Many of Cornell’s undergraduate and graduate students consider English to be their second language. The ESL population includes individuals from many different cultures with varying degrees of English comprehension, and the University offers a variety of programs and multiple on-campus clubs to accommodate these students’ needs.
For graduate and professional students, the English Language Support Office offers peer tutoring, classes, workshops, a conversational English program and summer writing support.
Peer tutoring includes two types of tutors — some focus on writing and presentations, while others specialize in pronunciation. These tutors are usually also graduate students that have received training from ELSO. Michelle Crow, the founder and Director of ELSO, emphasized the importance of tutors’ training.
“At Cornell, there’s no applied linguistics and there’s no writing studies, so we have to give [the tutors] training in all of it — how to support writing, how to support speaking, how to tutor, how to support language [and] how to support pronunciation,” Crow said. “We do a lot of intensive training. This year, we have the most tutors [that] we’ve ever had.”
ELSO’s main offer is their half-semester courses, which students can take on a pass/fail basis for 1.5 credits — including classes on improving pronunciation, having discussions and delivering presentations, as well as four writing workshop courses.
These courses have a maximum of twelve students in order to ensure each student receives individualized attention. Although around 22 sections are offered per year, Crow noted that ELSO’s courses often have long waitlists.
Crow emphasized the significance of these courses to graduate and professional students.
“We don’t test students on language proficiency and then require certain students to take these courses. Students take these courses as electives, often on top of their regular course load,” Crow said. “For them to make time for these courses means a lot — they really see them as valuable.”
Additionally, ELSO offers a workshop series, which is not credit-bearing. Each workshop focuses on a specific area of reading and writing — such as last week’s session, titled “How to Critically Review a Paper.” The workshops are interactive and offer multiple strategies and resources for the students. They include writing exercises as well as reading comprehension exercises in order to teach students new methods of reading and writing.
The Speaking Groups Program, ELSO’s conversational English program, is a low-stakes way to help students develop English fluency in a group setting. The program has around 30 groups of three to five students. The group leaders are volunteer community members, which include retired faculty, graduate students, undergraduates and other volunteers.
For the past three years, ELSO has offered a summer writing program called “Write Together at Home.” Launched at the beginning of the pandemic, the program aimed to lighten students’ spirits in lockdown while also providing them English support. Currently, the program is four weeks long, and students form writing groups to set goals and work together to overcome language barriers.
As for undergraduate students, the University has recently started offering a First Year Writing Seminar — held this year as Writing 1380: Elements of Academic Writing — that offers a more hands-on and individualized approach to writing in order to accommodate students whose first language is not English. The course is altered to offer different topics each semester.
In addition to speaking the language, the main challenge many ESL speaking students face is adapting to American culture. Galiyan Zheng ’24, born and raised in China, struggled the most with using conversational English and understanding slang when he first moved to the U.S.
“[In] textbooks they used to teach us [to say] ‘how are you, I’m fine, thank you.’ But when you [come] here [you realize] that’s not what people actually say. People actually say ‘what’s up,’” Zheng said. “When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t even know what it meant — it was difficult.”
Speaking to the need of forging cultural connections, International Students Union provides students with a diverse cultural community and peer network.
Doğa Dinçbaş ’26, vice president of publicity for ISU, has been involved with the organization since her first semester at Cornell. Originally from Turkey, she expressed her appreciation for ISU as a resource and support system.
“I get support from ISU because it is a place where nobody actually knows English perfectly, so you can just talk and it is relaxing,” Dinçbaş said. “In the first semester, ISU was a really good place to start socializing, because it gives you a group of students that go through the same thing.”
ISU also holds a variety of events throughout the semester for both International Students and other undergraduates, such as their Spring Gala.
After spending two undergraduate years at China Agricultural University, Lucas Xu ’23 is an ESL speaker who improved her conversational English by going to club socials and talking with native speakers. She is considering further improving her English through Cornell’s teaching resources.
“I will consider the classes if my schedule is not too tight,” Xu said. “To be honest, I’m not sure if speaking with other ESL speakers would help. I prefer some organizations that can connect ESL with native speakers to practice English. In return, ESL students can teach those native helpers their first languages.”
Dinçbaş is currently taking Writing 1380: Elements of Academic Writing. The Knight Institute offers a few classes per semester that have a curriculum specialized for students that do not yet have a full grasp on the English language. Dinçbaş said she struggled with her normal FWS last semester but expressed that taking the specialized one has been a much better experience.
“I struggled with my last FWS because the English [was] too intense.” Dinçbaş explained. “I was reading Dante’s ‘Inferno’ in really old English and understanding nothing. After that, they directed me to the international students writing seminar, and it’s going amazing, because the teacher is aware that nobody actually knows [English fluently].”
Sophia Torres Lugo ’26 is a Sun Contributor and can be reached at [email protected].
Xinyu Joanne Hu ’24 is Sun Assistant News Editor on the 141st board and can be reached at [email protected].