Before coming to UB, Anelya Nazarbayeva didn’t know Buffalo wasn’t a neighborhood in New York City.
But for Nazarbeyeva, a polyglot and the daughter of Kazakh diplomats, this was the first in a line of surprises. Her biggest surprise — and challenge — was just how difficult it was to keep up with all the English being spoken around her.
Nazarbayeva had been fluent in English for three years prior to enrolling at UB, but she still struggled to keep up with the speed of her classes and the niche academic vocabulary she was being exposed to in the classroom.
“My first year, I was struggling a lot,” Nazarbayeva said in an interview with The Spectrum. “ I took nutrition and I took political science classes, and I couldn’t understand [what] they would say. So I spent a lot translating... [I was] spending a lot of time in the library.”
Nazarbayeva isn’t alone in her struggles. The Spectrum spoke to multiple other international students who say they have struggled to keep up with the English being spoken in the classroom, despite some of them being fluent or near-fluent in the language. UB has programs to support these students while they are freshmen, but the university has few resources past their first year.
Nazarbayeva said she would write down words her professors used that she didn’t recognize. After lectures, she would spend as much time as she did in the classroom trying to figure out what certain words and concepts meant.
“I understood my professors, but in the beginning, I had a hard time focusing when they would speak very fast,” Nazarbayeva said. “Like, ‘Oh my God, this is too fast for me. Can you like, slow down?’”
Nazarbayeva is not a stranger to new languages: she is fluent in Russian, Kazakh and English. She also knows some French and Arabic and is currently learning Spanish and Italian. One day, she hopes to be a translator.
UB currently hosts 4,426 international students — 1,424 of whom are undergraduates. The majority of these students come from India and China. Students also come from countries like South Korea, Turkey and Canada, among dozens of others, many of which don’t recognize English as the national language.
UB receives three times as much tuition revenue, on average, from international students, graduate students and out-of-state students than from in-state undergraduate students, according to the school’s Annual Operating Budget Report for 2020-21. But decreasing international enrollment totals have presented the university with financial challenges.
Despite its reliance on international students for tuition revenue, UB offers these students few English learning resources past their freshman year. A UB spokesperson didn’t respond to The Spectrum’s question in time for publication.
UB’s English Language Institute, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary and is housed in the Graduate School of Education, is intended to bridge the gap between textbook English and conversational English, according to Tim Cauller, ELI’s director.
“All students come here with a varying amount of [English language skills] because everyone is a pretty advanced user of English by the time they get to UB,” Cauller said. “But there’s a gap between their textbook classroom knowledge that they have from English classes back home.”
The ELI offers courses to international students based on their standardized English language fluency tests, which indicate whether they should be placed into ENG 100Z or ENG 105Z — the latter of which counts toward the Communication Literacy 1 requirement for the UB Curriculum — or ENG 411Z. The “Z” code indicates that the course is specifically reserved for international students and is taught by professional English as a second language teachers.
The university requires the vast majority of international students to submit an English fluency exam, according to Cauller. Students can choose between TOEFL — Test of English as a Foreign Language — IELTS — International English Language Testing System — PTE — Pearson English Language Tests — and DET — the Duolingo English Test.
UB’s average TOEFL score for accepted freshmen was 82% in 2020-21, while SUNY Binghamton’s average accepted TOEFL score is 80-95%, according to its website.
Cauller noted that support for international students through the ELI does not extend past the three courses offered during students’ first year at UB, but he seeks to expand resources going forward.
While English is commonly spoken as a second language in most Asian countries, it is not the primary language. This means that students like An Vo, a senior finance and data analyst major, may still struggle with their coursework.
“[The adjustment to learning in English] was definitely so challenging in the beginning and sometimes even now,” Vo, a native Vietnamese speaker, said. “I was first able to listen and understand the professor speaking about 60-70% [of the time]. I still [had] to pay extra effort to completely understand the lectures. However, as time went on and with the perfect environment of having everyone speaking English [around me] and forcing myself to think in English, I started to get more comfortable and was able to think and speak faster.
“As my education level goes on, there’s still hardship along the way. I remember recently I almost burst into tears because of a very long and advanced reading about finance. My reading started to get more complicated. The terminology in the major is more advanced. So I think I have to try harder every day.”
Vo also says she stopped speaking English as frequently because of the pandemic, which has made it more difficult to converse now that things have opened up.
“As a bilingual, at first I usually have to think before I speak,” Vo said. “There’s times when I can’t come up with the right words to say. I remember it definitely happened a lot during COVID-19. Many activities were limited, I barely [spoke] English and [started] to think in my own language more. This made me struggle when I tried to speak fluently in English [again].”
Sanskriti Bansal, a freshman economics major, who has studied and learned in English for years, says she struggled in class at UB.
“I’ve studied in an English medium school ever since [childhood],” Bansal said. “However, catching up with the American accent was hard. I had to pay utmost attention to grasp the difference between, say, can and can’t. With masks projection has been tough. Not having developed the accent makes it harder for native American [speakers] to understand what I say.”
Grant Ashley contributed to the reporting.
Julie Frey is an assistant news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Julie Frey is a senior news/features editor at The Spectrum. She is a political science and environmental studies double major. She enjoys theorizing about Taylor Swift, the color yellow and reading books that make her cry. She can be found on Twitter @juliannefrey.