Weinberg junior Saskia Wiesebron doesn’t have an accent. Speaking with her, you wouldn’t guess that she grew up in France in a trilingual home, where The Beatles played from the stereo as voices spoke in Dutch on a television set in the next room. As a half-Dutch, half-American girl growing up outside of Paris, Wiesebron seamlessly switched between Dutch, English and French in her daily conversations. Though she had never actually lived in the U.S., as an American citizen, she thought that the transition to college at a predominantly English-speaking university would be natural.
“I kind of expected it to be like going home,” she said. It wasn’t.
For Wiesebron and the hundreds of NU students whose native language isn’t English, spending four years at an American university like Northwestern can be an incredibly different experience than that of the typical NU student. Living in a world surrounded by a language other than your own brings its share of complications. Though the experience is smoother for some than others, one shared phenomenon seems to affect all students who speak another language: moments lost in translation.
Though Wiesebron grew up speaking English with her American mother and is fluent in the language, she never received formal instruction. Taking classes in English for the first time in her life posed an unexpected challenge.
“It felt like I had to learn how to be in class from scratch,” she said.
Hi, my name is Adam Pečeňa, and I’m a senior in the School of Communication. I’m from Prague in the Czech Republic, and I speak Czech. My favorite thing about the language is how richly descriptive it is with its adjectives.
Not only did Wiesebron find herself exerting extra effort to write papers or express complex ideas in class, but she also had to adjust to the more casual culture of her classes and the informal relationships between professors and students.
“I didn’t realize that not having an American education would impact this so much,” she said. “It was very overwhelming at first.” Wiesebron wasn’t completely unprepared, though. She had absorbed her fair share of English media at home. So had Weinberg freshman Georgios Kepertis, an international student from Cyprus who speaks Greek and Russian.
“Even before I came here, most of the media I consumed was in English,” he said.
Kepertis, whose mother is a high school English teacher, started learning English when he was eight or nine. All of his classes were in English in high school, so his academic transition to Northwestern was fairly smooth.
Like Wiesebron and Kepertis, many students at NU whose primary language isn’t English still come to college with a solid foundation in the language. Weinberg senior Guilherme Chen, a Portuguese speaker from Brazil, started learning English in sixth grade and felt familiar with both the language and culture. Like most middle schoolers in the U.S., Chen grew up watching American TV and playing American videogames. The plotlines confused him at first, but as he absorbed more English, the stories began to make sense to him. “I understand everything about how Americans work and how Americans think,” Chen said.
Still, he notices differences between himself and his American friends at school.
“I wouldn’t say I’m Americanized,” he said. “My way of being is a little different than my roommates.”
At first, Chen was caught off guard by the romanticized perception of American college culture. He explained that, in America, there’s an expectation that college will be a larger-than-life experience, like a storyline from a movie.
“I think they have this notion that college is this big deal. They say it’s going to be like the best four years of your life, or something like that,” he said. “In my country, it’s just a very regular, very everyday thing. You just go and study for a few years to get a degree and then you start your life.”
The intensity of the American college experience came as a surprise. But with time, Chen adjusted.
“After four years, I’ve kind of gotten used to being surrounded by Americans,” Chen said.
Medill freshman Tala Salem quickly adapted to the American culture at NU as well. She grew up in Jordan speaking both Arabic and English and watched American cartoons from the time she was little.
“My first words were actually in English,” she said.
But Salem has always thought of Arabic as her primary language. Though she and her parents speak fluent English, they prefer the informality of Arabic dialogue.
“I think jokes are funnier in Arabic,” she said.
Certain things just can’t be translated. Since coming to Northwestern, Salem has struggled to navigate between languages, searching for particular phrases and idioms, sometimes without luck.
“I sometimes feel like I’m at a—loss of words? Loss for words? I’m at that point right now,” she said.
Chen explained that some words lack a direct translation and get lost in the mix during conversations with English-speaking friends. The technical terminology related to his economics and mathematics majors have posed the biggest challenge for Chen, since he’s mostly learned them in English. If he goes back to Brazil to work, he’ll need to know the professional jargon in his own language. Kepertis also worried about these gaps in his vocabulary.
“I have no idea how to explain physics or math to someone who speaks Greek or Russian,” he said.
Wiesebron expressed the frustration she feels when she fishes for a word swimming just beneath the surface of her consciousness, unable to catch it.
“Right now, I’m trying to think of a word, and I can’t think of it,” she said, laughing.
The students all seemed to notice an ebb and flow in their languages skills. The more time they spend at school, the more their English improves. And the more their other languages fade.
Chen felt that his writing skills had declined a bit, so he started to write in Portuguese again for practice. In the eight months that she’s lived in the U.S., Salem has developed an American accent, which makes her parents a bit uneasy.
“Why are you pretending to be American?” they ask her.
Without frequent opportunities to practice her Arabic, her native tongue has lost its fluidity.
“I went back to Jordan for winter break, and one of my mom’s friends told me that I now speak like a foreigner.”
So, Salem now tries to surround herself with Arabic as much as she can. Though she and her friends used to only listen to American music growing up, she found herself craving the melodies of home when she came to college.
“You never appreciate your culture until you’re abroad,” Salem said.
Besides listening to Arabic music, Salem feeds her hunger for home by scrolling through pages of Arab food accounts on Instagram and Facebook. Salivating at the images, she can practically taste home. And when she yearns to feel the Arabic alphabet on her tongue, she calls her friends and family.
“I feel like talking to my friends and family just so I can speak in Arabic, and so I can get sort of the feel of the Arabic culture again,” she said. “And I always like to listen to their stories and bond over our shared culture.”
When Wiesebron wanted to feel more at home as a freshman, she gravitated towards French-speaking friends on campus.
“We would rely on each other a lot to talk through weird encounters and things that happened to us,” she said. “It was nice to talk to them; to talk about all of the cultural things that go along with coming from a different country.”
But finding an identity as a trilingual student on campus hasn’t been easy for Wiesebron. She’s not technically an international student, even though she grew up on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. She speaks fluent English, but it’s not her only native tongue.
“There’s the whole identity crisis,” Wiesebron said. “’What’s your native language?’ I don’t know. ‘Where are you from?’ I don’t know.”