5 Ways to Communicate with your International Student

Communicating with your international student can be difficult, especially during the first couple of months when he or she may not be used to or comfortable speaking English fluently. Before arriving to the United States, many of our students will have taken and passed an English Language Proficiency exam to be accepted into the school they are currently attending. It is important to remember that these students decided to stay in a host family like yours to further immerse themselves in this culture, and want to become fluent in English, but they are also teenagers living and most likely away from home for the first time.

We’ve compiled some different methods to help your international student become a stronger English speaker, and how you can better communicate with them.

Reading and Watching Television Together


Reading is a great way to expand your understanding of a language, but is often a solo activity. A great way to strengthen your international student’s language skills, as well as strengthen your bond is to read out loud together. Find a book that you both enjoy, and have your student read to you. You could include you whole family and take turns reading! If a word  is unfamiliar to your student, write it down and go over it after.

This concept can also be applied to watching television. Encourage your student to watch with you by turning on the English subtitles. Looking at the words while hearing them out loud helps with word recognition and as well as syntax and conversation skills. This exercise can also help your international student feel more included in your family, and may feel less inclined to spend the whole evening in their room.

Eating Together


Eating dinner as a family is a great way to help your international student feel like a part of your family, as well as help them with their language skills. At the beginning, the student may need a translator, but being patient, compassionate and encouraging will allow the student to feel safe and comfortable expressing herself in your home. Additionally, here is a video to help you communicate to a person who’s first language is not English.

Listen to Podcasts


Podcasts are a great learning tool because they are convenient and educational. A recent study by George Washington University found that podcasts not only maintain attention levels of students, but it also helps students conceptualize the content. Interestingly, there has been numerous studies which prove that adolescents respond more creatively to audio learning than visual learning because they have to create the visual themselves. We’ve outlined our favorite podcasts tailored towards English Language Learners here!

Setting Boundaries


One of the most common themes we hear from you, as a host parent, is that it’s tough to set and maintain rules with your international student. To start, it is important to keep in mind that your student is a teenager, and teenagers can be difficult no matter what culture they were brought up in. Setting rules, however, is the key to maintaining a happy household. If you have children, hold your international student to the same standards. This will help reinforce the behavior with your student. Reviewing household policies should also be done within the first few days of arrival, which sets expectations, and writing them down for your student will help them fully understand them.

Giving gentle reminders when a student breaks a rule will also help reinforce it. It’s important to remember that East Asian cultures are less confrontational, and tend to avoid conflict to prevent someone from “losing face.” This means that a student may have a problem, or doesn’t understand something, but is too afraid to ask. Being open and asking your student to express themselves will help the student feel more comfortable doing this. Here is a great guide to having tough conversations with an international teenager.

Recognizing Differences


Eastern and Western cultures can very widely, and recognition from both points of view can help overcome cultural and language barriers. Having conversations about why you’re asking your student to do something, versus just telling them to do it can help broaden their understanding and see your point of view. On the contrary, asking your student about their upbringing will help you see why they have certain mannerisms. In general, East Asian Cultures value the whole over the individual, and look at answering questions with definitive answers, meaning that there is always a “right” answer. These international students may not be used to expressing their opinions to open-ended questions because of this.

Language in Chinese is also quite different than English. Phrases are much more direct, and tone and non-verbal queues play a big part in it. Tones could get lost in translation, and your student may inadvertently come across as rude. For example,  “我想要吃点东西。” literally translates to “I want food” and is a perfectly acceptable way of speaking in Mandarin, but is not considered polite in English. Helping your student understand language nuance will help broaden their language skills, making it easier to communicate. We’ve complied some Chinese phrases you can try out with your international student.