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Learning to communicate: The int’l student experience

Study Gold Coast

Sat Feb 09 2019


The idea of going overseas to a new country and speaking another language sounds great and exciting, but international students may find that there are many obstacles.

Speaking from personal experience, moving across the world has been a rollercoaster of emotions, obstacles and success. I left my home more than a year ago, I quit my job and I said goodbye to my family and friends to face a new challenge in my life, improving my English.

When I arrived in Australia I felt so comfortable with my basic english. But that suddenly changed when I couldn’t understand the airport staff. This came as a shock to me. Wanting to see if this is a shared experience,  I spoke to other international students to see what their experiences were.

The student feeling

The frustration when you cannot communicate properly is a feeling commonly felt by international students like Matheus Rodriguez, a Brazilian student who moved to the Gold Coast 11 months ago.

He is now working as a waiter in a restaurant and believes that it helps to improve his English. His transition into living in an English speaking country however, was hard.

“At the beginning, I was feeling really uncomfortable, when I arrived here I couldn’t speak almost anything, but then I studied for 6 months and now I feel better, more confident.” he explained.

International students face many challenges when they start the process of learning a second language. It is often stressful and they are thrown into the deep end, having to converse with locals in Australia. While some may arrive with basic English knowledge, this is not the case for all students.

When asked about the different aspects of learning English, Rodriguez elaborates that the listening and understanding was probably the easiest for him.

“Because we listening music, movies and series and is much easier to learn listening than speaking for example,” he said.

Nevertheless, the language barrier proves the biggest hurdle that overseas students have to overcome if they want clear communication. Even for students such as Bruno Perotti, an international student who had basic English language capabilities before arriving in Australia, there are many instances where a language barrier proves challenging.

“Hardest things are for example: if you have a doctor appointment and you go there and you have to explain your feelings, sometimes they (the doctors) ask you what are you feeling? And you cannot say what are you feeling at the moment. I get it disappointed with myself,” he explained.

Newly arrived students have to adapt to Australian accent, learn slangs and phrasal verbs that can discourage them during this process. So we went deeper and we asked them about how they feel when they talk with native English speakers.

“I still feel a little bit nervous because I don’t want to do any mistake, but of course if it happens it’s normal, we are living in their country so we have to speak their language,” says Rodriguez.

On the other hand, Perotti’s experience differed, the accent and slangs a concern rather than mistakes.  

“For me was pretty difficult when I speak with Australians, for the accent, slangs and still being a challenge for me sometimes because the accent is pretty difficult than the American accent.”

What do the native english speakers think?

Communication is a two-way street and while international students struggle, what are the experiences of native speakers who communicate with them?

Adam Wright, an English teacher of 22 years, enjoys his job teaching international students who go through these woes.

“The fact that you can spend your days, helping students that have an interest in the language that have a keenness to learn and also the share the culture with you, like every day is the different day, some days can be a challenge, some days can be exciting, some days can be interesting,” he said.

Local Australian student Nicole Georgiadis who studies medicine at Griffith University, on the other hand, acknowledges that while there is much to learn by multicultural conversation, there are also many issues that can arise especially in specific situations.

“Having non-native speakers is a definitely more challenging than a patient that can speak English and basically obviously is hard to communicated and communication is really important in terms of trying to find the right diagnosis for the patient”

While both native speakers and ESL (English as a Second Language) speakers find it hard to overcome the language barrier, there are ways to encourage better understanding.

Wright says that the most important thing is to encourage students and support them.

“One technique that I use is parenting and that is that you don’t want to take away the student’s confidence by telling them, “sorry I don’t understand what you’re saying” and that is what a teacher shouldn’t say to a student.”

Instead, he recommends picking up one or two words that the ESL speaker said and repeat those keywords back to them and turning it into a question.

”So it’s basically pulling out of that sentences and eventually the students gets there, but then I guess the student knows to you’re there to help them they’re not afraid to try and put the sentences together,” he said.

In Nicole’s case, she said that talking slow, avoiding big words and slangs are the tips to improve understanding with non-native speakers.

“I try to speak a lot slower and also just not using a big word, just trying to use simple small words. I think Australians they use a lot of slangs that they don’t realise, so I know when I try to talk with a non-native speaker I try to cut out all the slang that I use, but sometimes I don’t even realise that it’s a slang and I just think it’s everyday language.”

Some pointers

Overall, the learning process of second language or breaking down the language barrier will always be challenging, so the best way to improve is by loving the process and learning from your mistakes as well helping international students who are ESL speakers. Here are some pointers from the international students and native English speakers.

Perotti says, “always try to ask again like, ‘sorry buddy I couldn’t understand your question’, just get back and try again. They (natives) probably know that you are not from here so sometimes they look after you, they start to speak slowly when they realised that you are not from here. I always try to ask again if I cannot understand.”

Matheus similarly advises asking the native speaker to repeat the sentence, use different words or speak slower.  

While Georgiadis is a native speaker, she helpfully adds, “Don’t be embarrassed about speaking English, like most people in Australia can’t speak a second language so I’m really impressed of how much English you can speak and just practice as much as possible and always feel free to ask questions to your friend and let them help you with trying to learn new words and yes, basically just immerse yourself in English.”

This story was produced by international students in the Gold Coast as part of Meld’s community newsroom collaboration with Study Gold Coast. Education institutions, student clubs/societies and community groups interested in being involved can get in touch with us via