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While the University requires a minimum proficiency in English for both undergraduate and graduate admission, some students arrive on campus still facing challenges with the language. According to University English as a Second Language tutors, the problem is especially seen among graduate students, who often turn to formal and informal ESL resources.
For admission to the University, undergraduate students whose native language is not English or who did not attend an English-speaking school are required to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language, according to the Undergraduate Admission website. Similarly, graduate students whose native language is not English or who have not received their undergraduate degree from a U.S. university must submit TOEFL or International English Language Testing System scores.
Despite facing similar entry requirements, University ESL tutors say graduate students tend to require language assistance more than undergraduates.
“Undergraduates, of course, rarely … have a problem since they’re pretty much selected to be already fluent or close to it in English,” said Brian Zack ’72, who runs an informal English language class for members of the Princeton community who are non-native English speakers. “So the groups that we’re really aiming for are grad students, post-docs and visiting scholars.”
Graduate students who despite acceptable test scores still require assistance with English proficiency are presented with a number of options for support, including the McGraw Center’s English Language Program. The program, which helps graduate students satisfy the Graduate School’s requirement for English proficiency, provides a summer language orientation, English language courses that run throughout the academic year, an undergraduate conversation partner program that pairs fluent undergraduates with graduate students, individualized tutorials and weekly discussion groups, according to the McGraw Center’s website.
“When graduate students come in, we test them. It’s just like any placement test you would take for a foreign language, and if you don’t pass, then you have to enroll in our classes. We have an error correction workshop for students … who placed out of our classes but still want to take them, and we have a program during fall break,” English Language Program Coordinator Miki Mendelsohn said.
McGraw’s ELP focuses on communicative proficiency, helping graduate students improve their oral conversation abilities, presentation skills, pronunciation and development of fluency, according to Mendelsohn.
The numerous ESL resources for graduate students are not widely advertised to undergraduates, who are assumed to be fluent in English.
In the past, undergraduate students have been referred to the ELP by their residential college directors of studies, but none have been recently, Mendelsohn said. She suggested the lack of undergraduate participation may be because they are not coming in with severe enough problems to require language help.
“My understanding is that undergrads don’t really need help with conversation, you know, the things we work on, because they’re speaking English all the time. I don’t think there’s such a need there,” Mendelsohn explained.
However, fluency does not always extend to undergraduate students’ writing capabilities, as the Writing Center has received visits from ESL students who require assistance with the mechanical aspects of English.
Students who are both native and non-native English speakers often come to the Writing Center with the misconception that it is a proofreading service, according to Associate Director for the Princeton Writing Program Khristina Gonzalez. While the Writing Center does not cater specifically to students who require assistance with grammar, sentence structure and the flow of writing, it does help ESL students with their English by giving attention to recurring patterns and general concerns in their writing that might be the root of more specific problems, she said.
“I think that what’s interesting about Princeton and most of the Ivy League schools and our peer institutions in general is that a lot of schools and institutions like this don’t have a specific ESL office [within their writing centers], especially for undergrads,” Gonzalez said. She attributed the Writing Center’s lack of a separate ESL service to the assumption that most students who come to Princeton are faced specifically with the challenge of writing in an academic style. The transition from high school writing to university-level writing is similar across different backgrounds, Gonzalez said.
However, while this transition may be uniform in some aspects, there are still differences between backgrounds and levels of preparedness in terms of familiarity with American university conventions, Gonzalez added.
“What we do most of the time with students like that is the same thing I think every writer needs to learn about their own writing, which is that learning is a process, so even those kinds of lower-level concerns often come together after the student really understands, ‘This is what I’m arguing, these are the pieces of evidence that are allowing me to argue that and this is my motive for writing,’” Gonzalez explained. “Once those larger, higher-order concerns come into place, those kinds of second-level things do as well.”
Students looking to improve their academic writing also get help through Brian Zack’s informal class, which focuses on academic English usage. Zack started tutoring non-native English speakers 10 years ago with the Friends of the Davis International Center, where he was involved in a group conversation class run by the center.
“Several of the students there that I got to know after a couple of years actually asked me if I would do an individual class focusing more on the academic aspects because the group classes were very conversational,” Zack said of the impetus for the class’s formation.
The class does not offer any credit or any certificates. “People come for no other reason than to learn,” Zack said.
Zack’s program and the Davis Center’s conversation program tend to attract more partners of University affiliates than University affiliates themselves, Zack said. Graduate students, post-docs and visiting scholars who require assistance tend to seek out McGraw’s ELP and other formal University resources.
Zack’s classes have received positive reviews from his students. “Every week, we cover different topics — vocabulary, the grammar and idioms; we have a lot of readings. It has really helped me, especially with the vocabulary. When I study by myself, it’s not easy; it’s a lot more difficult. But the readings that Brian chooses really help us learn, not just about English but also about American culture,” Kate Park, one of Zack’s students and the wife of a Princeton graduate student said.
Zack’s class is also a useful resource for people seeking to learn English as a means to learn another subject.
“I’m not a Princeton student, but I took some classes at Princeton [as an auditor] … When you are not a native speaker and when you are not an advanced student in English, it’s hard to take those classes,” Sissi Pinto, another of Zack’s students and the wife of a graduate student, said.
Contributor Lorenzo Quiogue contributed reporting.