Improving Your English

The better you can use local English, the easier everything will be for you. English classes can be helpful at lower and intermediate levels of foreign-language ability, but independent practice is probably the most helpful for people who have mastered basic grammar and vocabulary. Here are some suggestions for practicing English on your own.

Mental Preparation


You may know you should practice English with Americans, but you are afraid to try it. Remind yourself that:

  • If you want to improve your conversational English, you will have to practice every day (or nearly every day).
  • It will not be easy to improve your English if you are more than about twelve years old (young children learn languages very quickly).
  • Sometimes Americans might not want to talk to you.

Remember that:

  • You lose valuable opportunities if you do not take advantage of your time in the United States to improve your English – opportunities to make friends, to learn about another way of life, and to better prepare yourself for your post-graduation career.
  • There is much to be gained from improving your English: academic work will be easier, so will socializing, and in fact all types of interactions with Americans; you will probably be more respected back home if you use English well, and you may even be able to get a better job; you will have more ready access to people and ideas in your field.


Make a commitment to yourself: “I will practice English at least ten minutes every day.” (It’s easier to start with a modest objective. You can plan for longer practice sessions later.) Then make a plan to fit English into your daily schedule: “On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I will practice English for at least ten minutes during the noon hour.” And so on. Decide when your daily schedule has room for some English practice. Start today! Don’t put it off.

Overcoming Anxiety

The idea of speaking English with Americans you don’t know probably makes you nervous. Here are some suggestions for overcoming your anxiety:

  • Remind yourself again what you can gain from improving your English.
  • Remind yourself what you will lose if you do not improve English.
  • Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if I try to talk with an American and get a negative response?” What is the worst thing that could happen? Maybe the person will say “no.” Maybe the person will walk away from you. The person might even say some unpleasant words to you, or behave rudely. Could you survive that? OF COURSE YOU COULD!
  • To get an idea what to expect in your interactions with Americans, review sections below about interacting with Americans and the communicative style of Americans.

Actions to Take

Prepare Some Topics

You may be reluctant to approach Americans because you don’t know what to talk about, but there are hundreds of things you could discuss! Get some ready in advance. Memorize them, or have them written down so you can refer to them. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Reasons you (both) came to Iowa City
  • Your plans for after you graduate
  • What (both of) your families are like
  • Description of the houses you lived in when you were children
  • How you celebrated birthdays when you were children
  • How various American holidays are celebrated
  • How you spend your weekends
  • What you like to read about
  • Slang expressions you have heard but have not understood (write them down when you hear them)
  • Something in the day’s newspaper
  • Plans for the coming summer
  • Popular television programs or personalities
  • Places to eat in Iowa City

Locate someone to talk to

How can you find someone to talk to? Here are some suggestions:

  • Find people who share interests with you.
    • If you play sports, go to the Recreation Center (CRWC) or the UI Field House
    • Join a club or student organization based on your interest. The Center for Student Involvement and Leadership (CSIL) in the IMU has a list of UI students clubs (which is also on orgsync:  There might be a student organization in your major field. If there is, join it and volunteer to work on one of its committees. Women can join the International Women’s Club.
  • Talk to people who spend time in the same places you do, people such as classmates, library staff, neighbors, and departmental secretaries (volunteer to help the secretary with some small task, and talk while you are doing it).
  • Find people at leisure (that is, people who are not obviously busy). For example, you could approach people who are:
    • Sitting on a bench at a mall or in the park
    • Watching TV in a public place, and waiting for a commercial to end
    • Sitting on the grass
    • Waiting at a bus stop
    • Waiting for a performance or a class to begin
    • Sitting beside you on a bus

How to Approach Prospective Conversation Partners

Be committed to practicing English. Have a topic in mind.  Don’t hesitate! When you find a person available to talk with:

  1. Smile!
  2. Introduce yourself. Say, “Hello. My name is ____. I’m new here, and I am hoping to improve my English. Can you talk with me for a few minutes?”
  3. Say something about yourself: “I’m a student majoring in ____. I’m from _____.”
  4. Bring up a topic. For example, “I have heard some slang words here that I don’t know the meaning of. Can you tell me what they mean?”
  5. After the conversation, say “Thank you,” “I enjoyed talking with you,” or “I hope to see you again sometime.”

Persist! If your first few attempts to start a conversation do not work out, don’t be discouraged. Keep trying. And after you have some successful conversations, keep it up!


After you have followed these suggestions, you will find that it is relatively easy to approach people, to find topics, and even to talk for longer than ten minutes. Then you will be well on your way to improving your English.

Groups and Organizations to Support English Language Development

Conversation Center

A program on campus enabling informal conversational practice for English language learners.  Through programming such as the Intercultural Social Hour (ISH) and our Conversation Pairing Program (CPP), undergraduate students build confidence and cultural fluency with the English language and other cultures by engaging in informal, “low-stakes” verbal interactions.

International Student Conversation Group

International Student Conversation Group is a place where students can learn new ways to cope with challenges of living in a new cultural environment, find support for living away from home, and discuss concerns about language, friendships, and customs, etc. The group is led by University Counseling Services. Please contact them for more information.

Toastmasters International

People (even native speakers of English) who are deeply committed to improving their ability to speak English in public will want to consider joining one of the three Toastmasters clubs in Iowa City. Toastmasters is a non-profit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. The organization has more than 292,000 memberships in more than 14,350 clubs in 122 countries. Members meet weekly to give presentations and critique others’ presentations in a friendly, supportive atmosphere. People interested in the possibility of joining can go to a meeting and observe.

The Old Capitol Club meets from 5:45 to 6:45 pm on Tuesdays at the Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockwood Hall, at the corner of Jefferson and Clinton, downtown Iowa City. Please see for more information.

The Affirmationist Club meets from 5:30-6:30 pm Mondays @ the Unitarian Universalist Society Church, at Gilbert Street and Iowa Avenue. Please see for more information.

North Dodge Toastmasters Club meets every Tuesday from 12-1 pm at Pearson, located at 2510 North Dodge Street in Iowa City. Please see, or call 319-358-4511 for more information.


Names of qualified ESL tutors are available from the ESL Programs. Please check with the ESL Office before you hire a tutor, as they can help you find one who best fits your needs. Call 319-335-5630, email, or visit ESL Programs Office at 1112 University Capitol Centre for more information.

Speaking Center

The Speaking Center, housed in the Rhetoric Department in Rooms 410, 412, and 414 EPB, offers quality, one-on-one and small group tutoring and consultation to students and instructors on campus who would like to work on any aspect of oral communication. Please see their website for requirement for non-native English speakers to sign up for an appointment with a tutor. If you have any questions, please email, or call 319-335-0205.

Additional Resources for J-1 Scholars and Their Spouses