When English is not your first language

Firstly, congratulations for being here!

Choosing to study in a different culture is brave. Being immersed in an English-speaking environment can be tricky if English is not your native language.

Academic writing has a language of its own too, which adds to your workload. Don’t worry: even Australian-born students have to learn how to write effectively at university.

Common challenges

Here are some of the challenges you may face:

Social context Possible issues Suggestions
Australians speak quickly, often mumble, and have an accent that differs from American and British English. Thinking your English isn’t good enough may impact your confidence. You may feel pressure to pretend that you understand, especially if you do not feel confident to speak.

You may be confused about what’s been decided in a group project. You may feel hesitant about joining in discussions.

Give yourself time to get used to the Australian accent. Once your ear adapts to it, you will not feel so overwhelmed.

Spend time with native speakers – sessions with your uni Mentor are a great place to start.

Ask questions. No question is silly. It will help clarify expectations of lecturers, tutors, other students – even your own.

Prepare for tutorials in advance, so you know what words, phrases, and ideas might be discussed.

Australians like to shorten words. For example, barbecue = barbie; football = footy; afternoon = arvo
University context
Groupwork with Australian students can be challenging due to different expectations.
Participation in tutorials is difficult when the conversation moves quickly.

Talking with your lecturer or tutor

Speaking directly with your lecturer or tutor about your study is acceptable in Australia. Some lecturers and tutors have an ‘open door’ and you may be able to visit their office unannounced. Other staff invite you to email your questions first and then book a time to meet with you.

If you feel uncomfortable speaking with them directly, then write an email first. Academic staff are generally pleased to know you are engaging with your study and will reply.

Seeking an extension

Lecturers prefer direct communication. Alert them to difficulties you may be having in completing an assessment task by the due date. Doing this is considered respectful. However, asking the lecturer for an extension the day before the due date does not give you the best chance of receiving one.

Give them at least three days’ notice for an extension. This way, you will not lose marks, you will reduce stress, and have more time to complete it.

You could:

  • email your lecturer to ask for an extension
  • speak to them after class to ask for an extension
  • download our handy helpsheet, Email Communication

If you submit your assessment task late without asking for an extension, your lecturer will deduct marks. They will also not have a good impression of you.

Electronic dictionaries

Try not to rely on an electronic language dictionary for accurate translations or synonyms of words you don’t know. Electronic language dictionaries do not always have accurate discipline-specific translations.

English-English dictionaries or a subject-specific dictionary may be more helpful.

Google Translate

Although Google Translate is helpful in translating conversation, using it to translate large amounts of text into English for an assignment is not as effective. The translation is seldom accurate to the degree it needs to be, and it is even less likely to be written in an academic style.

If you want to use Google Translate, limit the amount you convert into English, and always check it is a ‘true’ translation by translating it back into your first language.

One way to check how accurate this software is: type in a selection of text from an academic article written in English and translate it into your first language. Compare what comes out…

English language support

Federation University offers several short courses to assist with English speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Read more here.