This semester, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to work in an ESL class as a teaching assistant, or in the jargon of the ESL program, a native speaking assistant. Essentially, I help international students who are already proficient in English attain a higher level of fluency by working with them in small groups, collaborating with other TAs and assisting the instructor in executing his or her lessons.

In retrospect, seeing the students’ progress has validated my choice to become a TA, and I’ve gained a lot of valuable knowledge as well. I cultivated friendships with students whom I never would have met otherwise and learned a lot about cultures that I would never have had time to explore thoroughly. Finally, I learned that understanding a concept and conveying it effectively are two very different tasks.

Becoming fluent in an acquired language is a struggle. No matter how much time you dedicate to learning a language, there’s only so much the brain can process at once. Inevitably, you will have to review what you’ve studied many times in order to truly grasp the language. Memorization is not enough; simply knowing that a highlighter in French is un surligneur will not contribute to your survival.

Once language learners have grappled with developing a vocabulary, internalizing the grammar and refining the ability to understand the spoken language, they must overcome significant cultural differences. Add to this the difficulty of studying a subject like economics or chemistry (difficult enough in English) in a foreign language, and a foreign university makes it a challenging environment for students to succeed.

As a foreign language major, I experience a taste of this each day. During my language classes, I have to surrender my ability to express myself fluently. I enjoy it, but it’s not easy. Struggling to formulate a grammatically correct thought is humbling.

The difference between international students and me, though, is that I can resume speaking English as soon as I leave the classroom. It’s a shame to hear students criticize their international peers for speaking their native tongue on campus, or complain that international students only socialize amongst themselves. It’s important to remember that international students aren’t in their home country, and it’s unlikely that any of us speak their language. Therefore, it makes sense that foreign students will congregate together and speak their native language with people who share the same culture.

Should they interact with native speakers in English? Absolutely! The only way to improve your language skills is to put yourself in social situations that aren’t comfortable, where “awkward moments” abound. That doesn’t make it easy though.

Whenever I’ve tried to speak a foreign language with my friends, they are patient and eager to praise my efforts and correct my mistakes. Although there are many encouraging people, others can demoralize you.

The person who labels foreigners as strange, immediately assuming that he or she is the topic of conversation among them, or the person who demands that immigrants assimilate and speak English, are both engaging in demoralizing behavior, whether they are aware of it or not.

I hope that these people, along with other native English speakers, have an opportunity to study abroad in a foreign country, interact with the language spoken in that country, develop a profound friendship with someone of a different culture or assist someone learning English.

Everyone has an interesting story, but often those who can impact us the most experience the most difficulty initiating the conversation.