Studying in another language

Aleksandra Dlugokencka

Faculty: Science and Engineering
School: Psychology
Course: MSc Clinical Child Psychology
Category: Psychology

19 February 2014

A computer keyboard button with the word English on it.

Have you ever wondered what the experience of studying in a different language is like? Are you a bilingual or multilingual student who already knows all about it?

I’m a native Polish speaker and have been learning English since, hmm, 1994 let’s say. That was my first encounter with a foreign language. Any foreign language we learn at school however, is a lot different from what we can imagine when going to a country that uses this language in real life. The way in which English is used in everyday life, here in England, is very different. For example, the grammar rules we learn in Poland are not really adhered to and there are many expressions that cannot be learned ‘artificially’. What you can learn at school, even if you think you’re at an advanced level, is probably around 30% or less of what you can achieve by living in that country, speaking the language every day, being around native speakers, watching TV, reading magazines and then one day, you just start thinking in that language! Even dreaming…

So how was (is) it for me to study in English?

A directional road sign
Not so bad, and very exciting!

First of all, I lived in England for two years prior to my studies, which helped me a lot in becoming confident with my English. I was quite good before, and fluent when speaking, but it’s just some sort of barrier that needs to be broken once you come here and start to speak with ‘real’ people, when you are able to say exactly what you feel and want to say.

So, when I first attended my classes I had no problems with understanding the lectures or communicating with my classmates. Of course, because I’ve chosen to study Psychology, which has a humanistic side to it, a lot of reading and writing to be done, there were some words I had to translate, such as ‘basal ganglia’ or ‘ubiquitous’. Somehow managed :)

At first it was difficult and very time-consuming to write a 1,500-word essay, now it comes much easier and quicker. Why? First, experience in writing essays. Second, if I’m thinking in English I don’t waste time and my cognitive effort on translation. I just know what I want to write and I do it. So, a piece of advice for anyone struggling: try to stop translating and understanding EVERY word, I know it’s difficult, but try to understand a sentence without knowing exactly what every word means (unless it’s a crucial word). Train your brain to skip the words that are not essential for understanding that sentence or paragraph.

My grades weren’t the best when I started studying, mostly Bs and Cs and a rare A, but once I learned the correct format of an essay or a report that most native English speakers were used to, I got better, and better. Now I only get As and Bs. So there is hope!
The Union flag
There are some international students who come here straight from their country and experience kind of a jump into deep water, going from the English they learned at school to English at a university level, which is different and often challenging. I personally know people, lovely people, who said that they did not understand their first few lectures at all! They were just sitting and listening, trying to get used to the language. What a waste of time, I thought, as all the lectures are so interesting (if you choose the right subject of course!). But nevertheless, they are still here, not struggling any more, as through some hard work anything is possible.

So, if you’re thinking of studying abroad, try coming to that country first, learn some ‘real’ language, get to know the people and the culture. Even a couple of months can make a difference to your studying experience, and I’m sure you will make some friends too.

Image credits: English keyboard by Stuart Miles; Signpost by Stuart Miles; Union Jack by franky242.


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