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Searching for the Bermuda Triangle: English as a Second Language in University

Shrouded in a thick layer of mist, where compasses cease to work and where you see not land or sky, but an ocean of uniform grey, the pursuit to the Bermuda Triangle is a frightening one. Going to a new university, far from home, where the majority of people and courses use a language that isn’t your native tongue might feel a lot like this dizzying journey.

In addition to my experience transitioning from a French immersion school to an English one in middle school, I conferred with a few of my friends whose native language isn’t English and have compiled a list of tips to cope with the sudden transition in languages. Here are a few ideas that came up:

Read any English material you can get your hands on.

Reading a lot will help you familiarize yourself with the written language; in addition to practising your comprehension skills, you will learn a lot of vocabulary and idioms, too!

Some free material that can be found around campus includes U of T’s newspaper, The Varsity, a popular Toronto newspaper, the Toronto Star, music magazines, such as Whole Note, and, of course, this blog (wink wink).

Toronto Star newspaper, The Varsity newspaper, and the Whole Note magazine strewn across my desk.

Grabbed these jewels from just inside University College.

Your college might also print its own publications.

Latest issue of Trinity College’s publication, Salterrae.

Latest issue of Trinity College’s publication, Salterrae.

Not only will you get more opportunities to read, but you’ll also get to learn what’s going on at U of T and at your college!

Don’t be afraid to befriend native English speakers and practice your conversation skills.

I’ve been told that some non-native speakers are hesitant to speak to native speakers because they’re afraid others will judge them for their accent or for their inability to reply as quickly as a native speaker would. Don’t be. Though many students might not understand the extent of language-related difficulties non-native English speakers experience, many do understand the difficulty of learning a second language (read: HIGH-SCHOOL FRENCH), so, as one of my companions states, “Have the courage to speak.” Don’t be afraid to make mistakes when talking, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification when you don’t understand what others mean, and don’t be afraid to take time to translate the thoughts in your head into words.

Sidney Smith Hall common area

One of the best places to chat—Sidney Smith Hall. Comfy chairs, coffee, and donuts–HELLO.

Go to writing workshops.

Writing Plus is a series of workshops that helps with everything related to writing—from how to develop a thesis statement to how to write a lab report or literature review. Here’s a list of their Fall workshops. As well, here are some workshops for graduate students.

Take advantage of your writing centre.

Handing in an essay or report to a professor is single-handedly one of the most nerve-wracking events ever. Probably even more nerve-wracking if it’s in the form of a ten-page university paper written in your second language. An excellent place to visit is your college’s writing centre, and for grad students, the graduate writing centre. All of them offer individual sessions with writing instructors who provide guidance on your academic writing, from composing a draft to revising the final copy.

All in all, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t be afraid to seek out opportunities to improve your English. As a companion of mine says, “Your English will get better if you spend more time on it,” or, put more bluntly by another, “No excuse, just work harder.” All of you are incredibly brave and admirable for taking on this arduous task, and though it may not be an easy journey, it will be a rewarding one. Keep sailing forth in this hazy mist; it will get less misty up ahead, I promise.

 

Do you have any tips on how to make the linguistic transition to an all-English university easier? Let me know in the comments below or through @lifeatuoft on Twitter!