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Five ways to master British slang as an international student

Struggling with British words, phrases and accents? Check out these five tips to help international students understand the different phrases spoken in the UK

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    Joy Hunter

    Student content curator
    February 4 2022
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    Many international students have learned English as a second language in their home country only to come to the UK and encounter an array of words, phrases and regional accents that they haven’t come across before.

    The difference between learning a language in a classroom and having a conversation with native speakers can often make you feel like you’re learning a new language all over again.

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    This is especially true in the UK. Despite being a relatively small country, there are about 40 different dialects used in the UK.

    The most common accents include the Birmingham (or Brummie) accent, the Liverpudlian (or Scouse, from Liverpool) accent, the Yorkshire accent, the Scottish accent, the Welsh accent and the East London (or cockney) accent.

    A speaker with one accent will pronounce certain words differently from an individual with another accent, and many areas tend to have their own particular phrases, sayings and regional words that aren’t used anywhere else in the UK.

    Confused? If so, check out these five tips for international students who want to master British slang.

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    1. Check out what YouTube has to offer

    Watching your favourite university vloggers can be a great way to brush up on your English, especially if you want to learn some of the specific slang words used in the city where you will attend university.

    There are also several YouTube channels dedicated specifically to learning different regional slang from around the UK.

    YouTuber Korean Billy has amassed a huge following for his videos about different UK accents and common phrases from different areas of the country. The creator had his Liverpool slang video endorsed in the comments by many Liverpudlian locals, also known as Scousers.

    English Jade, another popular YouTuber, also has a range of videos covering local dialect words and phrases on her channel Learn English with engVid.

    There is also a series of videos on the Vanity Fair YouTube channel in which British actors explain common slang words and phrases. This is another great resource for international students.

    “I once watched an interview on YouTube with Tom Hiddleston where he explained the phrase ‘not my forte’,” says Alyssa Lee, an international student from China who has previously studied in the UK. “I ended up using the phrase ‘mathematics is not my forte’ in my IELTS speaking test, which I recently passed,” she adds.

    2. Put your TikTok addiction to good use

    TikTok is a wonderful platform for English-language learning, and lots of accounts are dedicated to explaining the intricacies of British slang.

    One great example is How To British, the TikTok channel presented by Megan Vincetta. Her short-and-sweet videos explain everything from slang words for winter weather, to how to compliment people using common British phrases, to the subtle differences between some words in British and American English.

    There are also lots of TikTok accounts dedicated to explaining common British phrases and offering translations into other languages to help you learn. It’s well worth seeking out accounts that will translate British slang into your native language.

    3. Watch some British television shows

    Beyond its reputation for great universities and slightly questionable weather, the UK is also renowned for its abundance of film, television and comedy talent, meaning you’ll never run out of British shows to watch.

    Viewing British comedies and television shows is not only a great way to familiarise yourself with the country’s culture and humour, but it also serves as a window into how English is spoken across the UK.

    In fact, many British shows have gained a cult following in other countries precisely because they are such useful tools for learning words and phrases particular to England.

    “Watching British TV shows, especially comedies, definitely helped me get more comfortable with British slang,” says Alyssa.

    “There are so many words used all the time by native English speakers in the UK that just never came up in our textbooks,” she observes.

    Both Alyssa and Sam Xia, another international student from China who studied in the UK, mention the popularity of the TV shows Merlin, Sherlock and Miranda for helping Chinese English learners familiarise themselves with the language.

    Other popular shows that offer a great insight into British culture and slang include Fresh Meat, The Inbetweeners, Downton Abbey, Doctor Who, Peaky Blinders and Sex Education.

    4. Practise with your friends

    There is no substitute for putting in hard work when it comes to becoming more proficient and fluent in a language, and the real key to speaking like a UK native is practice.

    Many universities will also offer some extra support for non-native speakers, whether that’s with formal language courses to top up your knowledge or by offering you an informal mentor or buddy for support as needed.

    Another good move is to actively socialise with students from the UK, or at least other international students who are not from your home country. While it’s understandable that you may naturally connect more quickly with students who share a similar background to you, putting yourself out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself to speak English within diverse groups is how you’ll really improve.

    5. If you don’t know, ask

    Last but not least, remember that it’s always OK to ask if you don’t understand something.

    Within universities, people will often generally be aware that the English that international students have been studying through a textbook will be missing a lot of commonly used phrases and slang words.

    While it may be a little nerve-racking, it’s always best to speak up – or pipe up, to use a common English phrase – and ask for clarification where needed. Asking a simple question today will save a lot of confusion tomorrow, and you may well find that other international students will have been thinking exactly the same thing and will be relieved that you asked.

    You may also notice other students might limit their use of slang words and phrases around you if they think you may not understand them. If you feel this is the case, it’s worth asking people to use the slang and phrases they would normally use so you can keep on learning from those around you.

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