How International Students Can Practice Speaking English

For prospective international students who want to study in the U.S., the language barrier does not need to be an obstacle. There are several ways students can work on their English speaking skills before and after arriving on a U.S. university campus.

Prospective international students can improve their English-language skills by listening to podcasts and watching TV shows and movies, as well as spending a summer on a U.S. campus to immerse themselves in an intensive English program, says Elizabeth Cashel, an educational consultant with Cashel Educational Consulting in New York.

[Read: Build Academic English Skills Before Arriving at a U.S. College.]

Here are a few ways to practice English that international students should consider:

— Download a language app or English podcast.

— Watch TV.

— Learn English from U.S. instructors, locals or mentors.

Download a Language App or English Podcast

One option for prospective international students is to use an English-language app like Duolingo or listen to English-language podcasts like the British Council’s LearnEnglish podcasts.

“Successful communication requires both understanding what others say and being understood by others. This means that improving spoken language skills involves training both listening and speaking,” says Bozena Pajak, head of learning science at Duolingo.

Pajak encourages students to use headphones while using the free Duolingo app so they can get familiar with the sounds of the language and learn the sound-to-letter correspondences. “In the long run, this will help you with both understanding and speaking the language,” she says.

[Read: 4 Free Tools to Help International Students Improve English Skills.]

Podcasts can also be helpful and often have transcripts, a written version of the audio, which allow users to listen and read at the same time.

Chris Cavey, open learning manager for the British Council, says the aim of the scripts for the LearnEnglish podcasts is “to reflect the variety of situations in which learners would have to listen and speak in an English-language environment.” The British Council is one of the owners of the International English Language Testing System, or IELTS, a standardized English proficiency test.

The LearnEnglish podcasts are for pre-intermediate or intermediate learners, according to the website, and cover everything from fictional drama and jokes to quizzes and language advice.

Watch TV

Experts say TV sitcoms have more realistic contexts of the English language and can help prospective international students improve their conversational skills, teach them about various cultural references and give them a better understanding of different kinds of humor.

Adam Cookson, academic operations manager for Kaplan International, says students often think they need to read in-depth academic articles or reputable newspapers. While these can be good when studying for proficiency tests like the IELTS or TOEFL, they may not help when wanting to sound natural talking in a cafe or bar.

“The language used in tabloid newspapers, sitcoms, reality TV shows or soaps is likely to be far more like the language you hear outside than the English used in The New York Times or political documentaries. Spoken English is full of slang, idioms and phrasal verbs, and those are the places you are most likely to come across them,” Cookson says.

“I grew up loving Western shows and music so as a person whose native language isn’t English, learning it was the only way I could keep up with and understand those things,” says Hien Nguyen, a freshman from Vietnam at the University of La Verne in California.

Nguyen, who has not yet declared her college major, says she would often challenge herself by following along with a movie or podcast without using subtitles in her native language.

Anusha Arshad, a psychology major at Roosevelt University in Illinois, says growing up in Pakistan she used to watch different TV shows, such as the Nickelodeon channel’s “Drake & Josh.”

“I feel those TV shows have also helped me a lot in improving my accent and becoming fluent in speaking English,” Arshad says.

Learn English From U.S. Instructors, Locals or Mentors

Prospective international students may also want to consider learning American English through a summer program on a U.S. university campus.

“One of the best ways for international students to improve their English-language speaking skills is to participate in an English-language intensive program,” Cashel says.

She says many U.S. colleges — such as Pace University in New York, Yale University in Connecticut and Columbia University in New York — have such programs during the summer. To apply to Yale’s Intensive English Program, for example, students must submit an online application, application and visa processing fees, financial documents, a photocopy of their passport, two letters of recommendation if they are under 18 and a high school transcript if they are currently in high school, according to the school’s website.

Another option, Pajak says, is for students to practice their conversation skills by joining a Duolingo event near them or by finding a regular conversation partner among friends.

“To truly learn a language, you have to use it. No way around it,” Pajak says.

School mentors can be great guides, too, and help students learn how to interact with everyone from Uber drivers to shop owners. Many U.S. universities, like Northeastern University in Boston and Georgetown University in the District of Columbia, offer new international students mentors or student ambassadors. For example, the University of California–Davis has global ambassador mentors who are current undergraduate students that help international students adjust to campus, learn about American culture and practice intercultural communication.

[Read: Why International Students Should Connect With Mentors at U.S. Universities.]

Nguyen says she spoke often with her school’s director of international admissions, who helped answer her questions about American life before she arrived on campus. She says having attended an international school all her life, she was already in the habit of practicing English with friends from diverse countries, which has helped improve her skills naturally.

“English is the universal language that helps us connect with each other,” Nguyen says.

Arshad recommends students strive to speak English as much as possible without the fear of imperfection.

“This will enhance their confidence, and once a person has confidence, then nothing is hard for them. And as we all know, practice makes perfect,” Arshad says.

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