Common Questions

English as a Second Language is designed for those who are non-native English speakers. English might be your second language, but it might also be your third, fourth, or fifth.

It doesn't matter; the idea is the same. You are learning English in a country in which it is spoken.
It is often very frustrating learning English because sometimes you don’t notice your own progress and successes. Being in an English-speaking country is something that puts you in a great position; however, making the most of being in America is not always easy. Most of the complaints that I hear are below.
If you find yourself thinking or saying one of them, just click on it to read some advice.
  1. I don’t have any American friends
  2. I never get the chance to speak English
  3. My roommates are all from my country
  4. When I speak with my friends, they all understand me, but when I speak to my teachers they don’t
  5. I hate reading
  6. I hate speaking
  7. I am concentrating so hard on getting the grammar right that by the time I am ready to say something, the conversation has moved on to something new and I missed my chance
  8. My friends don’t correct me
  9. I attended every class but I still didn’t pass. That’s not fair.
  10. I don’t have time to do all my homework. The teacher expects too much.
  11. I used the Internet and a book to help me write my essay but the teacher said I copied. What is the difference?
This is a very common “complaint”. One thing that may help is to think about your own country and moving to a new city and a new school. How would you make friends? Being in a college gives you a great advantage for meeting people and making friends. The challenge is breaking the ice.
Waiting outside the classroom – you can put your head in your book and look busy or you can smile and say hello. This is a good start, but you can go further. Start a conversation by asking a question – here are some examples:
  • About the class
  • How are you enjoying the class?
  • I really like this class. Do you know if he/she teaches any other classes?
  • I have a question about …. – can you help me?
  • When the professor talked about…, I got really confused. Did you understand?
  • General
  • I’m taking Algebra next semester – whose class would be good to take?
  • I just moved here, what is there to do on a Friday night?
  • I really miss Japanese/Chinese/Mexican food – can you recommend anywhere?
  • Do you have any other good advice for students?
Chances often come to us but more often we can create opportunities to speak English. On a functional level, make yourself say hello to classmates every day and every time you are in a store or the cafeteria or at the coffee stand, make yourself ask a question. It could be – how much are the muffins? – or it could be – did I ask for that correctly, was my English okay? - it could even be – aren’t you in my Economics class? Making yourself speak a little every day improves your confidence and makes it a habit. If you force yourself to speak a little more than you need to in every situation, you will speed up your progress.
When it comes to conversations, it is more difficult but there are still many opportunities for you. The biggest is with your classmates. You already have something in common and every time you have class, you have the opportunity to speak. One thing that is very common in America is to form study groups. Often in class, a professor will assign a group project and that means you have a ready-made group. However, sometimes there is no group project and that means it is up to you to form the study group. Let others in your class know that you are going to meet once a week in the cafeteria at a certain time. Do not be afraid to be in the cafeteria at that time and do not be unhappy if no-one comes at first. If you have a test coming up in class, suggest the time as a test study time or review. This is usually a good motivator.
The other way to create opportunities to speak English is to join a club. There are several clubs on campus – go to the student center and get a list. You don’t have to be 150% interested to join a club; you can be a little interested and go along to find out if you like it. Remember, the more you do and the more you appear in different places, the more likely it is that you will start recognizing people on campus and they will start recognizing you. Familiarity leads to friendliness.
Take a class that doesn’t focus on language. Try a dance class, a music class, or a sports class. This doesn’t have to be at COC. It could be in the community at an adult school or fitness club. It could be through Community Extension. It is good to put yourself in a relaxed low-pressure environment where you are not focusing on language the whole time. Also, getting off the campus opens the community to you. 
It is very common to find yourself living with people who speak your language. It is difficult to speak English with your countrypeople because it sounds and feels strange. However, if you are strong enough, it can be done. One hour a day is a great start. If you eat together, make that English time. If you can’t think of anything to say, talk about the food you eat or name everything in the kitchen! Breakfast would be the perfect mealtime for this because it will start you off in English for the day. One day a week is more challenging but very rewarding.
The reason this doesn’t always work is because it is difficult to keep up English when you know you can go right back to your own language very easily. When one roommate breaks down, the others usually follow. Be strong. If your roommate turns back to your native language, keep responding in English. Be the motivation.
This is a tricky one. Your friends may understand you because they know your accent. Your instructor is likely to be pushier and require you to speak formally and more clearly. Practice is the key here. In what situations does a teacher not understand you? This is an important question because it could make you realize that it is only when you try and answer in class in front of people (when you may be nervous) that this happens and not when you are talking with an instructor one-on-one.
There is no magic that will make you love reading. You are in college and education requires reading. It is something you must do. Reading something that interests you is one way to try and get yourself more motivated.
Some people are naturally quiet and there is no reason to change your whole personality just because you are in America. You do, however, need to learn the language and that means your speaking skills. Some people hate speaking because they are shy and maybe don’t say much in their own language either. Some people hate speaking because they don’t like to make mistakes and are uncomfortable using another language. The most basic advice is practice. The most you speak, the better you get and the more comfortable and confident you get. Confidence leads to success.
Fluency or accuracy. You may be surprised to know that many linguists believe that fluency comes before accuracy. When you are concentrating so hard on getting the grammar correct, your fluency suffers. This means that you have to put accuracy second for a little while. Do not be afraid to do this. Many students think that if they do this, they will forget the grammar they have learned and been studying for so long but this is not true. You will not forget all that grammatical accuracy. You are simply changing focus to help your language.
Friends need training. Don’t expect them to correct you without your help. Encourage them to correct you. Ask them if what you said was correct. Don’t do this with every sentence, but do it regularly. If you want to see if your friends are correcting you, say something incorrect and see what happens. If nothing happens, ask them if what you said was correct. Whenever your friends correct you, smile and say thank you. The more you thank them, the more willing they will be to correct you. You need to get your friends into the habit of correcting you instead of the habit of understanding you.
Welcome to America. Attendance is not a prerequisite for passing. It is an essential part of passing but you must also do the work and attain the standard set by the professor. If you do not meetthe standard, you will not pass.
You need to rethink this idea. Maybe you expect too little! If you don’t have time to do all the homework, you have choices. You can reorganize your schedule and manage your time better. You can decide if your class is too difficult for you and if it is, you must decide if you want to keep going and work really hard or if you need to take it slower and drop the class. You can see if there is another class the same and transfer to another professor. This is a risk because there is a chance that the new professor is the same as the one you already have, but sometimes the way a professor teaches is different and the difference may help you. Remember that changing classes and dropping classes must be done within the pre-set college dates and cannot be done at any time.
Plagiarism is a very serious offense in the American education system, for it is considered stealing. When English is not your first language, it is difficult to express yourself in the way that you want. Then, you read something on the Internet and the writers express it so well, that it seems the best thing to do is just to take their words. If you do this without acknowledging the original writers, you are stealing their words and ideas and this is plagiarism. It is best to paraphrase and summarize and your English instructors should help you learn to do this. You can also use quotations. For more help on this skill, go to the following websites.


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