How Do You Hone Your Oral English Language Skills?

August 12, 2020
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The Bok Center’s Professional Communication Program for International Teachers and Scholars supports international PhD students in developing oral English proficiency, cross-cultural understanding, and teaching skills. We recently sat down to talk with two students who have participated in the program over the past two years. We asked them to share how they developed their oral English communication skills to prepare to be teaching fellows as well as advice they would give incoming international PhD students, based on their experiences navigating their first few years at Harvard.

Hongwei Sun, a 3rd year PhD student in SEAS, first connected with the Bok Center in 2018 through the summer Professional Communication Program for New International Scholars (formerly the English Language Program), a collaboration between the Bok Center and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) Office of Student Affairs. Hongwei found PCP to be a valuable introduction to campus, both in terms of learning about resources, but also through building relationships with other incoming students from across GSAS.

We meet many students for the first time when they participate in this intensive summer program, which unfortunately was cancelled this year because of the pandemic. PCP is designed to provide new PhD students with opportunities to make friends and build community with their peers, learn about campus resources, and activate their English communication skills as they get settled at Harvard.  As one participant from 2019 shared, “PCP was such a great program that makes me feel more comfortable in this new community.”

Beyond the summer program, we partner with GSAS to administer the GSAS Oral English Language Requirement; many new international PhD students may connect with us for an oral English proficiency interview at the beginning of their programs. This interview is often the first milestone for new students to establish awareness of all different aspects of English fluency and set clear goals for strengthening their oral English proficiency. This was true for Liu Zhang, a G3 student in Economics: “Working with the Bok Center is a good way to improve instead of just working by ourselves because we may not be aware of what issues we need to work on first and then the next step.“

Because the Ph.D students we support have been studying English for years, they have established habits for developing English language skills. We work with students to become aware of their habits and develop strategies that will help them communicate effectively at Harvard. After the interview, students receive feedback on their language and guidance on language and teaching resources available at Bok Center as well as in the broader Harvard community.

For students interested in developing their oral English proficiency, the Bok Center offers both 6-week and 12-week seminars that target common goals such as fluency-building or pronunciation. Our flagship seminar, Classroom Communication Skills for International TFs, has enrolled more than 75 PhD students from a range of disciplines since 2016. This seminar orients current and future teaching fellows to classroom expectations at Harvard, explores communication strategies to support them as teachers, and practices oral English skills for working with undergraduate students. Liu Zhang shared, “The first Bok Seminar really, really helped me develop awareness of [language] issues and apply different skills and communication strategies to formal and informal conversations. For example, before that, I didn't quite know how to start a conversation naturally with small talk. And after that I paid attention to that and could practice myself.”

Both Liu and Hongwei explored some of our other programming, opting to participate in discussion groups and online self-study programs as well as working with undergraduate language partners. Liu shared how these additional opportunities allowed her to internalize her English communication skills through practice and gain confidence by applying these skills in real conversations. We have been working to transition these resources online as well as build new resources to accommodate the changing needs of PhD students who are living and working remotely.

When asked what advice they would give to new PhD students, Hongwei shared, “It’s better for you to pay more attention to your English, because if you don’t have strong English skills, it’s harder for you to communicate with each other either in academic situations or in daily life…and the Bok Center is a really good resource for you.” As Liu, who waited until her second semester to enroll in a Bok Seminar, recommended: “My advice would be, for students who don’t meet the language proficiency requirement, they should enroll in a seminar as soon as possible.”

Liu added that the seminar helped her understand what she knew and didn’t know about the Harvard classroom as well as how to assess her own language skills and consider how to improve. Liu also shared, “I definitely think that all those communication skills are essential for success for graduate students, and in the end, they can also help them become a successful scholar.”

Talking with experienced international PhD students is a great way to anticipate the challenges you may experience and to learn useful communication strategies you can integrate into your repertoire. You can hear directly from experienced international TFs during our Fall Teaching Conference plenary, The Language and Culture of the Harvard Classroom: A Panel for New International TFs, on Tuesday, August 18, or you can schedule a consultation with Sarah Emory (Assistant Director, International Teachers and Scholars) to discuss oral English communication skills, intercultural communication, or teaching as an international scholar.