Michael O'Neill, language specialist in the Office of International Affairs (courtesy of Michael O'Neill)

Bridging the language gap for international students: SLANG Club


The transition to college may be overwhelming for first-year students, given the adjustment to new friends, routines and classes. For some, it also requires acclimating to a new country with a different official language.

According to Lehigh’s Office of International Affairs, international students make up 16% of the student body with representation from 83 different countries. According to the Office of Institutional Research & Strategic Analytics, there are 950 international students enrolled in 2023, some of whom face language barriers. 

Looking for a way to help students mitigate these barriers, Michael O’Neill, language specialist at Lehigh’s International Center for Academic and Professional English, recognized the importance of using English in practice to develop fluency. To help students improve their conversational English, he started the Social and Language Aspects of North American English and Grammar (SLANG) Conversation Club.

“You have to use language to practice it and improve,” O’Neill said. “It’s like a computer program — your brain has a language system.”

When working with students, O’Neill said it is best to use a communicative approach and avoid lecture-style teaching methods. He said interactive activities help students adapt to the student-centered teaching approach used in most American universities — a technique that is rarely used in foreign schools.

O’Neill said students involved in SLANG go into the Bethlehem community to use conversation in practice and witness examples of real language being used in everyday interactions.

He said he finds some students are afraid to speak or write “too much” because they don’t want to encounter errors.

“Errors are nothing to be afraid of,” O’Neill said. “They’re a natural part of learning.”

Karla Rincon-Martinez, ‘26G, an international student from Mexico and native Spanish speaker, said before coming to Lehigh, she found speaking English difficult.

Rincon-Martinez said she was primarily taught how to read, write and listen to the language instead of speak it. She was also taught British English, which differs from conversational English in the United States.  

She said the best method of learning English is simply through practice.

As someone who used to attend SLANG Club meetings, Rincon-Martinez said formal classes for non-native speakers tend to be more technical, while club meetings emphasize practicing English instead of memorizing grammatical rules. 

“When you are trying to speak in another language, you are always thinking about trying to speak like you are a native of the language,” Rincon-Martinez said. “You are struggling with, ‘Are they understanding me? Are they going to find out where I’m from?’”

Learning how to emphasize and stress proper words in English is tough, she said, as Spanish tends to be more monotone. English sayings also differ greatly from Spanish idioms. 

Akanksha Gavade, ‘26, an international student from India who speaks Hindi and Marathi, said she went to a school where the curriculum was taught in English, which helped her feel more comfortable speaking it. 

Yet, she said there are still distinct conversational tactics and mannerisms that she had to get used to. 

“The biggest barrier would probably be the accent because that can make it hard for people to understand what international students are saying,” Gavade said. “This is also true for the other way around because sometimes it’s hard for me to grasp what an American student is speaking.”

Gavade said she developed her English speaking skills through exposure to digital media — watching Netflix, reading books recommended by English professors and hearing other people talk helps her practice. 

For Gavade, refining her conversational English helps bring out her personality.

“You could be a very smart and funny person, but that’s probably in your original language,” Gavade said. “Translating that into a language people here can understand — that’s very hard.” 

Rincon-Martinez said she wants native English speakers to approach multilingual students with an open minded and an understanding of how they may view things differently in their native language, as it benefits the whole Lehigh community.

She and Gavade said having spaces to use native languages can help people learn about international countries and languages.

“It would be nice if there were student clubs where international students could come and speak their own language or display some art forms like poetry or writing in their own language,” Gavade said.

O’Neill said treating multilingual students with empathy is important because of how isolating it can feel to study in a new country with an unfamiliar language and culture. 

Through honing language skills, he said he hopes SLANG will prevent students from being quiet out of fear of appearing unintelligent. 

“If you have multilingual group members or classmates, realize that they may not understand implicit things about American culture and conversation,” O’Neill said. “Share what these things mean, and be an ambassador of American culture. Never think of somebody as an international or outsider because they’re just a fellow member of the Lehigh community who also happens to be multilingual.”

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