Language HUB supports international students on the Women’s Basketball team

Elif Bayrak is posing by laying down on the ground with a basketball under her head.

It’s summertime, and members of the Fresno State Women’s Basketball team are peppy as they meet in a large classroom near Bulldog Stadium. Standing in a circle, Dr. Jaydene Elvin, professor of linguistics, leads a drama-inspired exercise called the “energy game.” 

“Hello,” Elvin says in a near whisper voice and gives a small wave as she starts the activity. 

Going around the circle, each player repeats, “hello,” a little louder than the last and waves a bit more dramatically.

“HELLO!” the final player shouts while waving vigorously. 

Elvin eggs her on, “Okay, louder.” 

“HEEELLLLLOOOOOO!” she screams at the top of her lungs, waving both arms frantically as she lunges into the circle. Her teammates all laughed at the spectacle. 

The exercises help with vocal projection and bring the energy level in the room even higher. But more than that, they seem to get the students in a playful mood and create an open environment free of the typical classroom reservations.

This year, eight of the 15 players on the Women’s Basketball Team are international students. They hail from New Zealand, Australia, Turkey, Brazil, Bulgaria, Denmark, Spain and Germany. Because the student-athletes come from several countries that speak languages other than English, Coach Mandy Carver and Carlie Corrigan, the director of student-athlete development, reached out to The Hub for Language Teaching and Learning for help in organizing English as a Second Language (ESL) sessions for international students athletes. 

“It was important for The Hub for Language Teaching and Learning to work with our women’s basketball student-athletes because it was identified through feedback from previous international student-athletes that having the opportunity and resources to acclimate upon arrival at Fresno State would have positively impacted their experience,” said Corrigan.

Dr. Jaydene Elvin points at the screen while instructing the Fresno State Women's Basketball Team.
Dr. Jaydene Elvin points at the screen while instructing the Fresno State Women’s Basketball Team.

After conducting an assessment, Elvin and American English Institute Director Cheryl Chan found the students were doing fairly well with grammar and had basic English skills. However, they needed help using English in real-world settings, such as going to the bank, getting groceries, seeing the doctor or communicating with their teammates on the court.

All eight international students on the team participate in the ESL course – including students from English-speaking countries. 

“We want that team building within the team,” explained Dr. Jaydene Elvin. 

First-year basketball player Elif Bayrak agreed, sharing her experience, “It’s not just about English. It also improves our team chemistry. We are all playing games and having conversations.” 

Elif Bayrak shoots the basketball during practice.
Elif Bayrak shoots the basketball during practice.

Bayrak came to Fresno State from Ankara, Turkey, where she was a member of Turkey’s national team pool and Turkish Super League side Cankaya University. Last season in Turkey, she averaged 14.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 33 percent from the three-point line. She was also named MVP of the game three times. 

“Basketball gives me really good opportunities for my future,” Bayrak said. ”It’s really good to be in this family environment.”

Bayrak said the sessions helped her bond with the other players.

“Communication is one of the most important things on the court. We are always communicating with our teammates both on and off the court. They all speak English, so I need to speak English with them too.”

Bayrak is majoring in business at the Craig School. Like all student-athletes, she must study hard and get good grades to stay on the team. Between classes, homework and practice, most athletes have very little free time. 

As Bayrak explained, “English is really important for me. If I can’t graduate from even one of my classes, I will lose my eligibility.”

The initial course over the summer consisted of daily classes over two weeks for international students. Additionally, the entire women’s basketball team participated in three sessions of exercises that were designed to improve their speaking and presentation skills while fostering team bonding. 

“We don’t have any writing. It’s not about that,” said Chan. “We really want to focus on the spontaneous use of language.”

Back in the classroom, the women split into three-person groups – two students whose first language is English and one who practices English as a second language. Each group was given a fake Powerpoint to present to the rest of the class. The phony slides were ridiculous, and the students took turns ad-libbing the presentation. The exercise is meant to foster language skills while giving the students the confidence to speak publicly in a stressful but fun, game-like environment.

As the basketball team prepares for the season, The Hub has brought in linguistics students from Elvin’s service-learning course to serve as conversation partners and tutors. Students have also run two team-wide sessions this semester.

“It’s really fun. It’s not like boring normal classes,” said Bayrak. “Usually, we are playing games, and these games improve our English.”

“This program has helped in conversational communication amongst the team and supported them in learning from one another,” Corrigan said. “The interactive curriculum both taught functional skills as well as encouraged students to interact outside of their comfort zone and bond through each activity.”

The Hub for Language Teaching and Learning fosters language learning and teaching opportunities and promotes using best practices by language teachers. Fresno State undergraduate and graduate students are often at the forefront of The Hub through teaching community language classes, offering teacher training and developing language resources.

“Dr. Elvin and her team are great to work with. They built a curriculum that met the team’s needs and really embraced the unique experience that is intercollegiate athletics,” Corrigan said.

The Fresno State Women’s Basketball Team season begins at 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4, at the Save Mart Center against the San Francisco State Gators. The first six games of the season are home games, so there is plenty of opportunity to watch our Bulldogs in action.

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Fresno State College of Arts and Humanities Communication Specialist

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