Non-native English speakers are a vital part of the UI workforce, and Jane Gressang of Staff Language and Culture Services helps them become more comfortable in their work environment.
She teaches them the nuances and subtle meanings of the English language, as well as the cultural differences between the United States and their native country.
Gressang’s office offers English as a Second Language instruction for new and existing staff members, hosts an English conversation group to improve English skills, and assists staff members who work regularly with non-native speakers. Gressang teaches Spanish classes for English-speaking staff members, convenes a Spanish conversation group, and provides cultural training, interpretation, and translation services.
Along with language and culture specialist Peter Rohrbough, Gressang works with about 100 faculty and staff clients each year. Clients range from food service workers to phlebotomists to researchers. Recent clients have come from Turkey, India, South Korea, Japan, and countries in the former Soviet Union; as a result, she hears a wide range of languages among her clients—Spanish, French, Chinese…even Swahili and Russian.
Fluent in Spanish and capable in Chinese, Gressang has doctorate and master’s degrees from The University of Iowa in linguistics, and came here after earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from the University of Virginia. She spoke with fyi about her job and her interest in rowing.
What should faculty and staff remember when working with English language learners?
You have to be willing to cooperate. It does take longer to have a conversation with a person from a different cultural background because you don’t have all the shared knowledge to build on when you’re trying to talk about something. But many times you run into some really interesting ideas, because they will see things that you won’t necessarily see.
With a non-native speaker or someone who speaks a different language, the content, accent, or grammar can be a problem, but many times the bigger problem is understanding what the person is actually trying to say, and trying to discover what their meaning really is.
What advice do you have for English language learners about American language?
There is an impression that Americans are very direct, but for criticism and for commands, we are not direct. For example, if someone tells you it’s “pretty good” it means, “do it over.” And if you’re going to criticize someone, a hard thing to learn is how that is done politely in another culture.
A few of my favorite things…
Vegan cupcakes at Fair Grounds coffee house
Doing RAGBRAI this summer on a recumbent bicycle
My running of a marathon
My four guinea pigs
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Staff Language and Cultural Services: www.uiowa.edu/hr/
To learn more about Hawkeye Community Rowing and the adaptive rowing program, see recserv.uiowa.edu/Apps/Programs/
Even proficient language learners, whose English has little accent, might still experience cultural differences that are problematic. In the workplace, giving or receiving commands can be a problem. For example, Americans don’t say, “Do it”; instead they might say, “You know, if you have time, do you think you could look this over?”
What is a surprising aspect of your job?
I thought that people working on their English would want their managers or co-workers to know, but I found a lot of people don’t want that.
You row with Hawkeye Community Rowing and you coach an adaptive rowing program for persons with physical and intellectual disabilities. What prompted your interest in rowing?
I was living here as a grad student in 2001 and I took a Learn to Row class with a friend. She decided the boats were too heavy to carry and didn’t go back, but I continued and I’ve been obsessed ever since.
Every year now I go to at least one regatta, usually an indoor one and a couple outdoor ones. There are two separate seasons, a sprint season and a long race season.
What do you enjoy most about rowing?
Being in the boats. It’s really soothing, but it’s not easy, either. When you’re in a boat, you’re with other people, and you need to row together. It’s a repetitive motion and it has a nice rhythm to it. I also need to focus, so it’s calming, like meditation.
Another thing I like about rowing is that it’s a sport that you can easily start as an adult. Very few people learn it as a child, unlike baseball or other team sports. The Learn to Row program is for everyone, from high school students up to 90 years old. We try to adjust the equipment or stroke to make it accessible for everyone.
How did the adaptive rowing program get started?
I love rowing so much; I try to make everyone I know row. The response I sometimes get from people who don’t get involved is that they are not physically able to row, and that bothers me. I read something from U.S. Rowing about an adaptive rowing campaign. LlynnAnn Luellen was excited too, so she and I visited the University of Louisville’s adaptive rowing club last fall to learn how to do the adaptations.
Because the rowing stroke can be segmented into the legs, trunk, and arms, adaptive rowers may row all three parts of the stroke, trunk and arms only, or arms only, depending on their physical capabilities and comfort level.
Last spring, a law student who is blind learned to row—she was amazing and fearless. She was carrying the boat in one hand and her cane in the other while we were telling her to walk up to the edge where the dock meets the water. She did everything herself and was on the Iowa River the second day, so that was really great to experience!