Three tips for overcoming language barriers as an international student

The types of language barriers you’re likely to face

In the American sitcom Modern Family, Sofia Vergara’s character Gloria Pritchett is a Colombian living in the USA. In Season 6 Episode 7, Gloria is frustrated with the language barriers she’s been experiencing and she says, “Do you know how frustrating it is to have to translate everything in my head before I say it? Do you even know how smart I am in Spanish?”

Many international students would relate to Gloria. It is indeed very tiring to think in a different language all the time. According to a 2020 study, language barriers affect the well-being of international students, be it in their academic life or social life. 

So let’s take these types of challenges one by one, and look at some example language barrier problems and their solutions.

Academic language barriers

Academic language barriers include difficulties in understanding lectures, writing essays, and sitting exams. This is one of the reasons why many universities require proof of language proficiency, such as IELTS or TOEFL.

Most undergraduate programs require an IELTS score of 6.0-7.0 whereas the minimum score for foundation degrees is usually 4.5-5.5. These admission requirements are there for a reason — your university wants to make sure that you’re ready for the course. This way, you’ll experience as few academic language barriers as possible. 

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If you haven’t met the admission requirements of your dream course yet, you can consider applying for a foundation programme that will equip you with academic English skills, study skills, and cultural knowledge.

Social language barriers

Another type of language barrier occurs in social life. In a non-English speaking country, you will encounter people that don’t speak English at all. Although you will be studying in English, it is inevitable that local students will speak their native language. Even in an English-speaking country, such as the United Kingdom, you might experience social language barriers due to cultural differences or local dialects.

Whether you’re looking to improve your English or the native language of the country you’re in, the best way to overcome the language barriers of communication is to keep on practicing. Don’t forget that everyone has an accent and that everyone makes mistakes.

Many international students hold themselves back in their social life because they think their language skills are not enough. For example, let’s say that you’re studying in a country where you don’t speak the local language. Some local students from your university are going out for coffee. They asked you too, but they’re all native speakers and you’re afraid to feel excluded. What should you do?

Well, if they asked you to join them, it’s likely that they all speak English and they will talk to you in English. If you’re learning the local language, this might be a good opportunity to improve your language skills. If they end up speaking in their native language all the time and you feel left out, you can ask them to switch to English and they will understand.

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