If, like me, you’re from a place where English is a second language and you’re looking to study in Sweden, how do you know your English is good enough? Back when I got the admission letter from Uppsala University, I ran myself through a few checks:
– Scoring high enough on a standardized test as required by the course? Checked.
– Binging on series after series on Netflix? Checked.
– Reading lots of fictions in English? Checked.
So that’s how I figured mine was good enough. Needless to say, the first month’s onslaught of reading materials and writing assignments smashed that illusion up real quick. Real life foils all plans. I guess that realization just is part of my story as a typical Asian girl studying abroad for the first time. If you’re also struggling with English as I do, I hope that knowing my moments of excitement, anxiety, fear and hope would help you manage your expectation and stay positive and eventually prevail in that fight.
Where I grew up, people put high value in knowing English, though it’s still not ubiquitous and far from being compulsory. I studied my bachelor degree and have written most of my papers and thesis in my mother language. I took an IELTS exam and scored 7.5, assuming it’s enough for my master course at Uppsala University, which is Digital Media and Society. It is a degree in social science, so instead of dealing with equations, we deal with social phenomena, instead of 5-hour long exam, we have 4,000 words essays.
The first reality I had to grip with was that being able to communicate in English in an everyday setting doesn’t necessarily grant you the access to the world of academic English. To do the latter I know I have to try harder, also to keep pace with schoolwork here.
Listening and Speaking – It’s not always about chatting
Travelling to a foreign country to live and study means you are out of your comfort zone, including the comfort of understanding and being understood. All the lectures are conducted in English, obviously, but as a student, you cannot just listen passively to whatever the lecturer is discussing. You shall have to speak out, raise your own opinions in class, seminars, presentations,… and all that will test your English communication skills. On my first day, I was a bit shock while seeing my classmates responding vividly to the questions from the lecturer. I was scared that I could not do that as well or as fluent as they could. For a time, I kept holding myself back with self-doubts like what if nobody understood what I want to say. However, I still gave myself a chance to speak up. And after a few times doing that, I felt more confident and discussing in class is not that hard at all.
Reading materials before every lecture – Be prepared to read a lot of academic English texts
When pursuing a master degree anywhere, not just in Sweden, you shall have to read quite a lot. I know because I’m reading much more than I did in the past. Before every lecture, the amount of reading I have to perform varies from a few chapters and some additional papers/ articles. On average, it’s about 30 – 60 pages of reading for a single lecture.
And this is another reality right here: reading academic texts bear little resemblance to reading a blog post or a news article. I can totally read an English novel at a steady pace of 3 chapters at a time. But when it comes to academic English, you may find it quite a challenge to keep that pace. Each topic itself covers a wide range of jargons, some of which I have never imagined they would exist. To make it even more of a headache, they are sometimes presented in a way that’s hard for a layperson to understand. The knowledge inside each paragraph is so dense and complex enough to blow your head with the sheer amount of information. How can we read faster? And more efficiently? Those are the questions I often hear from my fellow classmates. I myself keep wondering about that too.
There is only one way to be familiar with a stranger, meet them often. This is also the way to deal with academic language, give yourself a chance to be familiar with them, then grant them a residence permit in your brain. If you’re still in your home country right now and dreaming about a future where you study a Master degree in beautiful Sweden, then well, keep on dreaming, but also grab a book at the earliest chance possible. An academic book, an academic paper – choose whatever topic you like, as this interest will be the ultimate motivation when you want to give up. The language in the book might frustrate you at first, but don’t let it defeat you. Get yourself familiar with the range of vocabulary, build them up, even from scratch. You would want to thank yourself a lot later.
Don’t just read. Read efficiently.
There are several tactics for reading academic papers efficiently. In this blog post, I just want to highlight the fundamental importance of building a sizable vocabulary. It can be in the form of a journal that you always keep to yourself or in your dictionary application or in your Kindle. Equip yourself with one, sharpen it, extend it every time you got the chance to.
Writing: A nightmare you have to get used to.
There is no better way to improve your writing than to actually get down and write, dedicatedly and enthusiastically, right now. It’s one of the skills where you can only get better by spending a lot of effort practising. I’m not a good writer in English, therefore I start to write my personal blog and student blogs in English since I came here. I faced so many difficulties with my the first blog post. I remember spending a long time editing it, going through it for almost 9 times.
Writing academic English is another story. It is challenging even for native speakers of the language. But on the plus side, that means we all can start practising. The first draft of my first assignment was a mess. Since then, I open my own dictionary of all the words I learn in this specific area, then remove a lot, add a few, try to rewrite every sentence. In the editing phase, I keep asking myself whether it is a Vietnamese sentence being translated into English or an English sentence itself.
Don’t stop trying – You’re not alone
My roommate Lili, admitted that she was not good at English since day 1 she’s here. But I also see her learning English through an app on her cell phone at every chance she got, even while cooking or waiting for the bus. I still practice writing blogs whenever I can, though errors could be found here and there. One day, a classmate of mine, who is better at writing, offered to help by giving bits of advice on how I can improve my final essay. Up to now, thinking about the college environment that I’m in, I realize that, isn’t it an ideal place to improve my English? I flew all the long way here to broaden my knowledge, and to improve myself in whatever skills I’m still lacking, even if it’s a basic skill like English.
The purpose of schooling is not to judge you when you make mistakes. It’s the place where you are free to try things out, make a lot of mistakes, and learn from them. It’s a place to realize you may not be that good now, but also know that doesn’t mean we cannot get better. We try every day, not to compete, but to become a better version of ourselves.
I and my roommate Lili or any struggling students out there, we might not be perfect English users from the first day, and we may not be now. But as long as we never stop striving for improvement and keep at it every day, I believe we will get better with every book we read and every paper we write.