Students learn a new language: English

Courtesy Photo / Nicholas Ghiglia
ELS Logo

Courtesy Photo / Nicholas Ghiglia ELS Logo

Chelsea Lane

While many Grand Valley State University students choose to study abroad, few will ever know what it is like to enter the U.S. as a foreigner. Learning a new language and studying style can be an intimidating challenge for international students, but luckily the ELS Language Center can help them find their way.

The ELS Center teaches English and study skills to international students interested in studying at an American university. The Allendale center, founded in downtown Grand Rapids in 2004, moved to its current location in the Meadows Crossing suites on 48th Ave. in 2006 and is the only ELS Center in the entire state and one of 55 across the country.

ELS classes are comprised of 12 levels and an intensive schedule. Each level takes four weeks to complete, and students study English for almost eight hours every school day.

ELS curriculum focuses on preparing students for life at an American university, including classroom skills like academic reading, giving presentations and essay writing. The center also offers elective courses.

The 12 levels are typically completed in one calendar year and graduating students are admitted into a co-op university like GVSU, Hope College or Ferris State University upon completing the ELS program. Students in the master level classes also have the option to study at ELS in the morning then attend GVSU classes in the afternoon.

The center currently has 107 students, with 15 to 20 more joining the program next week. The students come from a wide variety of nations, including Libya, Mexico, Brazil, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and Japan. However, ELS Director Nicholas Ghiglia said approximately 65 to 70 percent of the center’s students are Saudi Arabian.

“I think part of the reason we have more students from Saudi Arabia and Libya is because their governments provide scholarships for them to study here,” he explained.

Students’ English proficiency varies and some enter into the ELS program unable to speak the language at all. But despite the international make-up of the student body, don’t expect to find a fleet of staff translators at the ELS Center.

“That’s a common misconception,” Ghiglia said. “Most people think that in order to teach English, we need to be bilingual and that we need to speak in the student’s native language. It benefits the student more by not speaking their native language. So if you came in speaking only Russian, for example, and I translated everything for you, then the student is going to get in the habit of translating and won’t develop their language skills as well as they could. We don’t speak any other languages in the classroom.”

The ELS Center also frequently looks for GVSU student volunteers interested in meeting up for “chat sessions” with international students so they have a chance to practice English and interact with people their own age.

Aside from mastering another tongue, students also are faced with the daunting task of assimilating into a foreign culture. According to Ghiglia, American food is one of the biggest cultural tests for international students.

“I think there are more fast food restaurants than there are gas stations in this state and so the food is a very big challenge for students,” he said. “If we have students, for example, coming from Muslim countries, they don’t eat pork. Then students who come from Asian countries are more used to eating noodles or rice rather than meat and potatoes… So that’s a huge adjustment.”

In addition, American schools tend to favor a more independent learning style.

“In other countries, more pressure is put on the teachers to help the students to succeed,” Ghiglia said. “If the students don’t succeed, then the blame, if you will, will fall upon the teachers… But I think on the whole, our students adjust rather quickly to the American way of life-or the Michigan way of life, if you will.”

This summer, the ELS students will have some of their daily classes in GVSU’s own Mackinac Hall. Ghiglia hopes the GVSU community will help the new students feel welcome.

“If you’re in a new country, just a smile or offering a helping hand can mean a lot,” he said.

For more information on ELS, including how to become a host family for an international student and other volunteer opportunities, visit or call 616.892.5720.

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