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Jessica Tse

SFU Co-op Student

Image of a diverse group of people dressed in business attire, standing in a semi-circle, laughing and drinking together
Brock DuPont on Unsplash
It’s okay to make mistakes!

As an international student being educated in Hong Kong for 16 years, one of my weaknesses is English. I can’t speak English fluently and always feel uncomfortable speaking the language. I’ve been looking for ways to improve my English, and I know that the most effective way to improve is to work in an English-speaking environment, to make myself speak more and listen more. It may sound scary at first, thinking about yourself being surrounded by proficient English-speakers in the office, having no idea on how to start a conversation with them, fearing that you won’t understand what your co-workers say. These are all the things that I am worried about too. Therefore, I am writing to share some strategies on what I have done to make the job easier.

Here are some tips I have for people who are going to work in an English-speaking environment:

1. It's Okay to Say I Don't Understand and to Ask for a Demonstration

As a non-native speaker, we have weaker listening skills when comparing to native speakers. For instance, sometimes, when our boss or co-worker talks too fast, it might be hard for us to catch up with every word they say and to get what they mean. In this case, it is important for us to let them know that we don’t understand and ask them to repeat their sentence. Usually, we would be able to understand the sentence when listening the second time. However, if we still don’t understand, we should always ask them to repeat again or to ask for demonstration. 

Don’t be afraid to ask as I believe your co-worker or boss would prefer repeating themselves than having you do the wrong task and causing problems.

2. Always Have a Notebook with You 

I would say it is very important to have a notebook with you at work, especially when you first start working in an English-speaking environment. The use of the notebook is for you to write down any words that you don't understand. 

In situations where you get to train together with other trainees, it may be hard for you to interrupt others in the middle of the training every time you don’t understand a word. With the notebook, it becomes easier for you to look up the word later.

Besides, another important use of a notebook is for you to take notes on what you’ve learnt throughout the day. In this way, you will remember what to do when you have to perform the same task again the next day.

3. Talk with your Colleagues During Lunch 

Say “Yes!” when your colleagues invite you for lunch. People always say that the fastest way to learn a language is to speak more and to listen more. Lunch with your co-workers gives you additional time to immerse yourself in an English-speaking environment outside of work. Through chatting, you get to become more familiar with how native speakers communicate, their accent and the way they speak. It’s also a great time to talk about stuff other than work, such as your favorite sport or movie, and thus build a healthy relationship with your co-worker. This makes your workplace more fun and it’s easier for you to ask your colleagues for help in the future.

4. Role Play with a Native Speaker 

Practice makes perfect. If you need to answer and make phone calls in your work, get a friend to roleplay as the customer and practice potential scenarios with her/him. If you need to write emails at work, get your co-worker to proofread them before hitting send. 

The advantage of role playing is that you get to do the same tasks as needed at work, but you have more time to think about what to say, rephrase your sentences and perform the task in a non-stressful environment. Besides, it helps you build up experience and self-confidence when handling situations in real life. With more practice, you will eventually be comfortable speaking in English at work.

To conclude, I believe the most important thing for all non-native speakers to work successfully in an English-speaking environment is to try your best and don’t be shy. It’s okay to make mistakes! If you’ve shown your boss and colleagues that you’ve tried your best and have been working hard for the team, I’m sure they will understand and will give you a lot of support to help you become a valuable member to the team.

Beyond the Blog

  • Interested in learning more about opportunities like Jessica's? Visit the SFU Co-op homepage to learn more. 

  • If you're an international student looking for resources to help transition to the workplace, check out our resources for English as an Additional Language co-op students. 

About the Author

Jessica Tse

SFU Co-op Student
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