MU Language Partners bridges gap between cultures

Program pairs non-native English students with native English speakers to help practice conversational English and learn about new cultures.

Communication is one of the most important parts of building relationships. It can be challenging enough moving to a new place and making friends in college, but for students who are not fluent in English, it can be even more intimidating. Not only is there the difficulty of being in a new place, there can also be the challenge of communication because of language.

Language Partners, an organization in the MU Women’s Center, works to help non-native English speakers practice conversational English while on campus. The program helps with both language connection as well as the overall acclimation to Columbia.

Language Partners pairs one non-native English speaker with a native English speaker on campus to meet once a week for an hour and practice conversational English together. Partners can talk about whatever they want, whether it be academics related, culture related or just about daily life.

Emily Tarby, the MU Women’s Center graduate assistant in charge of Language Partners, has been with the program since last year when she began working in the Women’s Center. Tarby says the purpose of the program is not only to help non-native speakers practice English, but also to allow both students involved to learn about a different culture.

“Native English speakers, especially on campus in the midwestern U.S., don’t really have significant exposure to people of different backgrounds and cultures,” Tarby said. “I could only imagine what it would be like to come from a completely different country and not know anybody and not know any customs or culture. Giving them this space to be able to learn about the country they will be learning and living in for a while … makes them feel connected to our community here at Mizzou.”

Tarby says although she’s worked hard to improve outreach for the program and grow the organization overall, her favorite part of the job is watching relationships blossom between the partners despite the cultural and language differences.

Sophomore Shakira Cross signed up for Language Partners last year as part of her Women’s Center volunteer application. Although it was initially required, Cross decided to sign up again this year because of the personal connection she felt with her partner.

Cross credits her connection with her partner last year to growing up with her mother, who is an immigrant. Her experience with her mother, who is not fluent in English, helped Cross form a connection both with her language partner last year and her partner this year, while also motivating her to explore her own culture she grew up in. Cross appreciates the cultural awareness she gets from being a partner despite any differences in language, age or culture.

“I don’t think there should be a barrier in order to have a meaningful conversation,” Cross said. “It’s not because you don’t understand that person and what they’re saying, it’s because you aren’t taking the time to carefully listen to that person that may not be able to speak English well. Just because a non-native English speaker cannot speak English to a standard that American people have doesn’t mean that they’re dumb or that they’re uneducated.”

Cross and her language partners spend their weekly hour simply exchanging cultures. Last year, Cross and her language partner did a cultural exchange with food, where Cross ate traditional Chinese food and her partner experienced an American burger. Cross says that with her language partner this year, food and hobbies are common conversation topics.

Younghyeon Jeon, a Ph.D. student from South Korea and Cross’s language partner for the year, says she most enjoys talking with Cross about daily life and American culture.

“Last time we talked about some policy, like Kim Jong-un and Trump,” Jeon said. “We talk about food and just the difference of culture. Last time we talked about K-pop. It’s just daily life. I learned about many useful words such as retail therapy and freshman 15. These words that aren’t in the dictionary.”

For Cross and Jeon, the cultural differences are what makes the language partner program fun, not challenging, as both see it as a way to learn more about a different, new culture. Cross hopes to learn more about South Korean culture to limit and correct assumptions or stereotypes that may come up. For Jeon, she’s hoping to make a native friend outside of her academic studies.

“It’s a really good opportunity for international students,” Jeon said. “In my department it’s hard to make friends because they’re really busy and they have to study their area, so it’s very difficult to meet friends in other departments.”

Friendships are the main goal of Language Partners in Tarby’s mind. In her time with the program, she has seen several relationships form, some of which take native English speakers to their partner’s home country. Seeing those relationships bloom is what Tarby finds the most rewarding.

“I’m a huge proponent of human connection,” Tarby said. “I love the fact that relationships have totally blossomed in this program and I hope that every participant can at least create some sort of relationship or connection with somebody else in the program, whether it be their partner or not.”

Edited by Janae McKenzie |

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