I am studying at an American university in a town with a primarily white population and a very diverse international population of study abroad students. Since I speak Japanese and I am friends with long-term Japanese university students, I usually meet most of the Japanese exchange students at the beginning of the year. When they meet me, they are very excited that I speak both English and Japanese, and they request to meet with me to practice English conversation. I understand the desire to improve in a foreign language so of course I agree to meet with them, even though I am busy with my graduate research. During the first few weeks of school it seems like I won’t have time for my own research with all the commitments I make for English conversation. That’s not the case!
In the long term, I find that most of the Japanese students don’t follow up with their request for English conversation. I usually become close with one, maybe two, of the Japanese students who actually invite me specifically for English conversation meetings. It seemed weird at first to me, because even if we weren’t friends, I would have thought that Japanese students would want to meet up with me to practice their English.
That sounds conceited, but when I was studying in Japan I tended to make friends more with people who had an interest in America or English language because they were usually the most friendly. It was also intimidating to approach people to forge friendships, and I was always happy when the other person started a conversation. So why is it different with Japanese students at my university?
Study abroad programs facilitate different levels of interaction
I think that in my case it has to do primarily with the differences in the study abroad program for American students in Japan and the program for Japanese students in America. In many study abroad programs for American students in Japan, the American students are segregated in housing and classes with other foreign students. In study abroad programs for Japanese students in America, Japanese students are usually combined in dorms with the American students, and have more independence in terms of study programs and classes. Japanese students become more easily integrated into the American university, while the American students tend to be segregated with other foreign students and have a separate curriculum from the Japanese students. The result is that Japanese students can more easily form friendships with other students because they have more opportunity to directly interact with them in classes.
Japanese proficiency isn’t always ideal for English conversation
While I am able to speak Japanese and English, this is not always a good thing for a Japanese student who wants to improve their English. Since I can speak Japanese, sometimes this is less demanding than speaking with a person who can only speak English. If there is a phrase or word they cannot understand, they can simply ask me rather than trying to come up with the phrase or word on their own. Also, they can revert to speaking totally in Japanese if they get tired of speaking English. This is a barrier to improving English rather than being useful.
English conversation pairing programs are useful for effective pairings
My university used to have an English conversation program, but due to funding cuts the program was cancelled. It’s a shame since this program was a great way to pair foreign students with English-speaking students were interested.
My Japanese university had a school-organized language lounge. Every week at the same time they would open the lounge for a different language. These types of school-sponsored programs are important in facilitating learning for foreign students.
So how can you make friends through English conversation?
It seems like it’s difficult to find English conversation partners and then make friends with them. There are language barriers, cultural barriers, and time constraints for everyone involved.
So how do you find a Japanese student to speak English with or an American student who wishes to speak English with you? I can only rely on my experience, but I hope this information is helpful to others! In particular, I’m directing the following advice at students at university.
1. Join an international club
If your university has an international club, it’s a good idea to check it out during the first few weeks of class, since most international students will attend the first few meetings (and then maybe stop coming). Approach the Japanese students (or whichever nationality you’re interested in interacting with) and ask them questions about themselves. This is the easiest way to break the ice.
2. Volunteer at a language center/international center
Visit the international office, the English language center, or other internationally-oriented organization on campus. Try to volunteer for events such as promoting the study abroad programs, speaking with international students who have just arrived in America, or any other events that will put you in contact with international students. Then, approach the students and ask them questions about themselves.
3. Hang out at the international dorms
Often, a university will place international students in a particular dorm, so if you know which dorm is the international dorm you can often mingle with the international students. Make sure not to be creepy though (see below)!
How NOT to get a conversation partner and make friends:
1. Be creepy
Approaching foreigners you don’t know and asking them for dates, asking them for personal contact information, or generally being creepy is not a way to get a conversation partner, and it is not the path to friendship. I think this applies pretty universally, but I’ve seen it happen surprisingly often. I’ve even been guilty of being slightly creepy myself (unintentionally).
2. Expect to get free Japanese lessons
Language exchange is a great option if you’d like to practice Japanese and the Japanese student wants to practice English, but make sure to reciprocate in a language exchange. If you expect to have someone teach you Japanese for free, the Japanese student will eventually stop meeting with you because there is no benefit for them. This is just common sense in human interaction, but I’ve seen a lot of American students who just want to have a personal Japanese teacher. Japanese students can make the exchange one-sided as well, so make sure to tell them that you want to practice Japanese as well.
Have you tried English conversation or language exchange? What was your experience like? Do you have any good recommendations for finding conversation partners or making international friends?