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Meet the students improving their English while studying at university in Australia

Two university students talking on an outdoor bench with a fence and trees in the background.
Stephen Pan and Payal Ashwinkumar Shah are part of a UTS buddy program for international students to develop their English conversation skills.

ABC: Allison Chan


Speaking is a necessary skill for developing relationships. However, international students in Australia can sometimes find it difficult to speak confidently — even when they know the language on paper. So how can students who don't feel confident speaking English improve their language skills while making friends at the same time?

Payal Ashwinkumar Shah was born and raised in Kenya, and came to Australia to study psychology at Western Sydney University in 2008. Her family also has Indian heritage so she grew up speaking multiple languages: Gujarati, Swahili, English, Hindu and French.

Despite speaking English growing up, she found there were still differences between English in Australia and English in Kenya.

"A friend of mine called me and asked me 'how ya going?' and I’d just organised to meet her and I said 'I was coming by train,'" she recalls.

Payal seated and listening to someone in a conversation
When Payal first came to Australia, she remembers having to teach herself how to engage in small talk on transport and the weather.

ABC: Allison Chan

The teaching style at university in Australia also required some adjusting for Payal.

She eventually felt at home in Sydney and went on to study a Graduate Diploma in Applied Linguistics and TESOL, which she recently completed.

Stephen gesturing and talking to someone seated on a chair
Stephen is enthusiastic about speaking to native English speakers. He says, "sometimes, you don’t know how to reply to them....Every time I find something I can’t understand and I feel awkward, I try to learn from this."

ABC: Allison Chan

Stephen Pan was born and raised in China — in the county of Zhouzhi in Xi'an, Shaanxi. He came to Australia two years ago to complete a PhD in computer science at UTS.

He and Payal have been buddies for two years, meeting as part of the UTS HELPSMates buddy program. The program partners international students with volunteers who are fellow students, staff, alumni and members of the public. They meet regularly to develop the international student's conversation speaking skills.

Payal and Stephen both seated, smiling and looking at the camera
Payal and Stephen's buddy sessions have covered vocabulary, situations (such as ordering a coffee) and abstract topics (such as travel) where they discuss their opinions.

ABC: Allison Chan

The emphasis on speaking is important for Stephen. He started learning English when he was 12 years old but struggled to speak English in Australia.

For Stephen, speaking is an important way to develop connections with other students.

Ying Wang gesturing in a conversation with another person
Ying Wang learnt English in China during high school. However, she says "we didn’t really talk, so that’s why I needed time to gradually get used to the English [in Australia].”

ABC: Allison Chan

Ying Wang was also born and raised in China, and came to Australia in 2015 to study a Master of Architecture.

Similar to Stephen, it took Ying some time to get used to speaking in English in Australia.

As part of the HELPSMates program, Ying's buddy is Debby Ng — a UTS alumni who studied journalism and international studies. Debby spent one year abroad in Beijing and when she returned, she wanted to teach English to someone who was also willing to help her improve her Mandarin.

Two women talking on a concrete bench under a spotlight with a metal installation hanging on the wall
Debby Ng and Ying Wang also text message each other in English and Chinese, and correct each other's writing.

ABC: Allison Chan

Ying says that conversation classes and buddy programs at universities are an important way for international students to develop their English.

While studying at UTS, Ying has also made friends with other students from different parts of the world — including India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Vietnam. These friends have also been a way for Ying to develop her English skills.

For Stephen, it has also been important for him to develop his speaking skills and make friends on campus. His advice is to develop your confidence by focusing on fluency, rather than accuracy, in speaking.

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