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Question of the Week: Learning and Studying in English

  • Jessica Stahl

This week's Question of the Week was about keeping up academically, especially when English is not your native language. How difficult is it to compete with your American classmates? What's been the hardest part about taking classes in English? How can you make sure your English is good enough when you arrive?

We got so many good responses to this question. Here's what some of you had to say:

Kaze (posted to
I’m currently studying engineering in the US. One thing I love about engineers is that we don’t care that much about language structure. As long as the project reports / lab reports can be understood by the one who’s grading it, it is good enough. Of course I have to write essays for my liberal arts classes. I realized that it took me longer than my fellow American classmates to write a piece of essay. But I still manage to do it before due dates. During summer, I had native speakers to tutor me one-on-one on English writing. Basically we focus on how to organize the contents, facts, and arguments when writing a paper. The results had been wonderful but I’m still learning.

The most difficult part about studying in English when it’s a second language… Well, when I first arrived, the way the Americans speak sounds so unfamiliar to me. I also translated English to my native language and it cost me time to process the information. It is inconvenient when the pace of the class is fast. My first semester wasn’t that great. Then, I changed the way I think and the way I process new information. Translating English to native language is bad, I avoid doing it.

Farima Afaq:

I think it is really hard when an international student comes first in the US, because they would find the education system very different, especially if they are from a totally different country. Later on they can always adjust and gradually they will do great if they try hard.

When I first came to the US, my English wasn’t really good, but it improved a lot as I stayed longer in here. While I was studying in a public school called Burlington High School during my first year, even though my English skills wasn’t really good, but I worked really hard in my classes and I got really good grades.

When I started studying at Kent school which is a private school; I found it more challenging in academics, and also I got involved in lots of other activities. Therefore, I got busier and I have been working much harder at Kent school. Fortunately I have been successful in balancing my academic life and social life at Kent, and the reason has been scheduling my time usefully. I don’t spent my time doing things that is wasteful such as video games, or hanging out with friends all the time that some kids like doing it.

Nareg Seferian:

For my own part, having grown up in India, where English is current, plus watching plenty of American TV and movies, I spoke English just fine and was quite well-acquainted with many aspects of the popular culture of the States. Things crop up every once in a while, though, which are unfamiliar. More than the language, it is historical or cultural references which throw me off, or, say, baseball metaphors, or analogies having to do with driving cars for long periods on highways... very "American things", with which it may be difficult to identify.

[Tara agrees – take a look at her post on getting through exams]

As far as our curriculum goes, it is academically uphill for everybody - local and foreign students alike, and I'd even say the faculty! What's particular to St. John's College is that everyone is required to study Ancient Greek during the first three semesters. It's hard enough when English is a second language, but to learn a third, dead and grammatically-complicated language through English? That's a real challenge for many of our international students. But one they are willing to face, otherwise they wouldn't be at St. John's.

Li (from - a senior at Ohio State University:
I’ve been in the US since I was five, so I can’t really comment on how hard it is. But I do have some friends who are new to the country and from what I’ve seen, the hardest part is keeping up with the speed of the lectures and finishing all of the reading. Some professors talk incredibly fast, so it is hard for non-native speakers to follow and write down the important points he/she is saying. I’ve also seen my friends struggle with the amount of reading that is required. Because they tend to read at a slower pace, they often get done with the reading much slower, sometimes having to read it twice to understand it fully.

It would be an excellent idea to go to your school’s office of minority affairs, or office for international students. At my school, they give out practice tests or previous midterms for international students to study from. They are definitely very useful.

Yanno Yamster (posted to - a Malaysian going to study next year in Australia
I for one speak mostly in English at home; mixed with Cantonese and Malay (it's not uncommon amongst Malaysians to use multiple languages when speaking) so English isn't exactly a second language for me. It gave me an advantage during my schooling years as it was not very difficult for me to tackle subjects taught in English. Hopefully this will continue on in my university life. :)

However, I have one little problem: When I speak casually, I tend to be very liberal with grammar. I am aware of my slips, but sometimes I just can't help blurting out in Manglish (Malaysian English). I'm worried that this will hinder a smooth communication between me and other students in Australia and therefore I'm trying to suppress that tendency as much as possible. I am hopeful that I can soon speak flawless English without hesitation.

And another thing I wish to add:
Accents can be quite a problem if it's too thick... While Americans are mostly comprehensible (thanks to various media exposure), I'm not too sure I can keep up with thick-accented Australians...

Terence Kelly:

The most discernible difference between Anglophones and ESL students has been when it comes to public speaking, which counts for a considerable amount of your final grade in Baruch's Public Affairs program. ESL students are certainly on par in terms of academic performance, but when it comes to presenting in front of peers, a lot of my classmates have expressed enormous anxiety about delivering their arguments effectively and getting their points across.

While faculty members recognize the disparity between non-native speakers and American students, they also emphasize the need for graduate students to be comfortable addressing large audiences. In my Introduction to Public Affairs course, all students must present on at least one reading and are graded on argument, visual presentation, delivery, pacing, and engagement.

While everyone harbors at least some fear of public speaking, my Polish friend in class mentioned that ESL students have the added pressures of triple-checking that their slides are grammatically consistent, using appropriate pacing when messaging their thesis statement throughout, and being certain that their word choice is clear and doesn't betray the original argument. My impression is that the experience is a lot more labor-intensive than that of a traditional English-speaking student.

And many thanks to our fabulous commenters, including Karzel from Karzeliana, who added these thoughts about learning English:

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