Sophie van Rijn

I’m an 18-year-old student from the Netherlands. I went to secondary school in Amsterdam. In the Netherlands, English is taught in primary school from the age of ten. In total, I got eight years of English lessons at school. These lessons are mainly focussed on reading and grammar, but to pass the exam some listening, writing and talking are also required. However, I did not learn the major part of my English knowledge during the school lessons, but by watching (Dutch subtitled) English movies and reading English websites. Most of the time, I did not specifically look for these websites but I was forced to use them because there were no Dutch equivalents available.

In 2008 I decided to apply for an English university. My main reasons were to take a joint-honours course (which are very uncommon in the Netherlands), to optimize my English and to extend my world view, to see how things are going in other countries.

When I first came to Edinburgh, my English was above average compared to other international students. However, from time to time it was hard for me to understand the lecturer. This had four causes:

  • First of all, a lot of lecturers try to make their talk more clear by adding a lot of subordinate clauses to their sentences. This can be very confusing, especially if they say these subordinate clauses very quickly or in an inarticulate manner. One thing I noticed is that most lecturers have a tendency to speed up there talking when they add a subordinate clause.
  • The second cause that makes lectures harder to understand is the amount of different accents of the lecturers. Some accents are extremely hard to understand, especially the ones where there is no clear distinction between words or the ones which are monotonous. Examples are the accents around Newcastle and Liverpool and the Irish accent.
  • The third cause is that lecturers try to make the text on their PowerPoint slides as short as possible, thereby often using uncommon words. They also tend to use the same word multiple times, which can be very annoying if you don’t know the meaning of the word. Since English is not the native language of international students, it will cost them more effort to understand the lectures. Small things, like piping shoes or squeaky parquet, can be very distractive.
  • The fourth cause is that a lot of lecturers have the tendency to use jargon and academic words and expressions. When I attended my first lectures it took me great effort to clearly hear each word that was said in the noisy lecture theatre, and the use of difficult words made this even harder.

One thing I found very useful and which helped me a lot was the fact that lecturers put their PowerPoint slides online, and sometimes provide a short summary of the lecture. One of the biggest problems for international students is speed: it takes them longer to understand what has been said. By putting those things online, I was able to revise the lecture as soon as I was home and to look up unknown words in my dictionary.

One thing that would be really useful is if lecturers would repeat and rephrase their key sentences. Most of the time when the lecturer says something important, he immediately starts explaining it by giving examples et cetera. If you missed the key sentence, which happens much quicker for international students, it is hard to make sense of what comes afterwards, and you fall behind.

Another idea would be to organise a special revision lecture for international students. Now I have a revision lesson for most of my courses at the end of each semester where students can ask questions. However, a lot of international students have difficulties to formulate their sentences, especially when they are in a room full of people. This discourages them from asking their question. A special revision lecture would solve this problem.