In Tuesday’s post, we explored some of the difficulties in learning English. Its hybrid nature and reams of archaic rules confuse even people who think they are fluent. In a way, it’s like reading about those absurd laws that are still on the books in various cities and states: you’re always probably violating something, but unless you get caught, you have no idea.
However, while mastering all the complexities is not an easy task, there are ways to improve your fluency in both written and spoken English before it is time for you to study in America. If you have been accepted to a school, you of course speak some English (and obviously if you are reading this you can read in English) but “knowing” and “feeling comfortable” are two different things.
The Language Instinct
The thing about speaking a language is that it has to become instinctual. Your native language is an instinct; even if you don’t consider yourself a very good writer or speaker, you know how to talk. You might have to think about words, but you know how they go together, how sentences form, generally-speaking what word to use where- all the things that make up conversation come naturally.
That isn’t the case with a second language, but the goal is to make it that way. And the most important thing to do then, oddly, is not worry about grammar. You will go crazy trying to remember every single rule that we talked about on Tuesday, and that list barely even scratched the surface. If you spend your whole time thinking about what to say, you’ll become paralyzed, and never actually get to say it. But how then will you learn?
These days, it is easy to be immersed in a language from anywhere in the world, and doubly-so with English, the common language of business and pop culture. I know of a Bosnian refugee who initially learned English from watching Tom Cruise movies (and who was then pretty disappointed when she got to America that we all didn’t look like him). But watching, listening, and reading can give you a pretty good idea of how languages sound when they are spoken.
And, of course, you have to speak it. But you’ll find that speaking comes easier when you listen to other people. It’s interesting- all languages sound faster when heard by foreign ears, but that’s because we don’t recognize the normal breaks. When someone speaks to you, you know which words are which, so even if there are no breaks in them (“I-just-got-back-from-the-store”) when spoken, your mind immediately creates those breaks after known words.
When you immerse yourself in a language, you start to learn those breaks. The language then slows down, and you become more comfortable speaking it. It’s strange magic, but it works.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
We all know people who are so scared of messing something up that they never try anything at all. Don’t be that person. There are always jerks who make fun of those who aren’t fluent, but you’ll find they are few and far between. Most of the people in your school will be glad to help you, and will understand that you are trying. And don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself if you make a mistake.
In other words, remember that languages are a living thing. They alter and change, yes, but they only exist because we want them to do so. When you are speaking, you will find a flow and a rhythm of your own, and you will begin to feel comfortable without even recognizing it. At some point, language isn’t something that you are trying to learn; it becomes something that you possess. You make it yours, and it is in your brain.
Just remember that there are going to be stumbles, and that you won’t ever know everything there is know about a language. Recognize that, and you’ll be comfortable and culturally-fluent before you even know it.
The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.