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Studying at an English-speaking university as a non-native speaker

Worried your language skills might hold you back at an English-speaking university? Here’s how one international student made the transition

Victor Augusto De Oliveira 's avatar

Victor Augusto De Oliveira

Student at Middlesex University Mauritius
August 9 2021
learning English as a second language

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The main barrier I found when applying to an international university was not the application itself or obtaining a study permit, but the worry over how I would go from using my native language, Portuguese, to being taught in my second language, English.

I knew English from high school, but I questioned whether it would be sufficient at university.

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I came across Middlesex University when researching institutions in the UK, but it was the opportunity to study in other countries via Middlesex University’s satellite campuses that really caught my interest. After researching tuition fees, living costs, lifestyle and culture, I chose to study a Bachelor’s in Business Management at Middlesex University’s campus in Mauritius, moving there from Brazil with my family.

All the teaching at Middlesex University is in English. I did not feel comfortable enough with my English proficiency to jump directly into a degree, so I chose to join the university’s International Foundation Programme (IFP) for a year first. The IFP helped strengthen my personal and academic skills before starting my undergraduate degree.

Arriving at the university for the foundation year, I found myself overwhelmed with the number of things I would have to learn and adapt to, but the positive side was that I wasn’t the only student feeling this way. Hundreds of others had made the same choice. 

Improving in any new language requires practice, so I tried to chat to anyone I could to improve my English – even pronouncing words incorrectly seemed like practice. 

During the International Foundation Programme we received lots of feedback, particularly with regards to academic writing, presentations, research and structuring assignments.

By focusing on these basics, I found my English improving in a way that would later flow directly into my degree.


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Initially, my listening skills were not excellent, so sometimes I wouldn’t take notes in lectures because I needed to focus completely on the lecturer to understand what was being said.

I also tried to mimic certain aspects of the lecturer’s explanation to help myself and other students. Through the weekly classes, my English began to really improve. By the end of the foundation year, I had improved my ability to read, write, listen and speak English by starting conversations, observing teachers’ explanations and trying to communicate in English as much as I could.

When it came to starting my undergraduate degree after the foundation year, I had a slight advantage over the non-native speakers who joined directly.

Non-native speakers who came directly to the course sometimes struggled with vocabulary and structuring assignments, particularly the ability to write solid academic arguments. I had already gone through much of this in the foundation year.

Observing other students’ difficulties motivated me to become a student voice leader, where peers come together and help strengthen each other’s language skills.

Explaining specific content from classes to another student requires skill and patience, but I found it useful to find common ground between the class content and some aspect of the student’s life, then identifying a possible metaphor to facilitate the explanation to the student.

The second step was to challenge the student to give me an example using the metaphor. Having them explain it through a metaphor they understood helped reassure the student that what they had understood in the class was correct.

I have since joined the Learning Enhancing Team (LET) at Middlesex Mauritius to further aid students struggling with the same things I did in the past.

I’m now in my final year, and the ability to help other students has provided a great opportunity to make friends, learn about other countries, new perspectives, and most importantly new languages. My French is coming along well!


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