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CMU students help English-language learners connect with friends.

The language of making friends

CMU students break down communication barriers for English-language learners

Contact: Ari Harris

​Have you ever listened to 8-year-olds tell jokes?

"What's an otter's favorite science subject?" "Otter space!"

Children play with words, make up their own meanings and giggle. A lot.

But not every kid gets the joke. Some miss the play on words, don't understand the humor and lose the chance to participate in a crucial part of making friends: laughing.

Three Central Michigan University students are working to ensure language doesn't become a barrier to friendship.

Classroom to conversation

Chena Schlueter is a senior elementary education major with minors in English as a second language and language arts. Mackenzie Cornelison, also a senior, is pursuing a dual major in English and secondary education with a minor in ESL, and Joel Liesenberg is a senior majoring in English and completing the teaching English to speakers of other languages certificate program.

For service learning in both ESL and TESOL, the students had to volunteer for several hours in local schools or in CMU's English Language Institute, yet these three students didn't stop there.

They have continued to pursue their passion for educating others through Study Abroad, Alternative Spring Breaks and the Conversation Partners Program.

"Understanding how to help non-native speakers isn't just about teaching English. It's about helping people become comfortable in their community, giving them the tools to make friends and relate to people," Schlueter said.

cut-01mackenziechenajoel 1.36.27 PM.jpg

Mackenzie Cornelison, Chena Schlueter and Joel Liesenberg share the jokes they use to teach English lessons.

More than a Michigan need

April Burke, a member of the TESOL faculty, said the program addresses a critical national need.

"In the U.S., the number of students who are acquiring English as an additional language continues to grow. In Michigan and nationally there is a critical shortage of K-12 teachers qualified to provide these students with language support and appropriate instruction," she said. 

"CMU students who complete the ESL minor earn that qualification."

Schlueter said she worked with academically gifted ESL students who had been placed in remedial classes because they lacked the communication skills needed to advance. It frustrated her to see them held back.

"All students have the right to achieve their potential, regardless of their birth language."

Increasing comfort and confidence

Cornelison began meeting with a middle school student from Afghanistan at a local public school. At first, she worried that her own limited knowledge of the country, its culture and language would make it impossible for her to help. She quickly learned otherwise.

"You just have to want to help. It was so exciting to watch her progress and become more comfortable at school during our two years together," she said.

The student was able to start making friends more easily and participate in school clubs and activities. Along the way, Cornelison learned a lot about Afghanistan.

"Those conversations really cleared up some misconceptions I had. It was the best way to overcome my ignorance. I just didn't know what I didn't know."

Different audience, different English

For international students, the language help they need often comes in two varieties: academic and informal.

"Most of our international students have come a long way to study at CMU. Like any other student, they have big goals for their careers and their futures. They need to do well in their classes," Liesenberg said.

He tutors several students from other countries and spends at least half of every session helping them work on essays, class assignments and presentations that require formal, academically appropriate language.

But life outside the classroom is every bit as important to many students.

"Slang is fun to talk about with students. They want to know how to talk like their friends talk. They want to sound cool," Schlueter said.

Limitless opportunities worldwide

They also want career opportunities — something they have in common with the CMU students.

"English is increasingly the language of business, internationally. It's a highly desirable skill to have in a global marketplace," Liesenberg said.

He recently accepted a position to teach English to students in Japan, an opportunity that may lead to a teaching career at a university closer to home in the future.

Schlueter previously worked with refugee children and hopes to continue in that capacity. She's interested in working in refugee camps around the world to ensure that children don't lose access to education due to circumstances like war, religious persecution and poverty.

Cornelison said there are limitless opportunities for her career.

"I'd like to teach at the high school level. Or maybe teach abroad. People don't realize how applicable this skill set is or how it qualifies you to do so many different kinds of jobs."

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