Cultural Challenges for International ESL Students

 In Study Abroad 101

So you’ve made decision to be an ESL student abroad! This will serve your personal and professional goals well in the future.  There is a lot to be excited about, but there is also the prospect of experiencing a new culture, where your language is not that your host country. For the ESL student studying abroad here are some experiences you may encounter, and tips on how to cope.

4 common ESL student abroad experiences

esl student1. Intimidation About Participating

OK, so I just told you how important participating in class is in America, right?  You may be feeling all SUPER confident about your English language skills before you board that plane for the US, but I guarantee that after you arrive you’ll be taken aback by how little you know.  American English is rife with slang and colloquialism, and it will all be flying by at warp speed.  Don’t fall into the trap of saying “yes” when you don’t understand.  Ask people to slow down.  Ask what unfamiliar words or phrases mean.  Practice.  Practice.  Practice.  Join a club of other ESL students who are all struggling to learn.  Make sure to speak English as often as you can.  There will be many times when people don’t understand you because of your accent.  Try not to get frustrated or embarrassed—Americans also have a wide variety of accents, and someone from the Bronx in New York is just as likely to say, “What?” to a person visiting from New Orleans.

2. New Food

Yes, the food will be different, that you already know, but the biggest difference will be PORTION SIZE.  America is the land of “super-sizing”, and if you aren’t mindful the freshman 15 could easily become 20, 25, or more.  You’ll be busy with your studies, and grabbing fast food will seem convenient, but take that meal, and put ½ in a to-go container.  It will save you money, you’ll have another meal—so you don’t have to run out again—saving you time, and it will give you a fighting chance to maintain a healthy weight even when you’re too busy to eat right and workout.

3. Financial Difficulties

Many of the bills and coins of American money are similar to one another.  The first thing you’ll want to do is to TRULY be able to recognize denominations and to make and receive the correct change.  Don’t accidentally leave a 300% tip on a bill; the waiter may just think you really loved the service.

Everything will likely cost more than what you’re used to, and there’s sales tax, so the price is not the final amount you’ll owe.  Just as it’s easy to overeat in America, it’s also easy to overspend.  America is a consumer nation.  Don’t get caught up in feeling like you need to buy every new item advertised.  Make a budget for yourself, and stick to it.  Spend money on experiences rather than stuff.

4. Grappling with Independence

In a way all of the experiences I’ve written about can all be boiled down to grappling with independence.  You’ll be on your own, maybe for the first time in your life.  Being responsible for your own finances, actions, and choices.  It will be intimidating but it can also be exciting.  As an ESL student studying in the US, you have a chance to find yourself.  Maybe you are someone wholly different once freed from the expectations, assumptions, and pressures of family, and the culture back home.

You’ll make mistakes; let’s get that out of the way right now.  Don’t expect to get everything right, or be completely prepared.  As an ESL student studying abroad in the US you’re diving from the high board into unknown waters.  Be as ready as you can be, but take a deep breath, and jump in.




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