Whenever the advantages of earning an advanced degree in an English-speaking country are mentioned, “improving my English skills” and “practicing my English” always rank high among them. But, as the experience of many a foreign student has shown, practicing – let alone improving – your English is, as the English saying goes, “easier said than done.”
Understandably, many students studying abroad gravitate toward students from their own country or region, both for greater ease of conversation as well as to be with others who understand their cultural perspective. Valuable as such friendships are, they often get in the way of using English and refining the skills, speaking and listening in particular.
Furthermore, a lack of confidence inhibits many foreign students from putting themselves forward in English. Even when they have the confidence and willingness, students from other countries often do not know how – and where – to create situations outside the classroom in which they’re likely to learn English by using it. The following suggestions, some of them familiar and obvious, others more novel, come from clever students who have found ways to make the most of their time in the English-speaking world.
All of them agree that making as many native English-speaking friends as possible is the most helpful thing of all. That doesn’t necessarily mean living with native speakers, but if you can – in a dormitory or shared house, apartment or flat situation – you’re sure to get your English up to comfortable speaking, listening and general comprehension standards at the fastest rate, having the most fun in the process.
English-speaking students are as interested in making friends with people from other countries as you are in getting to know them. Many of them have not traveled extensively outside their home countries or continents – and are as aware as you are of the value of getting experience of the ways people from other cultures think and interact.
A good thing to avoid in making native-speaker friends is not to propose spending time together so that you can practice your English. Even though it is part of what you want from the interaction, it is only part, and it sounds less appealing to native speakers than simply asking to go out for coffee or some other appropriate means of getting to know someone. It sounds like there is work or effort involved on the part of the native speaker.
In fact, the people you approach with the idea of “practicing your English” are less like to decline your invitation because they are unwilling to be helpful than they are to feel that they are not “qualified” to teach and might have a negative rather than a positive influence on your English. The reality is that no matter how they speak English, they have something to teach you, since, as native speakers, they are examples of the kinds of English speakers you can expect to encounter in your later, professional or personal life.
Beyond making English-speaking friends and living with native speakers, here are some ways to consider expanding your English speaking and comprehension skills that take you into more formal, adult parts of the English-speaking world. In some of them, you may even learn vocabulary that will be useful for your academic discipline:
1. Go to the bank with a mission that involves fact-finding in English. As one example, it would be good for you to learn how have money wired from a foreign country – yours – into a bank account you establish in your host country. You may need it. If the branch of the bank near your university is a small one, you may just want to walk in and talk to an officer. If it is a larger bank, you may want to call ahead for an appointment to speak with someone. That would push you even farther into the trickier business of doing business – in this case simply making an appointment – in a second language over the telephone, which is one step more difficult than doing the same thing in person. You could even say that you are gathering the information for an article you are writing for your school’s foreign-student bulletin. Then you could actually write up what you learn and present the information to your fellow foreign students – even if there is no official foreign-student bulletin.
2. Go to the post office to find out how best to ship an item home. This will probably be a walk-in task, but you are likely to find postal clerks helpful if you look earnest about your need to know. Find out as many shipping options as possible, both to gather information you might really find useful but also to see how long you can sustain a conversation about a complex topic. Do not be shy about asking to have anything you are told repeated until you understand it completely. That will encourage the clerk to find other means – usually just different words – to answer your question. This is a highly important English skill: learning the different ways there are of saying basically the same thing.
3. Go to a fitness center or other facility that offers nonacademic activities you enjoy and ask about membership and privileges. Universities often have many of the facilities you need on campus. Still, you could also go off campus to investigate other kinds of activity centers – which could range from a stable that gives horse-riding lessons to an art studio. Even if you do not actually join – and do not feel pressured to; you are just investing possibilities (and expanding your English without saying so) – you are sure to enlarge your vocabulary and increase your sense of ease talking with strangers in English. They are there to provide a service or sell their product, so you can safely assume that they are already inclined to be as helpful as possible.
4. Go to a travel agent and plan a trip. The trip could be anything from an excursion in your host country – of which there are sure to be many – to a more adventurous trip to a neighboring country. Travel agents are, for obvious reasons, accustomed to dealing with people who do not speak English as a first language. Again, try to sustain the conversation as long as possible within reason. Ask about the full range of transportation and accommodation options, and see how many different recommendations the agent can make that fit with you time availability and budget. Do not feel under pressure to buy anything you do not actually want or are not prepared to do. It is normal for customers to leave a travel agent’s office with a variety of options to consider.
5. Apply for a part-time job. Even if you do not need to work part-time or cannot under the terms of your acceptance at your host university, check out nearby jobs. Inquiring about jobs is likely to introduce you to vocabulary you would encounter in no other way. Even better, if you present yourself well and make a strong, well-worded application, you could even be asked back for an interview. Interviewing is a highly valuable skill in countless situations, including academic ones, and getting all the experience you can with it will be invaluable. If you are so successful that you are actually offered the job, give yourself credit for a job already well done (fact-finding; interviewing) – and then accept the job if it actually appeals to you or politely decline it if you do not want or need it. If you were skillful enough to get one job offer, it is plausible that you got others, too. Thank the employer for the opportunity and reply that, regrettably, you have accepted another offer elsewhere.
The opportunities are limited only by the size of the community in which your university or school is located. The suggestions above are offered to give you ideas about how to use your imagination to create situations for you to expand and practice your English – without ever having to say, “Could you please help me practice my English?”