Xavier Magazine

Breaking the Language Barrier

When Alvaro Alezard and his wife, Maru, came to America from Venezuela last year, Alvaro never suspected he would end up where he did—on stage at the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular at MGM Studios in Orlando, Fla. Of course, who would imagine themselves there? But that’s where he was. Front and center.

Members of the cast were picking audience members to come up on stage to demonstrate their laugh, and they nabbed Alvaro. It wasn’t where he wanted to be. He understood very little English and spoke even less. Who was this Indiana Jones fellow, anyway? Didn’t matter.

He tried to make the best of a bad situation by memorizing the questions: “What’s your name? Will you laugh for the audience?” That worked, until it was his turn. Then the cast member switched the order.

“Let’s hear you laugh,” the cast member said.

“Alvaro Alezard,” he responded.

“That was your laugh? Well then, what’s your name?”

“Ha ha hahahaha.”

For the audience, it was hysterical; he was the hit of the show. For Alvaro, he was just confused. But such are the struggles of those new to America, and such are the challenges the University faces as it tries to help its foreign-born students.

For the last 31 years, the University’s offered an English as a Second Language (ESL) program, a series of courses aimed at teaching English and prepping newcomers on the intricacies of American culture. ESL students can earn 15 credits toward an undergraduate degree by completing the four-level series of courses, which includes instruction in speaking, grammar, reading and writing with electives such as advanced vocabulary, pronunciation and conversational English. While being one of the University’s smallest offerings, it fits in with the educational mission as well as the concerted effort to diversify the student population and bring a more international flavor to campus.

“When I came to Xavier in 1954, I found that there were very few students from other countries here,” says Matt Vega, a retired modern languages professor who started the program in 1970. “The ones that were here were having difficulties because there was no program to improve their English and get them ready for college-level work.”

More than 17 million adults with limited English skills now live in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The language barrier makes it hard to get jobs, be social or further their education. The Alezards were well aware of this. That’s what brought them from Venezuela to Cincinnati.

They learned of the University’s ESL program on the Internet, and then picked Xavier because of the high quality of its business program.

“We wanted to find an M.B.A. program and ESL program in the same university,” says Maru. “We were interested only if they were in the same institute.” Upon graduating, the two plan to return home and advance their careers.

“At one time Xavier was very provincial,” says Vega. “ESL has given an international touch to Xavier’s campus.”

Tips given to ESL students when they first arrive:

• It is acceptable to say “No” to an invitation or to disagree with a colleague.

• “We’ll have to get together soon” and “Let’s do lunch sometime” are just friendly closings and not always serious invitations.

• In conversation, maintain eye contact, but avoid staring. Avoiding eye contact is not interpreted as a sign of respect in the U.S.

• Get accustomed to self-serve. You will probably not find the level of customer service in the U.S. that you’re accustomed to.

• People really do stop at stoplights, and they really do follow the laws. You must too.

• Portion size in restaurants: Yes, all that food on one plate really is meant for only one person. You may ask for a box to take home whatever you can’t eat.

• Slurping soup or noodles is considered rude in the U.S. People chew with their mouths closed and eat quietly.

• You might see a lot more of your roommate’s boyfriend than you expected.

• It isn’t necessary to bow to your teachers. And if your roommate is five years older than you are, he doesn’t have to be obeyed.


Jungle Jim’s International Farmer’s Market isn’t your average grocery store. A stuffed lion singing Elvis tunes sits near the meat counter. A replica of the S.S. Minnow from “Gilligan’s Island” rests in the produce area. The owner wears a safari jacket and pith helmet. And it’s the first place the University takes international students. Welcome to America.

Even though it’s a bit of a culture shock, Jungle Jim’s is a great place to welcome international students, says Kathy Hammett, director of international student services. The store, 45 minutes north of campus, has a huge selection of international foods, which helps ease the shock of being in a foreign land.

“Some students don’t miss their food at all, while some miss it pretty quickly,” says Hammett. “Finding foods they’re familiar with makes them feel more at home.”

Joann Jones, director of human relations development at Chiquita, deals daily with up-and-coming executives from Central America and Colombia who don’t speak English. It can be a problem.

“It’s especially important as you move up the organization that people know English since we’re an American-based company,” she says.

So when the executives get transferred to Cincinnati, she makes sure Xavier is one of their first stops.

The ESL program added a corporate component in 1996, training foreign executives from Chiquita, Procter & Gamble and the Japanese firm Itochu in English as well as American culture.

“There are lots of programs available to improve English skills,” says Steve Saxby, human resources director for global customer business development at P&G.

“With Xavier, you have that element, but you also have a holistic approach to language fluency—involvement in the M.B.A. program, training in telephone and social skills and the chance to live with a family. It really goes at it a number of different ways. It’s not just an academic approach.”

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