How I Improved My Horrible Conversational English When I Was Studying in the US Within a Year

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[The author in Capitol Square, Madison, Wisconsin]

Here’s a story of what I had to do to improve my conversational English from broken to fluent in one year, abroad.

Growing up, I’ve learned most of my English by listening to American TV and talk shows and repeating their sentences as practice. Over time, the patterns of English sentences were etched into my memory.

I know nothing about grammar rules like “past participles” and don’t even know what an adjective is, to be honest.

The only reason I got A’s in my grammar exams was by reading the questions out loud in my head and filling in the blanks with what sounded right.

Arriving in the US

[Memorial Union Terrace overlooking Lake Mendota]

I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. Madison is a white-majority city, surrounded by lakes and dairy farms.

When I was there, I noticed that 90% of international students still couldn’t speak English at a coherent level by the end of their 4-year degree.

They’ll head back home with almost the same level of English as when they first arrived in college.

I made a promise to myself that I will learn to speak fluent English by the end of my degree. At the very least, when I’m job hunting, the interviewer won’t have a hard time believing that I stayed in the states for four years.

Everyone stuck to their own groups

From my social observations, I noticed that most International Students exclusively stick within their ethnic groups.

In my Thermodynamics Engineering class of 20 people, there were four other Asian students from China, and they’d always sit together all the time.

When the lecturer asks to form group partners for a project, they’d automatically group up by default.

This behaviour would carry forward outside of the classrooms as well. The Koreans would have their Korean parties; the Malaysians would hang out with themselves, etc.

Now that’s all personal preference. But I came to the US on three separate flights for 20 hours in total to experience the local culture and better myself with experiences that I couldn’t get back in my home country. If I wanted to hang out with my fellow countrymen 24/7, I’d rather stay in Malaysia.

I decided to make an active effort to join in on the local community. I don’t want to be seen as just another ‘international student.’ I want to blend in.

But I had a problem. The Americans would lose interest in me with my stammering English. If I ever wanted to experience the local culture and be accepted, I need to improve my English FAST.

Joining International Student Program Events

There’s a department in my Uni dedicated to international student affairs, and they often host events to help bridge international students to the local American culture.

It’s a great idea, but honestly, the events are super lame. The Americans that join in on these events are the small minority that is overly nice.

It doesn’t reflect the real America that quite frankly doesn’t care about international students. Joining these events is like playing a video game in the easiest settings.

I want to train myself on ‘Expert level.’ To have the ability and confidence to walk up to anyone, strike up a conversation, and naturally establish a connection.

Some people make it look so easy, and I’m very envious of those who do.

There had to be a better way.

Moving Out On My Own

[The author’s half-finished ceiling.]

Approaching the end of my first year, I decided to move out of the dorms and rent a room all by myself at the edge of town. The rent was around $550 a month.

My neighbours were poor and elderly people who settled for the cheapest accommodation that they could afford.

At the end of the hallway lived a drug dealer in his 20s. I didn’t know he was selling drugs until this one time the police came with full gear to arrest him. There was a scuffle, and his back was thrown into the drywall (interior walls of American homes are often made out of plywood material), leaving a giant hole.

The Lonely 2nd Year

I joined multiple groups and clubs on campus. Unfortunately, the friendships that I made were merely on the surface.

Apart from doing what we were supposed to do in a social club, nobody wanted to hang out with me afterwards.

My English was still not there yet, and I always was viewed as a weird foreign kid.

My 2nd year was rough and I was still lonely.

How lonely? I looked forward to reading and sorting out junk email — it was that level of isolation.

One day, I received an email from my Engineering faculty. There was a sponsored Engineering Leadership trip to Cape Town, South Africa, for 30 selected engineering students.

The only thing between me and that program was an essay application.

I wrote the hell out of that essay, and it paid off, I got myself a spot in that program.

[The author on a hike at Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa]

In Cape Town, I made friends with this one guy from my college, Sean. He’s a member of a fraternity and invited me over for dinner at his frat house once we were back in the US four weeks later.

A fraternity is a social organization in American College culture typically of common interest (Engineering, Business, etc.). But most known for their social events (parties).

Here’s where the story picks up ladies and gentlemen:

I Joined a Fraternity

[The author (in the middle, next to the blonde) at Annual Fraternity Formal Dinner.]

I joined an Engineering fraternity in my Junior (3rd) year. I got initiated, pledge ceremonies, the whole nine yards. After I was confirmed, I stayed in the frat house together with the other members.

Some of the members are the typical backward cap-wearing, football watching American guy. We don’t have much in common, but living together helped everyone meet somewhere in the middle.

We did everything together. We cooked, watched movies, cleaned the house, held meetings, organized charity events, and went to parties.

That was the first time I felt like I was accepted and became part of a local family. My social life and bank account (from going out) went like this:

My 3rd year onwards was awesome! I had to communicate in English EVERY SINGLE DAY.

I immersed myself in the local community and culture. I went to all of the social events that my friends invited me to in a heartbeat:

  • Live music by the lake
  • Live football events
  • Random house parties
  • Visiting our alumni’s house in Chicago.

The good times (especially during summer) were priceless.

The Local Test

[The author (with sunglasses) with his fraternity friends at Devil’s Lake, a popular hiking and recreation place]

With all the practice that I’ve got, at the end of my 3rd year, my English was damn near native-level. At the time, I was doing well socially and making a healthy amount of friends.

That being said, I still looked exotic in a predominantly white community, and they often asked me where I was from.

So I thought to myself, “If I can convince the locals that I’m from a large city (nearest one being Chicago), that would prove that my English is up to standard.

I did several social experiments to test that out throughout my 3rd and final year, especially when I meet someone new:

New Friend: “So, where are you from Helmi?”

Me: “I’m from Chicago.”

New Friend: “Cool.” then continues the conversation without suspicion.

I got away with this all the time during my last year. That’s when I knew; I’ve made it!

Key Takeaway

There’s plenty of benefits to having excellent English communication skills. Case in point, I got my first job in Singapore because of my English. I knew because I was clearly not the smartest engineer there.

With excellent English, it was easy for me to build an Airbnb business in KL in 2014, catering to international travelers.

If you can’t live abroad, KL is now very international. You can always find groups and clubs that converse in English to sharpen your English skills.

If you struggle with breaking out of your social circle, first you need to define what you want in life and chase it with all you’ve got.

Because I was out of my comfort zone, I had to do something drastic and forced myself to do something that I normally wouldn’t.

Don’t be afraid to take the path less traveled if you feel the main road that everyone else is using is not leading you to where you want to go.

Life starts when you’re out of your comfort zone.

For more stories like this, read: How I Survived in the Working World without Reading or Writing Mandarin and Here Are 4 Malaysians Working Outside of the Country – This Is What It’s Like.

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I'm Helmi. I write about Personal Finance and Entrepreneurship for Malaysian Millennials at
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