Advice for ESL Students

During my time as an ESL instructor and a teaching intern abroad I noticed a few things that made studying in a second language a little easier. I know how stressful it can be when you don’t understand everything a teacher or peer is saying, especially when it is obviously important information being missed. I have a few tips here to help during your English as a Second Language course of study.

Ask questions

ESL professors and instructors are generally really nice people. They got into teaching ESL classes because they are interested in foreign cultures, language, and they want to meet interesting people from around the world. There is no need to be shy around them. Most professors actually hope for students to ask them questions, because it shows that they are interested and want to do well. If you have a quick question about an assignment or something that was brought up in class, it is easy enough to ask in the few minutes after class or to wait until you can catch them before the next lecture. Seriously, teachers are teachers because they like to share information and help students get the most out of their education. ASK QUESTIONS! A plus to having even a short conversation with your professor is learning more about how they use English. Everyone has their personal nuances, like the cadence of their voice, the type of diction they use (including idioms), and how they order information. A little talk can go a long way to better understanding what your teacher says in class.

Record lectures

If you have trouble keeping up with your second language in class, ask your professor or instructor at the beginning of the semester if you may use an audio recorder to take notes. This isn’t something you should do instead of writing notes in class (which you should still do), but it can be very helpful to have a direct resource to return to when you are studying on your own. Wait a couple days and listen to the lecture or presentation over again—you will be able to hear things that you missed during the first time, and you can go back and ask your friends and your teacher about other moments that weren’t clear or that you just couldn’t understand.

Read and re-read

This one is a good tip for any college student. Never read your required texts only once! The first time you read something your brain is mostly just trying to get a basic understanding of what is going on: the main topic, things the author is referring to, and what you as a student have to think about it. Take the time to return to your reading assignments and reflect on them as much as you can. Check out my Reading Homework post for tips like pre-reading and scanning before doing the real work.

Study in groups

While it is beneficial to study on your own, because every learner takes in information in their own way and needs to synthesize that information for themselves, it is also a really good idea to work on assignments and to go over notes with other students. Find a couple people in your class who you already know or ask around if anybody would be willing to meet for a study session once a week. Going over class lectures, assignments, and projects will make accomplishing your work a thousand times easier. Like they say, two heads are better than one!

Practice the language in different settings

Learning a language and getting through college courses will take more than reading assigned texts and having in-class discussions. Get out into the place where you are studying to really improve your language skills. In college I had a friend from China who only hung out with Americans after class and on the weekends, and his English got noticeably better over the two or so years we lived on the same continent. You might not want to go so far as he did, only spending time with locals, but make an effort to meet people from the area who speak the language, know the customs, and are also studying at your university. There is no better way to learn a language than when you are with interesting people in a relaxed and fun environment.


When I was in Germany I definitely learned a lot of German while I was working at my internship, but my second language improved most when I went out with coworkers and friends to watch soccer games, play sports, and walk around town. If you’re shy, go to student events, clubs, and outings. Educated people are usually very nice and will be interested in you. It’ll be fun, trust me.

One last thing: Don’t worry about not understanding everything. You’re here to learn, so not everything is going to be clear and easy to follow. Let the things you miss pass by (wipe that dirt off your shoulder), and stay attentive for the next thing that makes sense. There will be clues in the pieces of language you hear that will lead you back to the conversation. I can’t count the times I got totally lost in what someone was saying (in German) only to find my way back by picking up a word or two. Stay calm, because you will either figure it out (you are, after all, a super intelligent international college student) or the person you’re talking to will help you out.

Studying abroad can be a difficult thing to do for a number of reasons, not the least of which is getting by with your second language. Pay attention, ask questions, record lectures, and meet people to improve your language skills and have a fun enough time to work as hard as you know you can.

As always, study hard!


Author: poeticallyatlarge

I am a writer, a bookworm, and a poet at large.

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