People of other nations are required to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or an equivalent exam in order to become students in US universities. Passing does not always mean that they are proficient or confident in every aspect of the English language.  Many international students and scholars you meet will want help from native speakers.  Here are five ways to assist your international friend in gaining skill and confidence.

1. Activate Passive Vocabulary

To pass that TOEFL, your student friend had to learn a great deal of vocabulary.  Most students memorize lists and lists of words and their meanings.  As you converse, you will use words that he is familiar with but has never heard being used in a sentence.  You are helping him to activate his passive vocabulary, so go ahead and use “big” (or less common) words because, chances are, he has met them before!

Another vocabulary builder is to stick to one topic and explore many facets of it.  As you converse, you’ll use a number of keywords over and over.  By hearing them in context, he will gain confidence that he, too, can use them correctly.  Try this when you talk about his major, a common interest, hobby, or news item.

Idioms are tricky.  Initially, minimize the number of idioms you use and your friend will comprehend more of your conversation.  The more you talk, the more idioms you both will use and your friend will thank you for introducing them – and correcting him – as you go.  The tough part is explaining an idiom.  You may need to look up the meaning (try, “when pigs fly” or “blue in the face”).  Aren’t you thankful for quick access to the internet?  The following are some helpful websites:

  1. Dave’s ESL Cafe – Idioms
  2. Learn English Today – English Idioms and Idiomatic Expressions
  3. English Language – Smart Words & Meanings

If it’s a common prepositional phrase (turn on, turn off, take turns, get on, get over, get around), sometimes the best explanation would be, “that’s just the way we say it!”  One example is the confusion between “contact” and “be/get in contact with.”  It may take a few times modeling the correct usage to help your friend go from “I’ll contact with you tonight” to “I’ll contact you tonight,” or “I’ll be in contact with you later.”

2. Model Correct Grammar

Grammar isn’t your forte?  Don’t let that stop you!  English learners can often explain grammar rules better than we native speakers can!   But they don’t always remember to use the rules correctly and, if not corrected, they sometimes get in the habit of saying things incorrectly.  Each time you get together, choose one thing that sounds obviously incorrect and correct it – not by explaining the rule, but by modeling the correct usage.  Paraphrasing or repeating what your friend said, with correction, works well.  For example, subject and verb agreement:  “My boyfriend have a class at 11:00.”  “Oh, did you say your boyfriend has a class at 11:00?”

Some languages have only a few prepositions, which serve in many ways and situations.  Use of prepositions in English is a common area of difficulty because there are so many of them and they are used in specific situations or set phrases.  Gentle correction as your friend speaks would be sufficient.  If prepositions continue to give her trouble, offer to walk together through some focused exercises (which you can find on the internet) for practice using them accurately.

Go to:

  1. English Grammar Online – Prepositions
  2. Grammar Bank – Prepositions Exercises

3. Polish Speaking and Listening Skills

It is likely that you already correct your friend’s pronunciation (a silent letter as in debt or receipt), rhythm (on which syllable is the accent?) and intonation (as in giving a list of items) as you converse so that you can better understand what she is saying to you.  For practice, ask her to read aloud a short paragraph and work on the pronunciation, rhythm, and intonation of individual parts.  Finish with her reading the passage without a break and comment on her gains in fluency.

When it’s your turn to speak, be aware of your use of repetition (don’t change, but say the same thing), volume (on repetition, don’t get louder as if she can’t hear you), and speed (if she constantly asks you to repeat, you may need to speak more slowly or more quickly).  If she still doesn’t grasp what you said, paraphrase or add a short explanation.

4. Practice Presentation Skills

At some point everyone has to give a speech or make an oral presentation or have an interview. Offer to listen to your friend practice, and give feedback for improvement.  This might include proper pronunciation of a word, rhythm of a particular phrase, a tweak in the grammar, making eye contact or shaking hands appropriately.

If you are comfortable helping with written communication, offer to edit her paper, résumé, or PowerPoint presentation.  Caution: Don’t do her work for her; edit what she brings!

5. Give Timely Encouragement

Every language learner reaches a plateau now and then.  Show empathy and give encouragement when you can.  Have you ever been a foreign language learner? Tell stories on yourself.  What happened when you hit a plateau?  What blunders did you make?   Can you laugh at yourself – and help your friend laugh at himself?  When you do see or hear progress, take note and comment on it.  That may be just the inspiration he needs to keep on gaining proficiency in this crazy English language!