Improving English Skills

By Joanna Enos

When I joined the American Language Institute at USC as a One-On-One Conversation Partner, I didn’t consider the ways in which being an English tutor would improve my own language skills. Ever since I can remember, I have been very interested in the English language and foreign languages. As a political science major, I am also interested in foreign governments and societies and enjoy talking to people from other countries to learn more about the country they’re from and how it differs from the U.S. in terms of politics, government, culture, and many other things. My interest in foreign nations and comparing life in the United States to life in other nations is what sparked my interest in being a conversation partner in the first place, so in the first few weeks of being a tutor I thought the main thing I would get out of the tutoring sessions was new knowledge about countries I have not visited and have not studied extensively in my political science courses.

However, I have recently realized that the tutoring sessions are as beneficial for me as they are for the international students I meet with. This might sound odd since I am a native English speaker and have taken numerous English language, grammar, and literature classes over the course of my academic career. Nevertheless, speaking in English with international students whose native language is different than mine has forced me to think more critically of the English language and how I use that language in everyday conversations.

During my one-on-one conversation partner sessions, the international students I meet with usually like to discuss different aspects of life in the United States and Los Angeles or at USC. Since one main goal of these meetings is for the international students to improve their English-speaking skills, the international students are usually interested in learning more about specific elements of the English language such as grammar, idioms, and American slang. When I met with one international Ph.D. student, we went over a list of idioms and sayings. Per the student’s request, I explained the meaning of the idioms and ranked them from 0-3 based on how common they are, with 0 being never and 3 being most or all Americans would understand and use the phrase. Oftentimes, the student was confused or amused by these idioms and was inquisitive about the exact wording and how and when to use the phrase.

When such confusion arise, I try my best to explain what I know or believe to be the origin of the phrase and the most common situations in which the phrase could be used. Still, it often takes more than one try for me to adequately explain the phrase and how it is used to the international students. Each time that I have to try a new approach or reword my explanation of an English phrase, idiom, or word, I am forced to think more about the English language than I normally do. I have to think about the meaning of each word, their meaning in relation to and in combination with other words. Oftentimes I have to look up the exact definition of words I commonly use in order to find new ways to phrase what I was originally trying to say. I have to think about why I chose to use one specific word rather than a different word with a similar meaning. For all of those reasons, I have found that my own vocabulary and knowledge of the English language have improved from my conversations with international students. In that way, being an English tutor can be just as beneficial for the native English speaker as it is for the student being tutored. Language is funny like that; everyone, no matter how fluent they think they are in a language, can benefit from in-depth practice.

JoAnna is a USC graduate from the Department of Political Science. JoAnna is looking forward to attending law school this year and hopes to become a civil rights lawyer in the future. When not in class or studying, JoAnna worked at the USC Alumni Association and was a member of several clubs and organizations on campus such as Room to Read and USC Penny Harvest. Originally from Portland, OR, JoAnna is an avid fan of the outdoors and likes to go running, hiking, and kayaking as often as possible. She also loves watching movies and going to concerts as often as possible.