What to Do If You’re a Non-Native Speaker Student

Whenever people found out that I am Indonesian and taking a Master’s degree in English Literature, the first question that follows will almost certainly be, “But why?” Understandable, as I also asked myself the same thing. Especially when I found out that I was the only non-native speaker in my major.


Naturally, I have faced some issues along the way. My first weeks went by with me being desperate to participate in class discussion or to at least make small talks with my classmates. My words, which usually flow easily in writing, often lost or came out as broken English. Since I grew up learning American accent, I found it quite difficult to understand the Kiwis way of speak as well. As a result, although I’m normally the chatty, fast-talking one among my friends, when it comes to talk with native speakers I somehow lost my ability to speak or hear properly. Not only that, I also scrambled to understand the subjects. Assignments seemed endless and I felt terribly overwhelmed.

If you’re reading this there is a big chance that you, too, are like me. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Even after a semester, I found myself still adjusting to the academic life. As one struggling student to another, these tips below might help you:

1. Afraid to Talk? Don’t.
It’s actually that simple. It is normal to feel absolutely terrified of making mistakes when you speak – but trust me on this: no one is judging you. They know you are not native speakers, and they won’t expect Shakespeare-level fluency coming from you.

You can start by practicing English with your local friends. My Indonesian flatmate and I has this “English Day” rule in which we communicate in only English for the whole day. With this, we practice speaking our mind about topics that we may not too accustomed saying in English. Or, for UoA student, the university has an English-learning facility named ELE (English Language Enrichment). The instructors will be more than happy to assist you. You can also subscribe tolearningskillsworkshops@auckland.ac.nz, to find useful workshops. For example, “Let’s Talk to Aucklanders!” or “Talk to Local Students” workshops will help you to interact with super-friendly locals and overcome your anxiety of talking in English.

2. “Did You Say ‘Air’ or ‘Ear’?”
I’m gonna say it: New Zealand’s accent is tricky. As an Indonesian you may be more familiar with American accent or even British accent, but the Kiwis take it to a whole different level. Whether they’re saying “pen” or “pin”, “bitter” or “better”, or even supposedly different sounding words “seven” or “Steven”, is usually lost on me.

Actually, there are plenty of ways to get friendly with Kiwi accent. You can always attend the ELE workshops I mentioned earlier. But if you prefer to learn in private while being entertained, YouTube provides many videos of native Kiwis introducing their way of speaking and their slangs. There are also TED Talks videos with Kiwi natives presenting interesting and inspirational subjects that can really make you think. Or if you’d like, you can stream/watch NZ-made “Flight of The Conchords” TV series. It’s hilarious!

3. Whenever You Feel Like Banging Your Head Against Your Desk
Even when you understand English, sometimes the materials you read for class turned into alien language. You read and re-read the text for a hundred times and still it is difficult to understand what on earth it was about. Your 5000-word assignment takes at least two weeks to do, and then you found out your classmates finish theirs in a fortnight. True, they speak the language since they were infants, but these things can get pretty intimidating if your goal is to graduate with an academic honour. But it does not mean that you can’t!

The key is to understand your syllabus. What is the class about? What will you learn from it? Then, familiarise yourself with the topic. Search for additional materials in libraries or in the internet prior to every meeting to back up your knowledge and make it easier for you to contribute in class discussion.

If you don’t understand the assignment, just ask around! The lecturers are open to any question. Ask them after class or email them. And if you would like to seek help from other sources, the university also provides a facility named Student Learning Services. The super-friendly instructors will help you to plan your timetable and manage your time for assignments so you won’t feel too overwhelmed.

I might only have been here for five months, but so far it has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Being the only international student certainly opens up a whole different challenges for me since I started learning English. In the end, it all comes more easily. As you adjust to your new life in this strange land, you will realise that those experiences I mentioned earlier were just anxieties that come from unfamiliarity. You will speak more freely in class and among the Kiwis, understanding them more easily, then knowing and embracing what you are learning. Because that’s what I did! So just keep calm and enjoy the ride.

Zita Reyninta Sari
Master of English Literature – The University of Auckland

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