Living in an English-speaking country and your English level

In this post, I am explaining why living in an English-speaking country might not lead to fluency in English and what to do so that it does.

Why living in an English-speaking country doesn’t automatically improve your English level and how to make sure it does

First, I want to clarify a couple of things.

  • This post is about non-native speakers who go abroad for a longer period than an ordinary tourist trip, for example, to work or study.
  • This post serves to bust the myth that “Learning English in your home country isn’t effective anyway. As soon as I get to an English-speaking country, my English level will skyrocket in the blink of an eye.”
  • This post is based on personal experience of living in the USA for a year, so I am going to use English and Russian but the ideas are probably true for other languages and countries too.

So why doesn’t it?

– You are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of language you are exposed to. When you arrive, you are instantaneously immersed in English. You speak English to your colleagues, bus drivers, cashiers, and bankers. You read pages of contracts and manuals. You come across massive amounts of new language and familiar language used in unfamiliar ways. And you aren’t able to absorb all of it fast just because it’s too much. In the end, the more you learn in your home country, the less overwhelmed you are and the more new language you can absorb.

– Learning English is not your priority. Before you worry about the improvement of your English level, you worry about everyday things like, renting an apartment, getting settled at your job, setting up a bank account, buying health insurance etc. You are happy that you found an apartment, there is furniture in it and everything works. You sigh with relief and forget about learning all the new words you came across along the way. When you learn a language in your home country, on the other hand, you focus on it. Teachers and course books make you practice certain language material, which makes learning more effective.

– You keep using your native language regularly. Voluntarily. You speak Russian with your friends and family on Skype; you probably keep reading Russian news and watch Russian television; you find Russian speakers in your area and spend time with them. People underestimate how hard it is to speak a foreign language 24/7 and how stressful it is not to speak your native language. But now it’s possible – and very tempting – to be completely immersed in Russian even while living in an English-speaking country. I’d say this point is by far the largest obstacle on your way to significant improvement of your English level!

– Native speakers you are communicating with don’t correct your mistakes. Of course, they don’t. Error correction breaks the flow of the conversation and exchange of ideas. Your mistakes might remain mistakes.

– Language, just like everything else, doesn’t improve magically. You have to put effort into improving it regardless of whether you are in Russia or in the USA. You have to put effort into learning new vocabulary, you have to pay attention to the phrases people use in different social situations, you have to look after your grammar.

So how do you make sure it does?

– Keep your ears open and pay special attention to the way people speak. Otherwise you will keep speaking the way you have spoken before, which might not have been perfect.

– Take notes. Take notes of any new language you come across on your phone, laptop, and on paper. “I will remember this” is an illusion.

– If you find yourself being exposed to more Russian than English, go out and do stuff. Go to public lectures, workshops, on guided tours; join a club, join a group class at the gym; volunteer.

– If you find yourself spending all your time with Russians and speaking Russian, one thing you can do is make sure there is always at least one person with you who doesn’t speak Russian. It’ll stop you from speaking Russian even with Russians (speaking your native language in front of people who don’t speak it is extremely impolite). At the same time, it’s not weird (while speaking English with Russians for no other purpose than ‘for practice’ often is).

Be active and get out of your comfort zone. For example, if you are lost, ask a police office or a passer-by for directions rather than use a map on your phone. Using a map on your phone feels more comfortable, but is less beneficial to your speaking skills.

To conclude, of course living in an English-speaking country does help you to improve your English level. But it won’t work unless you do.

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The benefits of being a Fulbrighter

In this post, I am elaborating on what makes participating in Fulbright FLTA program an experience of a lifetime.

The benefits of being a Fulbrighter (based on personal experience)

The benefits of participating in Fulbright FLTA program are numerous and I am only giving a small portion here. (If you need some background on my participation in the program, read this and this.) Here goes:

– You meet lots of great people.

Before you even leave for the USA, you meet your fellow FLTAs from your own country. Applicants go through a rigorous selection process, so the ones that do get selected are intelligent, creative, enthusiastic, and a lot of fun. Then you meet your fellow FLTAs from all over the world. Again, you meet intelligent, creative, enthusiastic, and fun people, but this time there is an added benefit of meeting people from other cultures (around 50 countries all told). You get a chance to see these people dance national dances, wear national clothes, and try authentic home-cooked national foods. The experience just opens your eyes to how fascinating and diverse the world is.

– You get first-hand experience of American education from two perspectives: as a teacher and as a student.

I did all the mundane things students do – I took notes in classes, did homework, wrote quizzes, sat exams, worried about my grades, checking blackboard 3 times a day, just like an average American student.

At the same time, I did all the mundane things teachers do – I graded homework, assessed exams, filled in online attendance after every class and so on. Fortunately, I got a lot of guidance and support from Professor Daria Kirjanov, who not only shared all her materials with me, but also gave me insights into what to expect from students and how to deal with any issues that arose.

– You get first-hand experience of American life.

Let me give you just some examples of things I got first-hand experience of. In the USA, everything is well-organized and made convenient for people. Everything starts and finishes exactly on time. Mass transit is not very well-developed (at least compared to Russia) because people don’t need it because they go everywhere by cars. When you get on the bus, you have to have exact change because tickets machines or drivers don’t give change. You get a grocery store discount even if you don’t have the store card. People hold doors and give up their places in lines for you. Everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, or disabilities, is included and respected.

– You improve your English skills significantly.

First and foremost, living in an English-speaking country for a year definitely boosts your fluency and breaks down the speaking barrier that most learners of English have even if they have been learning English for 10 years. Additionally, you learn real-life and natural language that you don’t always find in books. I don’t think any book I’ve ever used to learn or teach English introduced the phrase Have a good one! (which means “Have a nice day” or simply “Bye”). Or, Are you all set? (which means something like “Do you need anything?” or “Can I help you?”). Or, I’m good. (which means, “I don’t need anything, thank you.”). All these phrases are ubiquitous in the USA, yet they aren’t usually taught in books.

– You develop professionally in the direction you like without the pressure of completing a degree or graduating.

 Since I write a blog, I wanted to improve my writing skills and took “Speaking and Writing for Professionals” and “Introduction to Creative Writing”. Since I was not very confident about my speaking skills, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and take “Introduction to Public Speaking and Group Discussion”. And I did it just for me, just because I wanted to.


– You can travel the country more cheaply and effectively.

Fulbrighters are scattered all over the country. So when you travel, you can stay at their places saving money on hotels and time on researching what to see in the area. I might never have visited Oregon, if it wasn’t for an FLTA there.

– This is just my personal benefit: I did everything I had on my bucket list during my Fulbright year!

There were only two things though: 1. See whales (which I did on both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean!); 2. See Mayan pyramids (which I did because a fellow FLTA suggested going to Mexico during the winter break!).

To cut a long story short, there are myriads of benefits of being a Fulbright FLTA on many levels, definitely more than I’ve described. Feel free to expand my list in the comments!

Lutsenko_benefits

Some of my Fulbright memories. 
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My Fulbright year: what, where, when

In this post, I am going into detail about my participation in Fulbright FLTA program.

And now I’m back, with a backpack of new experiences, inspiration, knowledge, and ready to write, write, write!

I went to the USA for my Fulbright FLTA experience on 8 August 2015 and returned on 4 June 2016. The experience was great, fantastic, eye-opening, mind-blowing, developmental and many other positive adjectives. But first, some facts: where exactly did I go and what exactly did I do?

Good news: On 30 April 2015, I got an email, which made me jump and yell triumphantly. It started,“Congratulations! You have been selected for the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) Program.” In August, I went to teach Russian and study at University of New Haven (West haven, Connecticut, USA). (More about my Fulbright application).

University: University of New Haven (UNH for short) has a student body of 5,000-10,000 students. Most of the people taking Russian at UNH have one of (or both of) these two majors: criminal justice and national security.

Location: UNH is located in a small town of West Haven, which is very conveniently located and has good transport links. New York City is only a 2-hour train ride away and Yale is only a 10-minute bus ride away.

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Housing: I lived in university housing, in a two-floor shared house. My roommate* had some kind of office job at the university. The house was a 30-minute walking distance from the university or a 10-minute bus/car ride. There was a university shuttle service and I was also provided with a free local bus pass. (Although I didn’t have to walk, I often did.)

*(In the USA, they use the word “roommate” to mean someone who shares accommodation with you, not necessarily a room. Me and my roommate had our own separate bedrooms).

Teaching: I was a primary teacher at beginner level, teaching 3 times a week at 8 am. Additionally, I had office hours (6 hours a week), Russian tables (2 hours a week) and in spring semester I taught a “language lab” on Russian émigré writers and poets of the 20th century (which I absolutely loved!). I also took part in and / or helped organize film and culture festivals as a representative of Russian culture.

Studying:  As part of the program, we were required to take at least 2 courses per semester, one of which had to be in US Studies and the other three had to be related to our professional development as teachers of English. I took all 4 courses on credit basis, which means I did all coursework, took exams and was assessed on the same basis as every other student enrolled in the course. The courses I took and the grades I got: Speaking and Writing for Professionals (A+), Public Speaking and Group Discussion (A -), Introduction to Creative Writing (A+), American History since 1607 (A).

Finances: The grant covered everything: housing, meals, university tuition, travel to and from host institution, and a medical insurance. I also got a monthly stipend, which wasn’t large, but given that everything else was provided, I could save up for traveling.

I think that pretty much covers the everyday specifics of my Fulbright year. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. The next post will be on the benefits of being a Fulbrighter, stay tuned!

Disclaimer: Every Fulbrighter has a different story to tell. This is just my personal experience and the details of my participation in the program. 

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