During COVID-19 lockdowns in March 2020, Missouri State University offered a “virtual friend” program for international students who were unable to travel back to their home countries.
The program piqued the interest of Deborah Cron, clinical professor of speech-language pathology in the communication sciences and disorders department. She volunteered and formed a friendship with an international student from China.
Then she had an idea.
Many international students arrive at Missouri State wanting to improve their English speaking. This was no different for Cron’s virtual friend.
In summer 2020, Cron and Jinzi Fan, China programs specialist, developed a program for SLP graduate students to meet virtually with international students to practice pronunciation techniques.
“When COVID hit, the Chinese students I work with were suddenly isolated,” Fan said. “But they were still eager to learn. This program is an opportunity for them to improve their English beyond their classes.”
The virtual program continued via zoom after campus reopened in fall 2020 and is now a flourishing partnership between SLP and International Programs.
Staying connected through culture
For SLP graduate students Monica Ballay, Hanah Braden, Ashton Doza and Brendyn Petty, the program gave them a different perspective of culture.
“We learn a lot about the international students’ cultures working with them,” Braden said. “But we also learn about our own culture, as we explain the context of certain terms and their pronunciations.”
Yidan Ge, an international student from China who participates in the program, echoes that sentiment. Ge appreciated learning important aspects of American culture, while also making progress with her English.
“I’ve only been in the States for a year,” Ge said. “So, it’s been really nice to stay connected with this group and be able to practice during the weirdness of COVID.”
The goal of the pronunciation sessions is to help them produce speech sounds that non-native English speakers use in their mother language. The students also learn context, vocal inflection and sentence structure.
“We never want to erase someone’s native accent,” Cron said. “The goal is to make their English understandable.”
Ge says English slang, vowel sounds and plural pronunciations are what she struggles with most.
“Take ‘clothes,’ for example,” she said. “I used to pronounce it like ‘clothe-is.’ But this group has helped me work on those plural pronunciations.”
How to participate
Students, faculty, staff, alumni, even community members coming from any language background can sign up for upcoming sessions by sending an email to Deborah Cron.
Include “English Pronunciation Groups” in the email subject line.