December 13, 2017, by Agata

9 language barrier issues that international students experience!

When I was growing up in my country (Poland) I wasn’t even aware of how comfortable bubble I live in. Being a native speaker of the country you live in is pretty comfortable. But you do not realize it until … you move out to another country.

Moving out is a chance but also is a big challenge. However, that challenge is worth to face.

In this post, I would like to share with you how I managed to deal with the language barrier and I hope it will help other people who need to move abroad! Also, I would like to address this post to native speakers as it may help them to better understand us (international people).

In 2013 when I moved out to the US I was too shy to write a post on my Facebook wall in English to my own friends! Today, in 2017 I sit down writing a post on this blog in English to unknown people. Does it mean my English has improved to a native speaker level? Of course not! I am aware I make a lot of mistakes. However, since 2013 I just challenged myself and understood a couple of things.

1. When I finished my high school I was one of the best students in my English class group. Later on, at my University in Warsaw, I have attended mandatory English lessons to be able to pass B2 level exam in English (which means Upper Intermediate*). I passed. At that moment my English education in Poland has finished. Enough. No more lessons. That was the year 2011. Two years later, I was sitting on the plane to the US. I was supposed to spend there one year, doing research in one of the Universities. I was bit terrified. Two months before the flight I heard from one of the closest people for me (at that time) that he thinks I won’t manage over there with my English level. … You know what? I am happy I did not listen to this ‘great’ motivational advice and did not resign from that international experience in panic.

2. In the US I experienced a language shock. I did not understand many people. All my polish colleagues there had better English than me. I saw (or heard) it. What could I do? Go back to Poland? Nooooo option! Crying? Of course not. Stop communicating with people? Nope, too difficult for such a talkative person like me. So… The only option was to stay there, keep calm and not worry! Actually, just staying there already was doing its work! 😉 With every week, every person I talked to, every seminar I attended to… my English was getting better and better. Throughout a year I experienced many funny moments when I misunderstood people or said something I did not mean. However, the only possible option to react on that was to explain and laugh! (Even when you realize that you were using the expression “done not at all” thinking it means “almost done” in conversations with your supervisor!). I probably did not realize all improvement I have made until our final presentations. After a year spent in the US, I stand up in the seminar room to give my first talk on the front of English speaking audience. The presentation went very well and I realized – huh – a year ago that would not be possible! 

3. In 2015, on the first day I moved to the UK I felt that, somehow and magically, I have done a step back in my English. Again I did not understand people! On the train from Birmingham to Nottingham I did not get what a random person has said to me! It had made me feel uncomfortable. How is that possible? Am I in English speaking country? Later on, I learnt that in the UK accents are so different that sometimes even native speakers do not understand each other! I also realized that it is easier for me to talk to somebody from south of the UK rather from the north (Scottish accent, OMG! 🙂 ).

4. There is an argument which I heard many times and which really helps to convenience myself that I am not completely useless with my English. My native language is just different than English. Polish is much different! It comes from a completely different group of Slavic languages. But hey! A lot of English native speakers do not speak any other language, or not at that fluent level like international students! So… there is nothing to be ashamed of! 

5. A big problem which was making me frustrated at the beginning was that I did not get the topic of some casual conversations. Very often that was due to the cultural differences which I was not aware. Simple example: when people were talking about a film called ‘Home Alone’ – in the first moment I did not realize that they talk about the famous film which almost everyone knows. I felt like a nerd not knowing what they talk about. But then Hey! It was not due to the fact I am a nerd but because I just know this movie as a ‘Kevin Sam w Domu’ – sounds completely different, right? That is the simplest example in the sea of examples of misunderstandings. It is normal that for years and years of your life you were just growing up in completely different culture, where almost every single movie, toy, type of sweet, game, company, street etc. etc. has its own name! Back in your country, you learn these names through all your life. It is normal that in England you will not know what native people talk about at the beginning! 

6. Slang! Wooow, that is the big one! Who is going to teach you English slang back in your country? Even, if some teacher at school would do – which slang they should teach: American, British or maybe Australian? They differ so much! To get slang it takes time. Takes years.

7. Phone calls! Hey, how many people hate calling in their not native language? 🙂 I am a very social person, I just love to talk, but when it is coming to phone call in English – I just run away. Why? I never know what will be the accent of the person I am going to talk to. I do not see the facial expression of the person I talk with and it does not help! Soo… Giving basic info like your address or date of birth through the phone can take ages. I know it, we all international students know it! But keep trying! I was so happy when (after a year living in England!) I managed to call my mobile phone company and make a deal with a person with a Scottish accent. Hurray! :)) 

8. Expressing emotions. Let’s face it: at school on the English lessons, we learn names of basic emotions. However, we all are people with sooo many and sooo various feelings that actually expressing them in our own native language is just difficult! So hey! What if you come to a new country and you suppose to explain to somebody what you feel: happiness, anger, frustration? Which word to use: delight, joy, amusement, beanfeast, fling when you just feel happy? Or what if that is something like regret, sorrow, grief, remorse, compunction, grudge? No worries, it is normal you won’t be able to express your emotions in English at that level as you would like to!

9. Right now, when I am writing a blog post I know my English is not excellent. But shall I give up? Never! Better to make little steps and improve rather than give up and leave it! Same with you My Dear!  To see my improvement I need to see the starting point!

So GOOD LUCK and CONGRATULATIONS to everyone who takes on a challenge and moves abroad! 

*Scale in learning foreign languages starts at A1 level, then goes to A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 – which is the highest level of proficiency.

That is my last post before Christmas break so I want to take a chance to wish MERRY CHRISTMAS and HAPPY NEW YEAR to all of you! :))


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