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What can English Language Learners do to make college easier?

Ben Fillmore

Many years ago, as an undergraduate student, I was attending the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Guadalajara, Mexico.  It was fantastic! The college culture was alive, and I was studying with students from all over the world. However, speaking, reading, and writing in a foreign language was still very difficult for me. Even though I was encouraged by almost everyone around me to try and speak only in Spanish, I constantly found myself drifting towards the English speakers. Why was this the case?

Trying to speak only in Spanish was exhausting and at times embarrassing. In class one day, I gathered up the courage to raise my hand and answer a question in front of the class. I did my best; it wasn’t good, but I thought it would pass. After stumbling through what I had to say, I was greeted with blank stares and snickering. I then said, “Estoy muy embarazada.” Thinking that I had said that I was embarrassed, what I actually said was “I am so pregnant.” Laughter erupted from the rest of the class. Not only did I use the wrong word, I failed to conjugate the adjective as well.  Literally, I said I was a very pregnant woman. I didn’t say a word in class for weeks.



I have never forgotten that moment in Guadalajara and how it made me feel. Now, I recognize the same pattern happening with my students. I have been an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor for thirteen of my fifteen years of teaching. The majority of my students have always been ELLs (English Language Learners). I like to say, “Spin the globe, then place a finger on it to stop it from spinning and I bet I have taught someone from there.” A bit dramatic, right? However, it’s not too far from the truth.

I have always taught in higher education; that is, my students are adults. It’s said that there is a language-acquisition window, somewhere around puberty, give or take a few years. After which, our ability to learn a new language declines. This goes hand in hand with language ego or language anxiety. As adults, we have developed an insecurity around the social pressure to know everything. This includes learning another language. As a teacher, I have heard many times, “My English is not very good.” This is most often followed by a very silent student who struggles to participate in class. However, as we talk privately it is never the case.



As a child, language acquisition is a natural, relatively easy process. Children are sponges when it comes to learning language. However, as adults, we don’t want to appear unintelligent in front of our peers. One small embarrassing moment can lead to the resistance of trying again. I think we have all been here to one degree or another.

So, as students, how can we make the transition from our first language (L1) to our second language (L2, which in this case is English) any easier? According to Jamie Harrison and Hong Shi, both from Auburn University, in a study from 2016, there are a few steps we can take to get the most from our teacher’s instruction and experience as college students (Harrison and Shi, 2016). Their approach is two fold: What can teachers do to help our students and what can our students do to help themselves. In this article, I will address students and do my best to provide a bit of advice on how to make this transition easier.

As a student:

1. Be visible to the teacher and to other students: no wallflowers.

When I was a child just entering first grade, my father told me on the first day of class to walk right up to the teacher, introduce myself and sit in the front row. This always made me visible to the teacher and let the teacher know that I was serious about their class. I have always been an extrovert, so this was never a problem for me. However, not everyone is an extrovert.

Here is the flipside: according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, a wallflower is “a person who from shyness … remains on the sidelines of a social activity [such as being in class], or a shy or reserved person.” In order to diminish the stress level on the first day, don’t go into class as a stranger to the teacher. Reach out to your teacher before class begins with an email or phone call.

2. Initiate relationships with classmates and teachers: courage.

This one is a little tough for some new students. Remember that everyone in your class is a relatively new student, and no one wants to look foolish. However, this can be an opportunity for an ELL to present themselves as a friendly, ready-to-meet-other-students kind of person. I will agree, wholeheartedly, that this is not easy. This takes courage, to say the least, but the payoff will be incredible. I have learned over the years to see a group of strangers as potential friends and colleagues. The hard part is taking that first step. Remember that you can make more friends with words than silence.

3. Always be yourself.

Throughout my educational, professional, and social life, l have learned that it is always best to be who I am. I look back to high school and wonder what I was thinking. I had to have the right pants. I had to hang out with the right people. I had to agree with ideas and people that I had little in common with. It was exhausting. When I was able to rid myself of this need, I was able to be my true self in any situation. This gave me a boost to my confidence that I had never had before. Being able to express myself in public was liberating and empowering. Additionally, I was able to ask for what I needed to be successful in class.

4. Know that who you are is enough and that you deserve respect.

As an ELL your task is twice as challenging, if not more, than any student that already has mastered the English language. You have a unique perspective on language learning, education, and life in general. Share your experiences with classmates and teachers, and be ready to talk about them; they are important. The more you communicate with your teachers and fellow students, the more comfortable you will feel in class.  Demonstrating your willingness to participate in conversations shows those around you that you are trying to accomplish the complex goal of learning another language.

5. Prepare prior to class.

Have you ever been caught off guard in a situation where you were called upon to answer a question in class that you had not prepared for? As a teacher, I see this in every class. The second I ask the class a question, it becomes obvious who is ready and who isn’t. Immediately, there are a few hands in the air, ready to answer the question at hand. Then, there is the other half of the students who, all of a sudden, need to check their watches to see what time it is, or very closely inspect their shoes.

6. Be ready to participate.

In my experience as a student and a teacher, this may be the best advice I can provide. The more a student can prepare for class, the better. Being prepared will help students feel less stress while in class because they will know ahead of time what will be discussed in class or during group work. This goes for any student. A native speaker may be able to “talk” their way out of being called on in class, but it is much more difficult for any student still learning English. Therefore, be prepared.

In conclusion, being visible to the teacher, initiating relationships, being yourself, and being prepared are just a few strategies that can help lessen language anxiety and boost your confidence. Due to the fact that we are all individuals, and we all learn in different ways, not all the advice above may be applicable to you, but it sets out a few simple guidelines to help avoid appearing pregnant in Guadalajara.


All love, and best wishes,


B.R. Moose



Harrison, J., & Shi, H. (2016). English Language Learners in Higher Education: An Exploratory Conversation. Journal of International Students, 6(2), 415–430. doi.org/10.32674/jis.v6i2.364


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Open English @ SLCC Copyright © 2016 by Ben Fillmore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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