After studying English as a foreign language for more than 10 years in her native Spain, attending summer courses in neighboring England and visiting New York, Washington, D.C. and other U.S. cities on vacation, Lorena Arroyo affirms she still hasn't mastered the language.
Arroyo, 28, said she has done everything to improve her understanding and lose her accent, including paying friends $20 per hour to speak English with her.
The irony is that Arroyo works for an English media organization. She was hired more than two years ago as a web producer and moved to Miami to report on world news for the English media organization's Spanish-speaking readers. However, not being fluent in English has limited her job opportunities.
“They’re offering correspondent positions and they want candidates to be fluent in Spanish and English. I didn’t apply for them, even if I would have like to, because I’m not bilingual,” she admitted.
Arroyo is part of a class of immigrants who arrived in the United States expecting to beef up their English skills. Ivy League universities, state colleges and private institutions have opened their doors – with newly created English as a foreign language programs - to an influx of students from around the world.
Among them is Vallentin Villalbi, 31. He traveled to the U. S. from France last summer, after getting accepted into Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. Villalbi paid over $2,000 for a three-week intensive English course to acclamate before beginning work on his MBA degree.
“The cost to benefits ratio - that’s an MBA notion,” he explained, “is pretty good. I have a little brother. I’m pushing him to study English because when you’re working, doing business or technical industries, you have to be able to speak English.”
U.S. universities are more eager than ever to attract international students and professionals for academic reasons as well as for financial ones. Virtually every higher learning institution would like to increase this population of students who, in general, pay full tuition.
A report released on November 14 by the U.S. State Department and the Institute of International Education showed a 5 percent increase of international student enrollment in the 2010-2011 academic year. The number of students in Intensive English Programs also saw a sharp increase.
Mohammed Alshahwn, 19, arrived from Saudi Arabia 6 months ago after winning a government-funded scholarship. He has all of the entrance requirements to apply for admission into a U.S. college - except a high score on the IELTS, an exam that tests English proficiency for students who seek to enter American universities. Alshawn takes English courses at Inlingua, a language center in Washington D.C., to help him prepare for the test.
“I got a 5.5 before I came here," he said. " I got to reach a higher score because I’m going to apply to good universities like University of California at Berkley. It’s required a 6.5 for IELTS as SAT or ACT (tests scores)."
But immersion in an English-speaking environment can be difficult in big cities with immigrant communities large enough to insulate students from everyday situations that demand English.
“Living in Miami is speaking Spanish the whole day if you want to,” said Arroyo.
In Miami-Dade County, Hispanics represent 65 percent of the population. “It’s difficult to speak English, especially when they hear that you have an accent and that you are Spaniard. They automatically go to Spanish rather than to start speaking in English,” she noted.
Alshahwn also has had great difficulty finding environments where only English is spoken, since most of his classmates are Middle Eastern.
“There are many Saudis and Kuwaitis (in the classroom) and you talk to them in Arabic. You don’t learn a lot of things,” he explained.
These students’ reasons for refining their English language skills vary, but are supported by statistics showing English as the most globalized language. According to Bloomberg Rankings, the English is the most useful language for international business.
“I’m learning English because I know it’s now the global language nowadays,” said Arroyo about her two-day-a-week course. “If you don’t know a language, if you don’t know how to express yourself, it is as if you don’t know many things.”
To reduce costs, the English media corporation Arroyo works for is trying to share and translate content.
“It’s almost impossible (not to have an accent) when you arrive as I arrived here, in your twenties almost thirties,” Arroyo said. “I want to be fluent, I know that I will always have an accent, but it’s not a problem for me."
Kathleen Specter, Inlingua Program Coordinator, said most students come for help on practical tests, oral interviews, language fluency, academic requirements, and a wide range of everyday situations where English is required. Inlingua’s prices range from nearly $1,100 for 18 hours of private tutorials, to $750 for intensive morning programs, and $600 for afternoon classes focusing on accent reduction.
According to the the Open Doors 2011 Report, fees paid by international students like Arroyo, Villalbi and Alshahwn contribute to the coffers of many of these companies and inject billions of dollars to the U.S. economy thanks to tuition fees and living expenses.