Tips for improving your English

For international students who come from non-English speaking backgrounds, language may be a major obstacle for communication and learning.

According to Fran Potgieter, 41, an English lecturer from Sheffield Hallam University (SHU), the most difficult thing faced by most students is expressing complexity of meaning with accuracy and clarity.

“’Hedging’ and cautious language can be difficult to produce and perfect tenses are an issue for many students,” she added. (*Explanation of ‘hedge’ at the end of this story)

Fran Potgieter (right), has taught English for about 20 years.


A strong command of English is essential for students who wish to excel in their academic studies.

To help students succeed in their academic programs, the University also has specialised Student Learning Centres and Academic Divisions to help them in essays, assignments and speaking skills.

Potgieter added that SHU provides a wide range of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses and classes under the University English Scheme where international students can sign up to free classes in grammar, study skills, pronunciation and conversation.

“Hopefully through these classes, students are able to meet and mix with a range of international students from different backgrounds, with similar needs,” said Potgieter.

Nicole Ang, an international student from Malaysia who attended the classes, found the English Language course helpful.

“Sometimes we may forget about using proper grammar and this English lesson reminds me of how to use it,” she said.

Ang also learned how to be more attentive and take initiative to voice out if she did not understand the lesson.

“You can even record the lesson to playback and refresh your memory,” she said.

International student Nicole Ang came from a non-English speaking background, but has since improved her English with her university’s language support scheme.


Chinese student Susan Song has studied in Sheffield for one and half years. Although English is not her first language, she had overcome the language barrier with the locals.

In her opinion, she suggested to the international students that do not be shy, talk to anyone who speak English as much as possible.

“Usually, the locals are very kind and you could ask them to repeat, spell or explain the words,” she explained.

“Most people are very respectful of international students who are willing to learn and improve their English when studying and living here.”


Here are some tips to improve English (as provided by Potgieter):

  • Listen to the TV, radio, and to English speaking people going about their everyday business. This can help students understand ‘assimilation’ in pronunciation, which may aid speaking and listening skills.
  • Reading academic texts is often one of the most useful ways to improve academic writing skills.
  • Students can look at the BBC and British Council websites for handy tips, grammar exercises and pronunciation videos.
  • Students can also download translation software from their smartphones and use it in class for translation purposes.

SHU International Students with Fran Potgieter, English Language Course lecturer.

* ‘To hedge’ in speech or writing is similar as ‘to be cautious/careful’ or to ‘beat around the bush’ – which means to avoid making a direct statement. It’s a way of being suggestive rather than assuming you are completely 100% right or correct, useful in critical writing or thinking. For instance, by selecting a modal verb; instead of saying something ‘is’ or ‘will be’, by hedging or being cautious you would say ‘it could be’ ‘it may be’ ‘it might be that…’

– Story by Tiffany Lau

– Photo by Tiffany Lau and Mabel Yan

For inquiries about SHU Support Scheme, email Judith Rossiter at or go to and search for ‘University English Scheme’ (SHU students only).

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