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Studying in English

It may seem daunting, perhaps, but thousands of students who speak English as a second language study for a postgraduate qualification in the UK every year. They graduate with not only a degree from a highly respected British institution, but also a fluency in English and an understanding of a foreign culture that sets them apart from their contemporaries.


For Oscar Alvarez, this was definitely part of the attraction. ‘I was looking to study abroad in an English-speaking country,’ he says. Oscar came to the University of East Anglia (UEA) in 2001 to do an LLM, but had studied English at home in Mexico City for three years previously. In Mexico, we are at a huge disadvantage because we don’t really get taught English in school.’ Oscar was 27 when he started learning, but he did very well in his English test, gaining an IELTS score of 7.5. ‘I did a special training course run by the British Council in Mexico City, which helped me a lot in getting a high mark.’

Help with your English

If English is not your own first language then you will have had to demonstrate that you have a suitable level of English language skills before you could enter the program. However, many students whose English is quite good still feel the need for support with language skills, perhaps because of the technical language needs of their subject or because they feel that the quality of their writing and reading could be even better if they had more training. There are several ways of getting help with your written or spoken English:
• You could do this informally, through the network of friends and colleagues that you will form. International students often help each other with language skills, and UK students are often happy to help their friends with their writing or reading skills. This can be very helpful in the early stages of a programme, perhaps when you are preparing your first written assignment or the first drafts of parts of your thesis or your first lab reports – many international students ask friends to read through their written work and help them improve their English in this way.
• You can do it formally. All universities will have continuing courses in English for international students, and, although you will need to pay the fees for such courses, they can be very helpful to continuously improve your language skills.
• You can do it commercially. This means that you can pay to attend a course at a separate English language school. Most towns or cities in the UK have English language schools that offer tuition and English language tests, and will offer courses at a range of levels.

The best advice, though, is to use English as much as you can. If you are one of many postgraduate students from your own country it is easy just to mix with them and speak your own language with them. However, if you mix with a wide range of people you will have to speak English – and, of course, you could agree with your friends that you will only speak English most of the time, saving your own language for specific occasions or one day of the week (perhaps Saturdays). Also, by reading English magazines and newspapers, watching UK television or listening to the radio your language skills will improve quickly.

Pre-sessional English courses

Getting tested before you come to the UK is essential, as it is almost impossible to get accepted by a university without producing evidence of your English proficiency. If your score falls way below the requirement, it is advisable to stay at home and continue your language studies. However, if it is just short of the minimum score, you may be accepted on condition that you attend a pre-sessional English course.

Most universities hold pre-sessional courses for six weeks before the start of the academic year, when students can brush up their English and get valuable preparation for studying at the institution. "Although I was only required to have a score of 6.0, I decided to do the pre-sessional course at UEA," says Oscar. "It was very useful in terms of getting familiarised with the teaching environment. I got a 'cultural awareness', which is sometimes lacking in non-native speakers who arrive at British universities."

Things to be aware of when studying in English

Oscar felt well prepared when he started his degree, but he admits he found it hard initially, particularly getting used to the all the legal terminology and the different accents. At the University of Aberdeen, Anna-Maija List is researching a PhD in Linguistics. Originally from Finland, where they learn English from the age of nine, even she found things tricky when she transferred from the University of Tampere to complete her first degree two years ago. "In the beginning, following some of the lectures was quite difficult. Some of the lecturers had Scottish accents and we’d been taught what I’d call 'BBC English' at school. However, I got the hang of it quite quickly."

Talking to and being understood by your fellow students can present problems. They will often use colloquialisms that are hard to understand. As a result, there is a natural tendency to only move in international student circles, something both Anna-Maija and Oscar find understandable. However, they feel this should not prevent you from widening your circle of friends to include some locals. "Now I am doing a PhD, I have the opportunity to spend more time with native speakers, which is definitely making me more confident," says Oscar.

Anna-Maija and Oscar have both progressed, in a very short time, from being afraid to open their mouths in seminars to being fluent English speakers, who can take notes in that once unfamiliar language without difficulty. "My advice to anyone is not to be as self-conscious as I was about speaking English," says Anna-Maija. "Most British people are so impressed when foreign people speak English that they are always going to do their best to understand." Oscar agrees: "Yes, be self-confident, even a bit arrogant, in terms of speaking. And take advantage of all the social activities around the university. They are great opportunities to keep practising your English!"

Before starting your postgraduate program

1 Find out from your university department what English scores they require. This varies not only from institution to institution, but according to subject and course. Also find out which English tests are acceptable – not all of them are.

2 Get your English tested before you come to the UK. If you do not achieve the score required, then do as much as you can to improve before you arrive in the UK. If you can take a course in English at home, so much the better. Get your score as high as possible before you come to the UK. Be careful not to arrive too soon, as scores far below the entry requirements cannot be improved in a short, pre-sessional course.

3 Get as much exposure to English as possible. Read books, surf the Internet, listen to the English-speaking radio and see undubbed films in English.

4 Make sure your English-language course prepares you for reading, writing, listening and speaking, as all these skills will be put to the test once you are in the UK. If possible, find a course taught by a native speaker.

5 Find out how your course is assessed – often this is by regular essay-writing and written examinations. Ask the department for a reading list, so you can see what kind of texts you will be required to understand.

6 If possible, get your university to put you in touch with a student from your own country currently studying at the institution. Then make contact by e-mail and ask them about their experience of learning in English.

7 If possible, sign up for the pre-sessional English course at your chosen institution. Even if you have fulfilled the university’s English language requirement, this will give you a gentle introduction to the culture of studying in the UK.


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