Being an English Major When English Isn’t Your First Language (And Some Really Good Advice for All International Students)

Being an English Major When English Isn’t Your First Language (And Some Really Good Advice for All International Students)

August 14th, 2020

by Wendy Tafur N.

I recently graduated as an English/Creative Writing major, so I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on how this specific kind of literature-based program changed the way I write, read, and think. Even before I applied, I knew I wanted to be a writer, and my whole childhood and teenage years I read in English, so I felt pretty fluent and prepared. I was confident, but I definitely didn’t expect what was coming.

As an Ecuadorian whose first language is Spanish, I expected that moving to the U.S. for college would be a challenge. But, I didn’t realize until I started taking college English classes that there was a lot that professors would assume their students would already know. There were a lot of little tests on this journey, but I mostly found myself complaining of the following:

“I thought I was fluent in English but I’ve never heard that expression before.”

This is not even just an English thing, my friends learning Spanish have the same problem. It’s hard to become “completely fluent” in a language without moving there or visiting for a while. Why? Because slang is just as much part of everyday language. Because I wanted to be a writer, it was important for me to understand this because I want my dialogue to be as natural as possible. But, what do you do when even your professor uses slang to joke about the reading?

I was a freshman the first time this happened, so it took all of my courage to raise my hand and ask my professor what she meant. Even though I thought it might be a stupid question, she apologized to me and explained it, saying it was okay that I was confused since it was an unusual expression. In future occasions, I tried to understand slang from context or ask my friends later, but it was good to know no one would judge me for this kind of question.

“I don’t understand American culture.”

This one is so complex it’s hard to explain without an example. I took a class called American Literature in Context, where the whole point was to analyze American literature and how it was influenced by whatever was happening socially or politically at the time the author lived. There was an instance where, during a gothic novel’s analysis, a classmate made a strange comparison. It was something along the lines of how ghosts in a story were used as a metaphor to represent grandparents that have been forgotten. I must have looked somewhat confused because my friend who sat next to me immediately said, “It’s not as common for us as it is in Latin-American cultures to keep up with extended family members.” Obviously, this is a bit of a generalization, but my point is because of my own context I was reaching different interpretations, so I was worried this would be a problem.

“Wait, you all read this in high school? I’ve never even heard of this!”

A lot of English majors took AP English in high school, which basically means higher level English classes.  When I was in high school, we did have some required readings that were “well known English literature,” but most of my readings in English were for fun. I read a lot of Young Adult Literature, and when I came to the U.S. and started studying in the major, I felt almost uncultured. People would reference well known poets and writers and I would have to write it down and research later. I would be lying if I said this wasn’t a small hit on my confidence. I started getting scared of participating or asking questions in fear of looking ignorant.

It took me a while to realize I wasn’t the only one that felt this way, so if you’re planning on being an English major, here is some advice I think you’ll find useful.

Really, just ask the professor.

Your professor is there to help you. The dynamic may be a bit different in some universities, but there is always someone who will help you with the lecture if you have any problems with it. For me, being able to meet the professor one-on-one was an important part of studying, so I picked a university with smaller class sizes so the professors would be easier to approach. Attend your professor’s office hours or ask them a question during the break if you are too shy to raise your hand.

Work with a classmate or friend.

Take advantage of group projects as an opportunity to meet others in your class. If you miss a lecture, they will be your greatest help. One of my professors wrote on the syllabus to write down the name and phone number of two classmates in case you ever missed class, and while I didn’t do it, there was more than one time that I had wished I did.

Always prepare for class.

Do the readings. You can’t really complain about not understanding the lesson if you don’t do your part. It’s hard to keep up sometimes, but if you don’t do the readings how are you going to ask the right questions? You won’t seem stupid for asking about the language used in a story, but if you don’t read it, you won’t even know what to ask.

The only time when it’s okay to not be “prepared” is if you start realizing that because it’s your second language it’s taking you longer to finish the readings or write the papers. In this case, you should also approach your professor or advisor and ask about what options you have or if you can get an extension on assignments.

Know that your perspective is valid.

Sure, a lot of classmates will know more than you about American literature, but you might also know more about literature from your own country. If anything, my experience has made me want to expand on the kinds of books I read. I try harder to read from other countries and diverse authors because I understand that just as sometimes I had a different perspective in class, all these authors can teach me something different. Also, I think good professors are the ones that will encourage you to argue on your point of view rather than force a perspective upon you.

Don’t lose confidence!

Give yourself time. Sometimes you may feel your English is not as good as you used to think it was. But, the truth is, being able to notice where you can improve is already a sign that you’re getting better at it.

If you choose to study English as a major even though it’s not your first language, just remember that, like anything, it will be a little bit of a challenge. Remind yourself what you like about your major and keep trying. There are always other choices, so don’t worry too much. Take it as another chance to explore your interests.

Written by

Wendy Tafur N.

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