This guest post was written by Maria Martin, an international graduate student currently on co-op.
When I fist came to Boston, about three years ago, I started to study English and I spent a considerably part of my time and money in writing, listening, speaking and grammar classes. I don’t regret what I did. But after being here for a while, I realized that the best way to learn English is through real experience with Americans. Here are a few tips that will help you to improve your overall English skills without spending tons of extra money and time.
1. Talk to your professors.
Do not be afraid to ask as many questions as you can during classes (what’s the worst thing that can happen? Nothing!). Many international students do not raise their hands because they do not have the words to say what they are thinking. Don’t be afraid. If you already got into college, then you are capable to find the words even if you make mistakes.
I love to volunteer. There is nothing as gratifying as helping others. There are a lot of positive aspects of volunteering; first: you are helping someone, second: you can use it in your resume (for those who have no experience at all), third: it helps to improve your English skills. Boston has plenty of organizations you can work with. Google them, ask your advisor for help or connect with the Center for Community Service on campus. For example: I am volunteering as a Mentor in the Big Sister Association of Boston.
In my first year in Boston I found a really good person who mentored me for a few months while transitioning from my English course into my Master’s program. We spent hours and hours talking about a variety of subjects, and even thought it was difficult for me to understand, I tried my best to keep track of our conversations. Now, I can understand my friend perfectly and I can talk as if it were my own language. I encourage you to find a mentor in your area of study. There are a lot of professional organizations that offer mentorship programs, one being the Boston Product Management Association. Speaking with your mentor not only will help you to improve your English skills but also your career and networking.
4. Wise commuting.
Most of our commuting time is spent on our phone texting, listening music, etc. but do you think that this is worth your time? Why don’t we listen to NPR (National Public Radio) or read one of your favorite books in English? We need to realize that we have a barrier: language. So we should do everything we can to reach our goal. And if your goal is just going back to your home country as soon as you graduate, it will be pretty good to have a resume with a working professional proficiency level of English. On the other hand, if you are planning to get a job, well spoken English is a must.
5. Follow your instincts.
Most professionals recommend avoiding talking in your native language in order to perfect your English, but I believe that is a not realistic advice and honestly just 0.0001% of students apply it. It’s important to talk to friends and family back home and when living abroad, its comforting if not necessary to hang out with friends who share the same language and cultures as yourself. The key is to have balance. Make practicing and improving English a priority, but also make time to speak in your native tongue.
6. Small talk.
Every culture has its own small talk topics when networking. In my country, talking politics is common- that’s not the case in the US. There are plenty of topics you can talk about in American culture.
One of the most important: weather. It might not seem too interesting and very broad but Americans love talking about the weather- how can you not bring up the blizzard we just had?! Another topic: sports. Personally, I think talking about sports is boring. I know all of the major American teams and I can muster basic small talk around sports, but nothing too deep. If you don’t feel attracted to those topics you might want to get the Metro Boston Newspaper (Free in most MBTA stations) or just go to CNN.com. Small talk will help you make new friends and learn more about American culture- while simultaneously practicing your English!
7. Change your devices.
Finally, change all your devices to English. Your phone, ipad, computer, etc. Everything should be in English. And be careful: Do not get use to just one American friend; there are a lot of accents (even inside Massachusetts).
Implement all of my tips, or start with just one that works for you. In a few months you will be able to understand and speak better. There are things that can’t be taught; practice is the only way to achieve what we really want.
Maria Martin is pursuing a Master in Project Management at Northeastern University. She is currently doing a full time paid co-op at NSTAR in the Marketing and Sales Department. You can contact her at email@example.com