After finishing my BSc. and MSc. in two prestigious universities in Iran, I decided to continue my education in the US. Since during my masters I had published several academic papers in international conferences and attended a few of them as well, I was fairly confident about my English fluency. However, when I entered the US, I realized that was not the case. I would like to give three examples of the challenges I had when I first entered the US:
1- “Think in English”
When I entered the US, I faced a sever problem: although I was feeling that I am speaking fluently, my audience were not understanding me! The reason was although syntactically I was speaking in English, semantically I was thinking in Farsi. For example, in order to say “I will pick you up” I was saying “I will come after you”. I was not realizing that these two sentences have two different meanings. In short term, I was able to overcome this problem by explaining more. The problem was not as serious when I was talking to non-native speakers; however, native speakers were really getting confused.
The problem was arising even more when I was participating in the class discussions. When the professor was asking a question in the class, I had to spent a few seconds to think about the problem to find the answer but a few minutes to think in Farsi, translate it to English, and then make the sentence! These few minutes were also enough for me to decide not to ask my question from the professor. Therefore, in the first half of my first semester, I was incapable to participate in the class discussions; especially that I had some idea about the discussion.
The same thing had also shown up in my writing assignments. My advisor had to edit my articles, papers or reports significantly. Literally, he re-wrote my first paper completely. I used to hear this sentence a lot from my advisor: “This is not English!”
I have been constantly trying to practice how to think in English. I am seeing significant improvements since then although there is long way to go!
2- Limited Vocabulary
When I write I usually end up repeating a limited set of words and their variations in my essays. This is mainly because the domain of my vocabulary knowledge is limited. The problem was hiding itself more in speaking because the domain of words that I needed to communicate with people seems to be less than what I needed to write.
But how should I widen it? That was a challenging question! I first decided to memorize words. I started with a small (~2000 words) dictionary and had a plan to upgrade to bigger one soon afterwards. But at some moment I realized that it was waste of time, due to two reasons: 1- memorizing the words could help if I did not know the meaning of the words at all. But for most of the words either I knew the meaning, or I could guess it by finding the origin of the word. 2- As I was rarely using the newly-learned words, I forgot most of them after a week or so!
Therefore, I decided to change my tactics. Firstly, I only referred to a dictionary if I could not figure out the meaning of word at all or a specific usage of the word was important for me. Secondly, I only used English-English dictionaries and never translated the word to Farsi anymore. This helped me feel the word in English not Farsi — not to mention it also assisted me to overcome the aforementioned thinking problem! Thirdly, I would also read a few examples of how the word had been used. Therefore, I could memorize usage patterns instead of the words themselves. Fourthly, I started reading English novels. By reading more and more novels, I was observing some new uses of the words that I knew. Fifthly, I tried to practice the words by using them in my writing assignments, normal conversations, etc., as soon as I could. If I had felt that a word is very common, I used it in every other sentence if not every sentence! This was a good practice for me to widen my vocabulary domain.
3- Idioms and proverbs
Quickly, I realized that in some cases, although I understand all the words in a sentence, I do not get the exact meaning the whole sentence or topic. The first reason was that I did not know all usages of those words. But there was also a second reason, people in Long Island tend to use idioms and proverbs a lot which makes it hard for non-native speakers to understand exactly what they mean.
For instance, I remember that one of my instructors told me “It’s a piece of a cake. Go and finish it quickly!”. While I was leaving his office, The first thing that came to my mind was how a cake is related to my project?!
Definitely reading novels and watching movies were two useful ways to overcome this problem. The narrations between different characters in novels and movies usually contain some slang. Also, over time, I learned not to hesitate asking the meaning of a sentence if I do not understand it. At least I ask them to repeat what they said. This helps me distinguish between an idiom and a normal sentence and if learn a new idiom if needed!