One of the activities in which I chose to participate was a program at CMU called Conversation Partners. The program pairs up one or two international students with a local student so that the international students can practice English conversation and have intercultural exchange. Basically, me and my conversation partners meet once a week for about two hours.
I chose this event partially because I am interested in learning about other cultures, and this exchange was a great way for us to share about where we are from in a casual environment. Conversation Partners allows me to directly exchange ideas and perspectives from people of different cultures. I also chose this event because I took Spanish and French in high school, and I found it really difficult to judge my comprehension of the language because I never had the opportunity to practice with native speakers. I would have loved to have a native speaker to practice with, and, recognizing what a valuable opportunity this is, I wanted to help provide this experience for the international students.
Conversation Partners is an ongoing activity that will take place over the course of the year. We meet in a coffee shop once a week just to talk. I have two conversation partners, Abdul and Kosuke. Abdul is a graduate student from Saudi Arabia, and Kosuke is an undergraduate student from Japan. Both are learning English through CMU’s English Language Institute, or ELI. It is interesting talking with them just in general- it feels the same as it does to speak in a foreign language, even though we are all speaking English. There are the same occasional stalls due to a comprehension barrier, because while English is my first language, Kosuke’s is Japanese and Abdul’s is Arabic, so a conversation takes more effort as a whole.
We talk about a variety of topics, ranging from family to government to the landscape and seasons. It is easy to forget that the smallest things can be different- we are all from very different areas of the world. Even the weather, for example: neither Abdul nor Kosuke have ever been sledding, because where Kosuke comes from, it rarely snows, and it never snows in Saudi Arabia. Abdul has seen the tallest tower in the world in Dubai, and giant deserts and sand dunes look like home to him. Kosuke and I have had interesting conversations about education- the typical Japanese education system is much stricter and more obedience-based, rather than encouraging more open discussion and a more casual relationship between teachers and students like in the US. In Japan, everyone starts class by standing up until the teacher asks them all to sit down together, just one example of the rigidity of routine there. Kosuke and Abdul were also both surprised to learn how common guns are in the United States- that was something in particular that stood out to them. Kosuke asked me why they were legal during one of our sessions, and I spend a good half an hour talking about the cultural differences surrounding gun culture. Kosuke has never been hunting; however, Abdul has been hunting with falcons, something I had only vaguely heard about in movies. He explained how it was pretty common for groups of people in Saudi Arabia to have a trained falcon hunt down prey.
Overall, Conversation Partners continues to be an opportunity for me to learn about the cultures of my conversation partners and to share my own culture, all while helping them practice English. It is interesting to learn how perspectives on all sorts of can be so different, such as diet and healthy eating, education, driver’s education, politics and the election… Conversation Partners has been a great opportunity for me to expose myself to individual viewpoints and broaden my perspective of this world. It is a great way to help out others with their English language as well as sharing American culture.