran away. Later on, I realized there is a big difference between “give me five” and “give me five dollars.” However, at that moment, although I knew each word “give,” “me,” and “five,” I had no clue about what “give me five” meant. (Participant 17)

Most of the respondents indicated that they had little knowledge about American people, culture, society, and their way of life. Therefore, they had difficulties understanding conversations when it came to topics such as sports, movies, TV dramas comedies, and pop music. A biochemistry student commented:

Since I had never watched a football or baseball game in China, I had no way of knowing its rules. I looked dumb when my American friends talked about sports. Since American people assume us Chinese students understand the terms, events, and places in the same way as normal Americans do, they refer to a lot of things without explanation. However, what is presumably common knowledge to American people is pretty new to me. Just as a newborn baby, I got lost very often in this new environment. I do not know how many years it will take me to reach their standard in terms of background knowledge. It is so tough. (Participant 9)

In terms of speaking, there typically were three problems associated with Chinese students. They include accurately pronouncing English words, using appropriate words, and speaking English fluently. An MBA student said:

To me, English was a big hurdle. I had a strong accent, which makes American people unable to understand what I said. When I talked to American people, they often misunderstood. It was okay when people could not fully understand me in daily conversations. However, a strong accent was a big hurdle to me when I was doing a telephone interview with a potential employer. Most of them felt it was difficult to communicate with me in English, and therefore I was kicked off even in the first round by most of interviewers.

[I am] so frustrated about this. I do not know how long it will take me to get rid of my accent. (Participant 1)

Besides their accent, some of the respondents found it difficult to find an appropriate word or formulate a correct sentence, which inhibited effective communication with Americans. As a social justice student stated:

It is difficult for me to find appropriate words to express myself when it comes to topics such as arts, philosophy, movies, and humanities. Some words I want to say, I cannot remember. Or I do not know the real translation of the word or how to express that meaning.

For instance, I remembered an American classmate once asked me what feng shui is. As all Chinese know, feng shui is sort of traditional Chinese term. It took me 1 h to explain feng shui to him, but he still seemed confused. His confusion largely resulted from my awkward oral communication. The same thing happened when I was asked to explain the difference between two philosophy traditions, Confucian and Taoism. (Participant 5)

For most of the respondents, the reason for their poor listening and oral communication skills was thought to be directly related to the language environment in China where people rarely get the opportunity to interact with people whose native language is English.

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