You find yourself entering your first semester as a graduate student in New York City. For all the hard work reading, writing, and taking entrance exams, you still feel anxious and alienated from your native English speaking peers. Social mixers loom large. Prospects for networking with faculty appear out of reach. It’s as if you gained VIP access to your favorite play only to discover the actors cancelled the show….
Sound familiar? You’re not alone! According to the Journal of Counseling and Development, you and your fellow international students not only experience language barriers, you also contend with “culture shock, social adjustment, and homesickness.” And how can you not? It’s one thing to simply study and keep your head in your books until you cross the graduation “finish line.” It’s quite a different thing to expand your social networks, earn recognition from faculty, and expose yourself to enriching experiences within and beyond classroom walls.
While the challenges above can seem insurmountable, the following low-risk tips can help:
Read two major newspapers for 15 to 20 minutes per day. I often suggest The New York Times and Wall Street Journal since the former leans left and the latter leans right politically. As such, try to understand how the same story is covered differently in each publication. This will increase your exposure to, and familiarity with, vocabulary you’re likely to encounter in school.
2. Track Unknown Words
Carry a notebook (or phone) with you wherever you go! I cannot stress this enough. Throughout the day, you will hear a number of unfamiliar words repeated more frequently than others. Try to capture the 10 most commonly occurring terms.
3. Then, Define Them
Spend 10 to 15 minutes before bed looking up definitions to the words you wrote down and memorize them. It helps to say the words and their definitions out loud. It is even better if you write out the words and their definitions three times each by hand. (Writing by hand is also preferred when taking notes in class).
Each morning, write freely for 10 to 15 minutes in a word journal. Use the words you learned the day before in complete sentences as best you can.
5. Incorporate 10 New Words
When appropriate, also try to incorporate the 10 new terms into your daily conversations. Don’t worry if you make mistakes! The key is to take action and, if someone corrects you, simply smile and thank them for their clarification.
6. Note Nonverbal Cues
It is important to pay attention to the body language cues (i.e. facial expressions, gestures, and gaze) associated with the different words you hear. This won’t always be apparent or relevant, but it is worth noting whenever it appears.
7. Become a Pop Culture Junkie
Finally, it’s helpful to listen to music in English, watch American movies, and spend time in cafes, coffee shops, or anywhere else you can expose yourself to casual conversations. Just allow yourself to listen and absorb the English language in its various contexts and forms.
8. Don't Overextend
Caution! Only work on memorizing 10 new words every two to three days. This is important for two reasons. First, you don’t want to overwhelm yourself. Second, you want to allow enough time to develop comfort and confidence with the first 10 words before progressing onto 10 new ones.
You’re now on track to developing a sense of conversational ease and confidence. Developing word lists provides a way to keep you focused as you gain entry into common, everyday conversations. At the same time, studying new words before bed pays dividends because your brain will continue to process and consolidate this information even as you sleep. And finally, the more you gain confidence in conversational English, the less daunting it will be to attend the next social gathering, show up to office hours, or invite a friend out for an evening in the Big Apple.
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