Crafting Your Art of English Fluency

by Sava Mounange-Badimi - Posts (2). Posted Tuesday, November 13th, 2012 at 2:26 pm

When I came to the United States, I was barely fluent in spoken English, although on paper I seemed competent in the language. In fact, it turned out the English I had learned over the course of my middle and high school years was quite different from American English.

When you’re not comfortably fluent in the language of your “new home,” a casual chat can rapidly turn into a rollercoaster of confusing words. I could barely even understand the information that the immigration officer told me when I landed in the U.S.

Now, after two years, I can proudly say that my English is lot better than it used to be, although I’m still trying to improve my speaking skills.  To get there, I had to understand that assimilating to a language is an art. You have to feel it, visualize it, and experience it yourself. It’s an art that you create, not that you learn. Here are the four ways in which I have crafted my own art of fluency.

1.     The Craft of Listening

Treatment with leeches. Woodcut from Historia Medica by W. van den Bossche.

Treatment with leeches. Woodcut from Historia Medica by W. van den Bossche.

Have you ever heard of leeches? There are slimy and tiny worm-like organisms that can suck human blood without even getting noticed. A leech will absorb as much blood as it pleases, and then instinctively lets go and begins its well-deserved digestion break.

I know, you must be wondering why I would talk about leeches in an article about learning English. But actually, those little creatures can teach us a lot about the approach to take when learning English. If you really want to be comfortable with daily spoken English, you have to start absorbing the language as much as you can.

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The ‘Wrong’ Way to Answer ‘How Are You?’

by ZitaMF - Posts (4). Posted Monday, November 12th, 2012 at 9:26 am

- How are you?
– Good. You?
– Pretty good.
– That’s good.

This was an actual exchange between two students sitting at my table in the dining hall. When I heard it, I literally burst out laughing and quipped, ”Well, that was a meaningful conversation.” Maybe I was being a bit insensitive but, although I have lived in the U.S. for more than two years and know this is a normal conversation, it still strikes me as odd.

One of the most challenging aspects of being an international student is that you not only have to master a foreign language, but also to recognize the meaning that hides behind the words.

Almost every day I am asked, “How are you?” or “How are you doing?” I’m expected to respond, “Good” or “Fine,” and ask the other person how they are, to which they will also respond, “Good.”

To this day, this style of greeting strikes me as an abuse of a question with which people show care and concern to one another in my culture. When somebody asks, “How are you?” in Hungary, I assume that person is truly interested in my well-being and wants to listen to what I have to share.

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8 Events for International Students: Nov. 12-16

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Friday, November 9th, 2012 at 6:46 pm

This week we’ve found three (count ‘em, three!) virtual fairs for prospective college and grad students. Plus some MBA-themed events, as usual.

As always, if you attend any of these events, report back and let us know what you learned! (Use the comments, the Facebook page or just email me – And please share any online events you’ve found that we haven’t.

Coming up:

November 13

EducationUSA/CollegeWeekLive: International Virtual College Fair
More details: 
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New in the Glossary of Confusing Words: Library

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Thursday, November 8th, 2012 at 7:18 pm

dictionary and thesaurusWhy might “library” be a confusing word?

this is confusing to the french speaking student, it get confusing with bookstore cause bookstore in french is “Librairie”

Indeed.  And it’s just as confusing for English speakers learning French.  So let’s clarify and put “library” into the Glossary of Confusing Words.

A bookstore is where you go to buy books.  A library is where you go to borrow books. It’s as simple as that.

On a college campus, libraries and bookstores often take on additional functions, but that core distinction remains.

In addition to being a place to borrow books, the university library is one of the most popular places on campus to study. University libraries usually have tables or cubicles where students can bring their books and computers for a quiet place to concentrate, and often have meeting rooms available for group work.

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Why a Weak SAT Score Didn’t Kill My College Dreams

by Phillip Dube - Posts (4). Posted Wednesday, November 7th, 2012 at 12:14 pm

“The test commences at 8:45am. I work through the essay assignment, frantically, reading quietly as I print out my ideas on paper because I want to avoid silly mistakes.

‘Stop writing, pencils down!’ instructs the invigilator.

We start work on the next section.

The vocabulary in this section is mostly new. I struggle with the first few questions but employ the strategies my SAT tutor gave me and, surprisingly, I finish answering all the questions before the stern-faced lady calls the time. This boosts my confidence and I work on the other sections easily.

After close to four hours in the test room, the exam is finally over. I was out of the room tired but somewhat happy. I answered most of the questions and hopefully I gave the correct answers.”

I wrote those words in 2011 for an article in The SundayMail (the best-selling weekly in Zimbabwe). My early decision application to Amherst College had been deferred and, hoping to improve my chances for admission, I was retaking the SAT for the second time. Two weeks later I found out the result of my effort.

My SAT score had increased by a mere 70 points, from 1680 to 1750. I had given it my best shot, but that score wouldn’t increase my hope of getting into Amherst, my dream school, where the average SAT score is more like 2100.

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What America’s Political Divisions Say About Its People

by Nicholas Lau - Posts (6). Posted Monday, November 5th, 2012 at 6:23 pm

A college campus is the best place to follow an election. There are voter registration drives, presidential debate watches, mock debates, and forums to encourage students to discuss what it means to be an informed voter, and how to make the best decision for the next four years. Meanwhile, the College Democrats and College Republicans, clubs for politically-minded students of each party, have been working with full-force to mobilize the student body to vote on Election Day.

Obama and Romney face off in the first presidential debate

Obama and Romney face off in the first presidential debate

Personally, I have enjoyed participating in all this, even though I won’t be voting on Election Day. I believe that the political culture of a country is a good reflection of the people living in it, and this election has provided a new way to get to know America.

During the first presidential debate, hundreds of students at my school got together to watch the live broadcast.  Several campus organizations sponsored the event, at which they passed out clickers for students to record their opinions to various questions about the candidates and the debate.

The students began by recording which candidate they would vote for if the election were held right then. About 60 percent of those polled said that they would vote for Governor Romney, with the remaining 40 percent for President Obama. The survey also asked them why, and the main response was that they were unhappy with how the Obama administration had handled the economy.

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A British Perspective: Is the American Democratic System All it’s Cracked Up to Be?

by Tom Collier - Posts (6). Posted Monday, November 5th, 2012 at 10:06 am

Reuters presidential debate photo 2012

Photo: Reuters

I got to America just in time for campaign season to begin, and just in time to catch a moment that set the tone for the election as I have experienced it since.

When I arrived, Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin was just about to tell a TV station in Missouri that during “a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” arguing abortion shouldn’t be allowed in cases of rape. I was shocked to hear a candidate say something that was not only scientifically untrue but also such a seemingly extreme point of view. In Britain, this comment would almost certainly have resulted in the candidate stepping down and the campaign of the party being seriously damaged.

While many Republicans did condemn Akin’s statement, and Akin eventually apologized, the outrage was hardly as universal and decisive as I would have expected back home. Akin is still campaigning to represent Missouri in the U.S. Senate, and even has a chance at winning, running in a state where nearly 40% of voters are evangelical Christians. In fact, the comments were treated as a political gaffe (albeit a major one); something for the Democratic party to seize upon as “worrisome” and “extreme” in arguing the case for their own party and candidates.

Divisions, Real and Contrived

As I’ve found, candidates can and do run on some very divisive issues, playing to the more extreme parts of their parties to solidify support from the “base.” Meanwhile, each party also goes after the middle ground, exploiting gaffes made by the competition in order to paint them as the immoderate ones.

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Why Do International Students Crave Food From Home?

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Thursday, November 1st, 2012 at 7:24 pm

Hamburgers v. Vietnamese food, by NickNovember 16, 2011. Mohammed has been studying in Minnesota for just about 3 months. “Oh man I miss my mom’s delicious white spicy rice,” he laments. “Oh my god I miss my favorite Iraqi dish, Biryani.”

Sebastian has been in the U.S. for well over a year when he realizes, “I still can’t stand a day without craving the most simple things I used to have back home: meals as simple as plain white rice with potatoes and chicken.”

There are plenty of things you know to worry about when coming to study in the U.S. “How can I relate to people from all over the world?” fretted Tom. “Would I cope with speaking in English all of the time?” thought Simba. “Would I ever find anyone like [my uncle] in America?” Senzeni asked herself, in tears at the airport in Zimbabwe.

But “one thing I never thought about [before leaving home] was food,” said Mohammed; “how badly I would miss my mother’s dishes, and how food would be a huge part of my culture shock.”

Javaria even traveled all the way from Massachusetts to New York just to find a taste of the desi food she missed from South Asia.

But why does food all of a sudden become so important when you’re abroad? Why do so many international students cite food as the thing they miss most, even more than they mention their own families?

It turns out food has a more powerful role in our lives and our minds than you might imagine.  Here are three things you might not know about why you miss food from home while studying abroad:

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The Quest for Desi, Halal Food in America

by Javaria Khan - Posts (6). Posted Thursday, November 1st, 2012 at 9:20 am

South Asian foodThe sharp scent of red spices and curry powder. Heat emanating from the fresh pieces of naan bread. The sound of silverware clattering against each other. And the sight of native, desi food. I suddenly felt that a piece of me that had been empty for months was alive again.

I was in New York, where I had traveled for fall break in search of a taste of home.  I wanted to see all the famous sights of New York City of course, but I was most excited to visit the neighborhood of Jackson Heights. I had been told it was the hub for South Asian food and attire; a treat for all natives who want to seek home away from home.

South Asia is known for its spicy, fiery food and wide variety of dishes. From the day we are born, we adore food. Memories, events and photo albums are incomplete without remembering the food and if anyone ever says they don’t like food – well, they are pariahs from that day on (trust me, I have tried it).

Thus, when I came to America, it was hard for me to adjust to the bland, mild taste of pastas, pizzas and sandwiches. Every now and then, my taste buds started demanding a respite from the constant taste of cheese, tuna, lettuce and carrots, craving the more spicy chicken, beef, curry and green chilies. But until now, I had been unable to fulfill their wishes.

Times Square gyro stand

Gyro stand we found in Times Square

Other South Asian students who live in mainstream places like D.C., Chicago or California might think I’m crazy for going all the way to New York just for a taste of spicy curry, but that’s because they probably have places like that near where they live.  George Mason University in Virginia has traditional desi food available in the cafeteria every single day.  Even New Yorkers don’t have to travel to Jackson Heights for food – the streets in Times Square are lined with carts selling chicken gyro (a Greek dish popular among South Asians because of its spices).

However, Mount Holyoke College is in tiny, remote South Hadley, Massachusetts.  There it is impossible to satisfy such food cravings.

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The U.S. in Words #2: Dodging the Bullet (How Sandy Affected My Community)

by Paula - Posts (11). Posted Wednesday, October 31st, 2012 at 10:37 am

The second in a series looking at U.S. life and culture through its idioms.  View previous entries.

Dodged the bullet (or dodged a bullet) – Got lucky, avoided a bad outcome

I remember being horrified by the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, empathizing with the Louisiana inhabitants in Katrina’s aftermath, and being shocked by the images out of Haiti after the devastating earthquake back in 2010. All that destruction really hit me, but it was always far away – happening to someone else.

That changed over the past few days, when Hurricane Sandy approached the very place where I live now in central Pennsylvania.

The New York City skyline in darkness as hurricane Sandy hit Monday night

The New York City skyline in darkness as Hurricane Sandy hit Monday night

At first I just thought it would be a bad storm, but then I started to hear that the people around me were taking serious precautions: stocking up on non-perishables and water, finding the safest place of their house, preparing to stay off the streets. When I caught up with the news, it was scary to hear what was heading our way; there were road restrictions, transportation shut-downs, evacuations. Even classes were cancelled at Susquehanna.

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The U.S. in Words #1: In Hog Heaven (and More Ways to be Excited)

by Paula - Posts (11). Posted Saturday, October 27th, 2012 at 9:35 am

Editor’s note: Paula is an English as a Foreign Language teacher by training, so she’ll be sharing her experience in the U.S. through the phrases she’s learning, and the valuable words that describe her feelings and experiences.  So check back regularly for Paula’s special series, “The U.S. in Words.”  And don’t forget, if you’re looking for words about the U.S. education system, we define the terms you’ve suggested in our Glossary of Confusing Words.

In hog heaven – happy, in a perfect situation

I arrived in the U.S. two months ago as a Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) through a Fulbright Program. I had to literally pinch my arm to prove it wasn’t a dream. I started studying English when I was 7 and have loved the language since then. That love for English became love for the United States, and I have daydreamed about coming here ever since I was a child.

With the FLTAs at Stanford

With the FLTAs at Stanford

My first week was spent at Stanford University in California, together with 56 other FLTAs from around the globe. We were spoiled like little children with delicious food, parties and all kinds of activities to start off our year before we split up to go to the universities where we would ultimately be working and studying.

Towards the end of that week, as I prepared to travel to Susquehanna University, I started thinking, “Okay, that was too good to last for long.” I was preparing myself to start feeling homesick, or even to miss my new FLTA friends. But, guess what? That never happened.

When I met my advisor, she told me that it seemed I was in hog heaven.

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7 Events for International Students: Oct. 29-Nov. 2

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Friday, October 26th, 2012 at 6:22 pm

A slightly lighter week this week, but still some good events looking at business school admissions, community college options, and summer programs.

Plus, the ETS is offering free GRE prep courses.  More details here:

As always, if you attend any of these events, report back and let us know what you learned! (Use the comments, the Facebook page or just email me – And please share any online events you’ve found that we haven’t.

Coming up:

October 29

MBAWatch: Live Q&A with MIT Sloan
More details: 

October 30

EducationUSA: Community College Options
10am US eastern time
More details:
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Dana Explains Why American Professors Prefer Straightforward Essays

by Guest Post - Posts (67). Posted Friday, October 26th, 2012 at 10:31 am

In response to Sunny’s observation that American professors expect you to be very explicit in your writing, and that you must fully explain all of your assumptions and arguments (she says her TA advised her to “treat the professors like idiots” in her essays), commenter Dana suggests:

It is precisely because they *do* apply critical thinking skills to what they read that most Americans tend to prefer that writing be more direct and thoroughly expository, and not dependent on the reader bringing anything to it but an open mind.

Americans are culturally predisposed to be skeptical of non-fiction writing- especially journalism- that takes anything but a very straightforward and objective approach, and many of America’s best loved and most representative fiction writers like Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck are known for their masterful ability to use very simple and honest prose to present very complex ideas .

To use a common American phrase, they “tell it like it is” and in the end still require the reader to interpret what the intended message is…but Americans want to do that after getting all the facts in as plain and unvarnished a manner as they can, and tend to see any room left for interpretation in the original presentation as something to be concerned about, since that kind of vagueness is often used to justify all manner of tricks and scams.

We are at out core a nation of frontier dwelling pioneers, and people like that are generally not impressed by anything but straight talk and direct action and as a practical matter cannot afford to be hornswoggled or bamboozled by fancy talk.

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Getting the Most Out of Work-Study

by Anna Malinovskaya - Posts (17). Posted Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 at 2:30 pm

When I received my admission letter to Mount Holyoke College, I also received a set of documents outlining my financial aid package: a big grant, a much smaller loan, and earnings from my future work on campus.

I had expected loans and grants, but didn’t know much about how on-campus work would help fund my tuition.

It turns out that receiving campus earnings in your financial aid package doesn’t actually oblige you to work, but if you take advantage of the offer, students at Mount Holyoke can earn up to $2,100 per year by working at campus jobs.  If you choose to take a campus job, you get a paycheck every two weeks and are expected to use it to purchase books and other necessities. Campus jobs are actually open to any student, but students with work-study in their financial aid package are given priority in being selected for many positions.

I chose to take advantage of the work-study piece of my financial aid package, and have worked at a variety of different jobs to earn my money.

Interesting jobs

Lots of reading!

Working as a research assistant isn’t easy, but it’s rewarding (Creative Commons Photo: Stephanie Graves)

The most savvy students can get a job that not only earns them money but also gives them good experience. In my first year at Mount Holyoke, I got a position working as a research assistant for a professor in the Department of Russian and Eurasian Studies. In that job I was able to apply my knowledge of econometrics.  This was a nice first job to have, as I could apply my academic knowledge and skills.

This semester I’ll be working as a research assistant for a professor in the Economics Department. This job is also related to econometrics analysis, so I am really looking forward to it.

To get one of these research jobs, you usually have to make a good impression on a professor or department.  I didn’t have to ask either of the two professors for a job – they asked me after I took their class or did other work for them.

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A New Style of Education Through Cultural Diversity

by Mohammed Al-Suraih - Posts (5). Posted Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Before coming to the U.S., I went to college in Iraq. For four years, I was in classes five days a week from 8 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon. I have no clue how my brain is still intact and functioning after that.

I’m not going to attack that style of education, but I will say that I didn’t like it.  That’s why I decided to get a fresh start here, where education has a totally different meaning.

In particular, one thing that makes learning in the U.S. unique is that you don’t only learn from books – you learn from the stories of people you meet.

In the U.S., significant efforts are made to bring students from all over the world to study here. It’s almost a guarantee that you are going to meet people who are totally different from you.

I go to school in Duluth. Where is that? I know, right! It’s a small town in Minnesota. However, I have met people there from all around the globe. During my four years at college in Iraq, can you guess how many international students I met? I met none, my dear friends.

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The Student Union is…

A place to hear stories about studying in the U.S. Our bloggers have come from all over the world to U.S. universities, and they'll be sharing their experiences, advice and more.

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Glossary of Confusing Words

Find definitions of confusing words and terms about studying in the U.S. in our Glossary of Confusing Words.

All the words were submitted by YOU, so visit the glossary to see the words that have been defined already and to suggest your own.