Similar to having a GPS while driving, having an English-speaking friend helps an international student navigate unfamiliar territory while living in the US.
Russ Sermon (IFI Columbus staff) states that most international students have three felt needs:

  1. to make an American friend
  2. to practice their English with an American, and  
  3. to be welcomed into an American home.

Russ reports that sadly, over 90% of international students nationwide do not achieve even one of these three goals during their time in the United States.
With help from a native English speaker, international students can get a grip on understanding the American slang and idioms they encounter, and meet one or more of their felt needs.

What is an idiom?

Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary defines an “idiom” as “an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own…”

For example to “Kill two birds with one stone” is an idiom meaning to accomplish two goals at one time or with one action. Let me kill two birds with one stone and finish folding this laundry while we talk.   

What is slang?

Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary defines “slang” as:  “words that are not considered part of the standard vocabulary of a language and that are used very informally in speech especially by a particular group of people…”

For example “Freak out” is slang for being very upset or agitated. “I nearly freaked out when the teacher told us we were having a pop quiz!

Common Slang and Idioms

Most international students attending a university in the United States have a high level of English comprehension; since they have to pass proficiency tests such as the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and other standardized tests as part of admission to school.

However, it is unlikely that international students have learned many American slang expressions or idioms. This lack can result in confusion as international students encounter slang and idioms in everyday conversation with native English speakers. Native English speakers often use slang and idioms in conversation without realizing it. Usages such as “beat around the bush” or “that was like pulling teeth” are not intuitive to international students.  Even a greeting such as “What’s up?” can be baffling.

Here are some common slang and idioms you might use in conversation with international students without realizing that you may be confusing them.

  • “ASAP” As soon as possible – e.g. I will be there ASAP!  
  • “Get out” Expression of great surprise or disbelief. – e.g. Get out! That’s amazing news!
  • “Broke” Without money, having spent it all. – e.g.  I’m broke until payday.  
  • “Beat” Very tired. – e.g I don’t think I will be there tonight, I’m beat!  
  • “Break a leg!” Good luck wish from the world of theater. – e.g. Good luck tonight, break a leg!  
  • “It’s on me” or “my treat”  I will pay for this.
  • “Fat chance” No chance. – e.g. Fat chance he has in winning the competition.  
  • “Fill in” Give more information. – e.g Fill me in on the details! Or I will fill you in on the details later.  
  • “Play it by ear”  Be spontaneous, let circumstances guide what we do. – e.g. My schedule is flexible, so we can play it by ear.
  • “Feeling under the weather” Feeling ill. – e.g. I am not going to be there tonight since I am feeling under the weather.  
  • “Coming down with something” Getting sick. – e.g. I hope I’m not coming down with something.
  • “Eat a horse” Very hungry. – e.g. Let’s get lunch!  I’m so hungry I could eat a horse!  

Interested in more? See a longer list of idioms at Learn English Today.

Be mindful of using slang and idioms when speaking with internationals. Give international students opportunities to ask questions to make sure they understand what you say. Ask them to tell you what they heard you say.

Tips for Recognizing When Your International Friend Is Baffled

  • Watch your friend’s facial expressions.  
    If your friend is staring at you intently, looking at you as if you are not finished speaking, such as when you say “you killed it” referring to the exam you just took, your friend may be baffled and expecting more information from you to figure out what you are saying. 
  • Be aware of your friend’s level of English comprehension.
    Internationals’ ability to converse depends on their level of language comprehension. For example, if their level of comprehension is lower they might be most comfortable using shorter phrases when responding to questions or conversating. 
  • Don’t assume understanding!
    If your international friends don’t look confused or ask questions, don’t assume that they  understand when you say something such as “It’s raining cats and dogs out there!” If you think your international friends might be baffled, ask! Ask whether they understand what you are talking about. International students might not ask you to explain what you mean, fearing it could embarrass you or make them look like they can’t understand English. You doing the asking can help international student with their understanding. Alternatively, you could simply explain the idiom or expression to your international student right after using it.

Additional “trouble spots”

Areas of difficulty in the English language will be different for each international student. However, “trouble spots” can sometimes be country specific.  For example, Russ says that the Japanese do not have a sound for the letter “L” in their language so they substitute it with the sound for the letter “R.” In addition to American slang and idioms, unfamiliar vocabulary and  actions or interactions can be challenging for our international friends.

  • Vocabulary
    Did you know that the English language has the largest vocabulary of any language in the world? Not only is the English vocabulary vast, it continues to grow every day! Vocabulary and pronunciation can be difficult for international students. Russ says that internationals are challenged by many English words that sound alike but mean different things, such as “reign” vs. “rain” or “whether” vs. “weather.” 
  • Unfamiliar activities
    It can be a difficult when international students are forced to interact with Americans in unfamiliar situations such as returning an item to a store, purchasing a cellphone, or setting up an American bank account. Internationals may be unaccustomed to expressions used in such situations. Such situations are even more challenging if the American is talking very fast.

    Consider role-playing these situations with your international friends in advance to help prepare them for the conversation. You could also offer to accompany them to make them feel more confident during their experience.

Ways Native English Speakers Can Help International Students

  • Have patience
    Love is patient (1 Corinthians 13:4).  Being patient with your international student will show that you care. Your patience will also help students relax and take more risks when speaking. Patience reassures international students that they are safe with you and that mistakes are okay. This helps to build relationship. 
  • Be humble
    Russ reminds us that “the primary goal of speech is communication. If you understood what your international student said, you do not need to correct them.” Instead of correcting, use the correct form of speech when responding to what they said. For example, if the student says “I like to cooking” you can respond: “Oh, you like to  cook!” and follow up with a question: “What do you like to cook?” If you make it your job to correct your international friends as a teacher would in the classroom, it could hinder the development of a deeper relationship with them. 
  • Speak slowly and pronounce words distinctly
    If your international friend is having trouble understanding you, be careful to avoid “lazy linguistics,” such as running words together and dropping endings. It may be more helpful to speak slowly and pretend you are dictating your words to someone. As students progress in their speaking ability, feel free to relax your speaking as well to help them comprehend how a typical conversation sounds. 
  • Be eager to listen and slow to speak.
    Give internationals opportunities to speak. Ask questions and follow up on what they tell you. Russ estimates that “80% of ministry is the art of asking good questions.” Resist the urge to dominate the conversation.  Ask about their own country, their family, what adventures they’ve had, something new they’ve experienced in the US, etc.

Next Steps: Find Ways To Practice!

There are many ways to help international students practice their English. Contact your local IFI ministry to see if they organize these types of service:

  • Volunteer to be an IFI Conversation Partner
    IFI Conversation Partners commit to meet regularly with an international student for conversation and friendship. The time commitment can vary, depending on your schedule and your student’s schedule. 
  • Volunteer at English Conversation Club
    IFI’s English Conversation Club runs for 6 weeks from the beginning of each semester. It is an informal club that gives international students opportunities to practice their English with other international students and IFI volunteers. The club meets for two hours each week and includes both large and small group activities in which international students can practice their English.

    If you do not have an English Conversation Club in your area, consider starting one. The first step would be to talk with professors and international students in your area to determine if an English Conversation Club is actually needed. You may also want to find out if anyone in your area already is providing these services.

    If you are interested in developing an English Conversation Club, Russ suggests For a fee, the website provides access to ESL content that you could use to develop activities to help internationals practice their English. The content is very conversational. Russ considers this a resource that can benefit both an English Conversation Club and ESL classes.   

Related IFI articles:

5 Ways to Help Your International Friend with English
Meet Carole Kindle*: English Conversation Partner
Meet Kristin Schoeff: English Conversation Partner
4 Ways to Start Genuine Conversations With International Students

Additional IFI resources:

Info Sheet- English Conversation Partner
Conversation Starters