By Molly Igoe
Elm Staff Writer
In response to the recent increase in international students attending Washington College, the Office of English Language and Learning (ELL) was created. The office of ELL primarily helps international students adjust to American academic culture, which can be very different from teaching practices in their home countries.
The Director of the ELL John Hepler believes the program is a valuable resource for international students to use not just for learning, but also for adjusting to life in a new country and a new environment. He said, “It’s important to recognize that the college campus can be a challenging environment for many first-year students, regardless of their origins. All students must adjust to the unique academic culture found on American campuses.”
Hepler’s love for language began in childhood. He grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania in a bilingual household; his family spoke English and German. Hepler said, “It’s unfortunate that my brothers and I are the first generation who can’t speak German fluently, especially since my father’s family had managed to maintain their language and traditions since the 1740s when they settled in Pennsylvania. One day, I would like to study German in order to revive the language in my family.”
Hepler majored in French at Millersville University in Pennsylvania where he studied abroad in France his junior year. His French major proved to be useful in the job market, and he was hired shortly after graduating with his Bachelor’s degree as a tour guide for an international travel firm. He then began working at Fiat where he became focused more on English, not French.
He said, “My interest in teaching English grew over the years because of my experiences with coworkers and the problems I had to surmount. While Fiat had mandated that the company’s official language was English, few Italians were willing to study it. What I found as I worked with software developers and other company employees was that when problems arose, they were usually caused not by a lack of knowledge but instead by an inability to effectively communicate as a result of the language barrier.”
This instance influenced his decision to pursue a master’s degree from West Chester University in English with a concentration on teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). According to Hepler, this is a growing field as a result of the increase of non-native English speakers coming to the US. He is currently earning his Ph.D. from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in order to be able to teach non-native speakers English at a four-year university.
Hepler believes the major challenges non-native speakers face when learning English are linguistic differences and conflicting educational traditions. “Pronunciation and grammar are two linguistic differences commonly identified when describing issues with non-native English speakers. For example, some students have problems pronouncing (and hearing) unfamiliar sounds, such as the ‘th’ sound so prevalent in English,” he said.
Another major discrepancy between American education and education in other countries are traditions in education. “Other cultures do not share our views on knowledge creation. For some, the reproduction of existing information is valued, rather than synthesis of new information, as is the expectation here. Consequently, when international students submit their first essays they are often surprised by the reactions professors have to their research and writing,” he said.
The office of ELL currently offers two courses, ELL 101 and ELL 102. Both focus on mastering the English taught in American universities and colleges. There are slight differences between the two courses. Hepler said, “In ELL 101, I focus on interpersonal communication and American writing standards. In ELL 102, the course goal is to introduce international students to collaborative learning and the standards of academic research.” The main purpose of these two courses is for international students to become more familiar with American culture and social interaction, instead of just a language class where they learn to recite irregular verbs.
Both Hepler and his international students have received a warm welcome since arriving at WC. “ I want to say how impressed I am by the students, faculty, and staff of the College. The dedication and enthusiasm everyone has for Washington College are palpable. We truly appreciate the warm welcome we have received here,” he said.