5 Ways International Students Can Improve Conversational English Skills

Tra Ho

If you are like most international students, you are probably pretty comfortable reading and writing in English, but not as comfortable listening and speaking in the language.

Once you are in the U.S., you will soon realize that the level of conversational English that helped you score well on the TOEFL is not enough to help you get by comfortably in a U.S. college environment.

Below are some tips to help you strengthen your conversational skills, which will likely help you adapt more quickly to your new academic and social environment in the U.S.

1. Practice before you arrive: Mai-Linh Bui wrote a great post about how international students can strengthen their English skills over the summer, before they get to campus. Part of her advice is to keep practicing English.

Like Mai-Linh mentioned, you will probably enjoy practicing English a lot more when you don't have to prepare for a test. I spent an entire, awesome summer listening to and translating Britney Spears songs -- and I do not regret it at all.

2. Befriend American students: Practice makes perfect. The more you converse with others in English, the better you get.

Many international students end up befriending a lot of -- or only -- other international students, which I don't think is a good idea. Hanging out with natives not only naturally pushes you to improve your conversational English, but also helps you pick up cultural and social cues.

A good sign you've mastered a language is being able to make a joke in that language. Next time you see your American friends, try to make them laugh.

[Find ways American and international students can become friends.]

3. Learn from American friends: Tell your American friends that you are trying to improve your listening and speaking skills, and would like them to help you.

If you pronounce a word incorrectly, or misuse an idiom, you want them to tell you. You will learn much faster this way.

My friends let me mispronounce the word "salmon" for four years until a stranger corrected me. They said the way I said it -- pronouncing what I now know is a silent "L" -- was cute.

What they didn't know is that I would have had a much easier time ordering at a restaurant if they had told me. I can't tell you how many times I expected a piece of fish, and the server brought out a salad. And I didn't understand why for four years!

[Learn which U.S. colleges welcome the most international students.]

4. Expand your knowledge: Read books, keep up with news and watch popular shows and movies. If you have been exposed to topics that are likely to be discussed in conversation, you have a much better chance of understanding people when they talk, and of being able to express yourself well.

This helps you overcome both a culture gap and language barriers -- and gives you a great excuse to watch TV.

[Get tips on how international students can get help with classes.]

5. If possible, become a tutor at your school: If you have to explain something to someone, you have a strong incentive to pronounce everything as well as you can, and find alternative ways to explain yourself.

Eventually, this becomes a good habit. Many people have asked me how I learned to speak English fluently, and I attribute most of it to my years of being a math tutor in college.

Tutors are also usually relatively well paid, so this is a good way to make some extra cash while improving your English. It's a win-win for international students.

Tra Ho, from Vietnam, received full financial aid to attend Colorado College in 2004. She graduated magna cum laude in 2008 with a degree in mathematics and is currently working as an actuary for a consulting company Washington, D.C.