International students face challenges with classroom presentations

Emily Barske

Surveys have shown that the No. 1 fear among Americans is public speaking, but, for some ISU students, the fear is much more complex than stage fright.

“There is a lot of diversity and a lot of international students coming with different world lenses in the way that they perceive college,” said Silas Pippitt, diversity and retention manager for the International Students and Scholars Office. “For some international students, it’s not a problem at all — classroom presentations are great. Having to give a presentation is hard enough sometimes, but having to give it in not your native tongue just compounds the issue.”

Xiyuan Sun, a graduate assistant in statistics who is from China, originally came to the United States to pursue an undergraduate degree in statistics from Iowa State. Though she had limited English when she arrived, she could pick up on what people were saying through their gestures and expressions.

“At first, I was very nervous because I need to think about everything in Chinese and then translate them to English, and that takes time,” Sun said. “Later on, I learned okay, it’s not good. I need to think in English and talk in English. That’s the only way I can express myself much more quickly.”

To get used to thinking in English, Sun did a variety of things to learn the ins and outs of the language. She read magazines and novels, watched SpongeBob SquarePants and talked to employers at the career fair, she said.

“Most international students are not confident to speak a second language, even though they have a lot of thinking about this topic,” Sun said. “One reason might be they don’t know how to say that, they don’t know how to describe some of their opinions. Even though they know how to say it, they will doubt themselves.”

Sun said that she felt that the Chinese education system she grew up with didn’t encourage students to think on their own. Rather, the system taught them to listen to rules and follow what teachers said. This can be a challenge to overcome for international students with this background, she said.

To overcome the language barrier, students need to interact with people outside of their native language, Sun said. This requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone, otherwise their English skills will not improve.

“I came up with an idea: I just left my contact information on some commercial websites, then some salespersons just contacted me through that, and they recommended or promoted their products,” Sun said. “If I’m slow at that process, I can always ask questions — they cannot be like bored about my question because they are [salespeople], and they need to be patient with their customers.”

Immersing yourself in a new language has been proven to be the most effective way to learn that language, Pippitt said. The International Students and Scholars Office offers English Together weekdays from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.  and from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the Pine Room of the Memorial Union. The sessions allow international students to practice their English with other students using conversation and games. 

When it comes to public speaking, the “practice makes perfect” theory also holds true.

“That’s the best way to break the ice in dealing with nerves, fear of public speaking, is to practice that,” said Maggie LaWare, associate professor in English. “If you’re so afraid, practice it with stuffed animals and then start going to people.”

LaWare, who has taught public speaking courses, said that while non-native speakers may say the wrong words, making a point to summarize can make the message clearer to the audience, she said. If they practice their speech in front of a native speaker, they can ask for feedback about their pronunciation and clarity.

Keep in mind that the audience generally wants you to succeed, and it’s OK to go at a slower pace, LaWare said.