As an international student in Canada or the USA, one of the most difficult challenges you’ll face are English language barriers. Even if you are fluent in English, there are many factors that make conversing with native speakers difficult. Fortunately, there are ways you can make things much easier on yourself!
We recently spoke with Caleb House, a former international student who has lived abroad for most of his adult life. Originally from Northern California, Caleb has lived, worked, and studied in 10 different countries. He currently resides in Prague, Czech Republic and is an expert on living abroad.
While Caleb didn’t struggle with English, he has faced a number of challenges living as a foreigner in other countries. Caleb was generous enough to share some tips on how international students can overcome English language barriers. You can also watch our entire interview with Caleb in the video below!
*Quotes in this story have been edited and condensed for clarity.*
1. Accept that you will fail… a lot
Learning a new language is a long and difficult process, so there’s no point in being hard on yourself when you make mistakes. As Caleb points out, even students who are fluent in English will hit cultural barriers they may not expect.
“The native speaker form of the language is something completely different from what’s usually taught in schools or even what you see in the movies,” Caleb explains. “Native speaker leave out everything they don’t need. You’ll hear people say ‘Goin’ to the store.’ Who’s going in the store (laughs)? This happens in every single language – what you hear on the street is completely different than what you’ve learned.”
Rather than become frustrated by these sorts of barriers, accept that this is all part of the experience of living in a different country. “It’s hard for everyone,” says Caleb. “It’s not just you. You didn’t fail English, this is completely normal.”
2. Join a club
One of the best things students can do when they’re first attending university or college is to join a club that interests them. It could be anything – sports, board games, movies.
“Most Canadian universities have tons of student clubs and they love to have new members,” explains Caleb. Your English language “will matter less” in this situation because there’s not as much pressure to speak fluently. “You quickly [make] friends over your common interest and are not limited by your language … So that’s a really good way to start.
Make sure to research which clubs are being run at your own university and college. You’re bound to find something that interests you!
3. Have an icebreaker phrase for difficult situations
An invaluable tip shared by Caleb is to have a phrase ready if you are not confident in your English language skills.
As a native English speaker, Caleb makes a point to learn the phrase “Do you speak English?” in the language of the country he’s in. This way, the person he’s speaking to knows he’s a foreigner and he’s then free to “do whatever’s necessary to communicate.” This can be applied to any language – just insert your native language in place of English into the phrase above.
4. Ask people to slow down
One of the main problems with speaking to native English speakers is their speed can be hard to keep up with. This can be very frustrating if you’re trying to improve your speaking skills. If you find yourself struggling to keep up with someone’s speech, Caleb suggests telling them “I’m sorry, English isn’t my first language. Could you slow down a bit?”
This way, you’ll let them know you’re not a native English speaker and you’ll improve your chances of understanding each other. “Don’t pretend to be fluent if you’re not,” warns Caleb. “It doesn’t help anyone. Just try to be very honest about what you can and can’t do.”
5. Use every tool you can
If you’ve spent years learning a language, you may be reluctant to use translation tools. After all, you put in a lot of work to get where you are. Using anything other than your own brain is just cheating, right?
However, Caleb argues that at the end of the day, the most important thing is to be able to communicate. “We should never hesitate to use all the tools available to us,” says Caleb. “If you’re having a conversation with someone but it’s breaking down, why not pull out your phone with the translation app and speak into it?”
In addition to translation apps such as Google Translate, Caleb also recommends using props, such as pictures of your family or home country, that you can easily show people. This is an easy thing to fit into conversation that also tells people who you are and why you’re living abroad.
A pen and paper is also great to have. You can have someone write down a word you’re having trouble understanding. Alternatively, you can write down what you’re trying to say if the person you’re talking to is having a hard time understanding you.
6. Don’t get stuck in your own language group
As a newcomer to Canada or the USA, it’s only natural to want to seek out others who speak your native language. Being homesick is quite common when living in a foreign country and surrounding yourself with people from your home country can help make your new living situation more comfortable. However, this can easily backfire and stall your progress in adjusting to your new home.
“The temptation to just hang out with people who speak your language is going to be constant and extremely strong,” explains Caleb. “But [if] you never push yourself out of your comfort zone, that’s a problem. It’s about that balance of always getting a little bit better, learning your own limits but knowing there’s a goal in sight.”
In this case, the goal is to improve not just your English language skills, but your ability to navigate the cultures and customs of a foreign country.
For more general study abroad tips, check out our blog post 5 Tips for New University and College Students.