Let me paint you a picture of why I felt the need to write this blog post…
The public relations industry here in the U.S. relies heavily on an effective use of the English language. As a field, it is competitive, charismatic and all about the compelling nature of the written and spoken word. To be an effective PR practitioner, the ability to write well is mandatory, be it for business proposals or internal reports, it’s essential. Simultaneously, we also need to speak well for presentations and pitches.
The picture I’m painting also includes hundreds, if not thousands, of international students studying PR in the United States. For many of us, English is not our first language. We are not native speakers- we had to learn the language, from the alphabet to consciously using it amongst our family and our friends.
My homeland is Malaysia, where our version of English is called “Manglish” because it is a concoction of English, Malay and Mandarin/Cantonese colloquialisms. The English we learned in school isn’t even American English- as a country colonized by the British, we learned the “Queen’s English” – which is just a way of saying that many words are spelled and pronounced differently than in the United States.
Despite this recipe of utter complexity, I have spent my entire life sharpening a tool I had to learn: being able to speak and write in English like a native speaker. I worked incredibly hard as a child, from memorizing 100 dictionary words each week to joining every writing contest I could get my essays and stories into. As an international student, the picture of the public relations industry as I see it includes one of a language barrier that is largely ignored.
For several years I have been a working as a test prep tutor for TOEFL, which most international students will be familiar with as it’s an English language test we are required to take to study in the U.S. Here are some of the tips I have given my students to help them improve their English to pass the test. If you find yourself struggling to express yourself or finding it an insurmountable obstacle to speak like a native speaker, maybe these tips will help you too!
Tip 1: Consume everything in English
From TV shows to movies and magazines, be sure that all of the media you are watching and reading are in the language you want to polish. I’ve always found it effective to figure out what your favorite media is and consume it in English. For example, I love watching TV shows. I grew up watching FRIENDS and The Office, which familiarized me with the American accent. Then, when I had to improve my Malay, I read Sailor Moon comic books in the Malay versions.
Tip 2: Surround yourself with English-speaking friends
Whether consciously or not, we tend to imitate the people around us to a certain extent. If you can spend more time with friends or classmates who are native speakers, do it. Learn how they speak, and have fun doing it!
Tip 3: Write, and not only for homework
A really good way to both improve and receive feedback on your writing and overcome your discomfort with a foreign language is to write as much as possible. I recommend starting a blog so you can write about your experiences away from home to get more practice in. Then, ask your friends to read your blog and let you know when they see you making mistakes. As a child, I wrote English in an incredibly formal, textbook-approved way because that’s how I learned it in school. But when I started blogging at 13, I learned to write in a way that connected more with my audiences and peers.
Tip 4: Don’t be discouraged
Language is not innate, it is learned. Don’t be discouraged from speaking up in classes or to your peers or professors just because you feel your words aren’t perfectly arranged. This is something I struggle with at times too, because I feel that I’m a much stronger writer than speaker. But I do it anyway, because I know if I don’t practice, I will get rusty and I will never improve. I have a professor who always tells me to “fake it ‘til I make it,” so I will pass that nugget of wisdom on.
Tip 5: Pay it forward
Once you improve your English, don’t be afraid of sharing your experiences with others. You never know, it might inspire a discussion and you can learn even more ways to improve your English too!