It's all English to me

Let’s be serious, learning English as a second language – especially Southern American English – is no piece of cake, especially when folks say things like “piece of cake” and call someone the “apple of my eye” and that they’d “walk through fire” for a friend.

It’s enough to make an international student yell “it’s all Greek to me!” if only he knew what that meant.

Making sense of these turns of phrase, these clichés and idioms that pepper much of our speech is the role of the conversation partner in the University of South Carolina’s English Programs for Internationals.

The partners, typically Carolina students, but sometimes faculty and staff, help international students learn the “lay of the land” and “get a handle” on college life.

“It’s important because our students are strangers in a strange land and they really don’t understand our culture,” says Alexandra Rowe, director of EPI at Carolina. “Often when a bond is established, when they get to know each other well, then the EPI student is comfortable asking questions they might not be comfortable asking a teacher.”

Questions like, how Americans use eating utensils; whether a sign advertising a “Garage Sale” means someone is selling his garage; and why signs prohibit “standing” in certain locations.

“There are little things that are all around us out in the community that we wouldn’t necessarily teach in class because we wouldn’t think of it,” Rowe says. “But if they are just walking along, they might see something and ask about it.”

Rowe says the Conversation Partners Program is almost as old at EPI, which is more than 40 years old, and is essential to helping EPI students become more familiar with the language as well as the culture.

“Our students need to have English language input targeted at them, all around them as much as possible,” Rowe says. “It accelerates their learning.”

Although there are tales of conversation partners and EPI students who formed such a bond that they later got married, that sort of interaction is discouraged, says Ann Janosik, a co-coordinator of the Conversation Partners Program.

“A lot of our students really enjoy having someone their own age to talk to,” Janosik says. “USC students are such a wonderful source of information about college life, not just daily life in America, but negotiating life on a campus. It’s a big change.”

The UofSC students get a chance to meet someone from a part of the world they may never visit. Some University 101 students volunteer to satisfy their global experience component.

“This can give some of our USC students a cross-cultural experience. It can open doors of interest and even of opportunity,” Janosik says. “Some very good friendships have been formed over the years.”

The only downside to relying heavily on students for conversation partners, she says, is the summer session when enrollment is significantly lower. That is when the program needs faculty and staff to step in and fill the void.

“There’s no prep involved, no work. You just agree to meet for an hour a week," Janosik says. “It’s just talking.”

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This story originally ran in the December issue of USC Times, available on ranks in most academic buildings on campus. If you are interested in being a conversation partner, visit the program website

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