OPPORTUNITIES ABROAD

Sounding Polite (Part 3)

So far in our series of posts on politeness, we’ve looked at four different approaches that can be adopted to communicate appropriately in English.   

Read on for more tips on how to sound well-mannered when you speak or write.

5. Question forms

Using question forms is a great way of sounding diplomatic when giving advice or suggestions. One option is to form yes/no questions when requesting people to do things. Another is to use negative questions in order to introduce your views gently. Here are examples of both:

Close the door.

Could you close the door, please?

I want directions to the airport.

Could you possibly give me directions to the airport?

We need a better proposal to win the contract.

Don’t you think we need a better proposal to win the contract?

We should paint the cabin blue.

Wouldn’t it be better if we painted the cabin blue?

6. Qualifiers

If you make a direct statement to express your thoughts, the chances are you’ll upset others. This is particularly true when what you’re saying is something negative. In order for you to sound more diplomatic, you could use qualifiers, such as a bit, a little, or kind of. A qualifier can decrease the intensity of anything negative that you say. Here are some examples of how qualifiers can decrease the intensity of your words when you complain or criticise.

This curry is too bland!

This curry is a bit bland.

Jeez, it’s so hot in here!

It’s a little hot in here. 

Derek is extremely boring!

Derek is kind of boring.

7. Passive voice

We can use the passive voice to shift the focus of a sentence from the doer of the action to the action itself. It’s particularly handy when we wish to avoid blaming people for things that they fail to do. Using the passive structure makes the sentence impersonal, creating distance from the immediate present. Here are some examples:

You forgot to switch the outside lights on last night.

The outside lights were not switched on last night.

Looks like you have made a lot of spelling errors.

Looks like a lot of spelling errors have been made.

Remember, more often than not, non-native English speakers sound impolite unwittingly, because they take the wrong approach. 

Sounding Polite (Part 2)

In English-speaking cultures, great importance is attached to avoiding language that others may find offensive. In a previous post, we considered how using softening expressions and avoiding negative words can go a long way towards helping you sound polite.

Here are some more ways in which you can appear courteous while speaking English.

3. Distancing verb forms

When we ask questions, make offers, or give suggestions, it is possible to use the past tense instead of the present. In such contexts, past tenses indicate ‘distance’ from the immediate present, thereby making what we say less direct. Do note that there’s no difference in the basic meaning expressed when the past tense replaces the present. Here are some examples to help you understand this better.

When do you want to check in, sir?

When did you want to check in, sir?

Do you want more sugar in your tea?

Did you want more sugar in your tea?

In the same way, sometimes progressive (continuous) verb forms are used in place of simple forms to sound more casual or less definite.

I hope you can give me a lift after the concert.

I’m hoping you can give me a lift after the concert. (less definite)

I look forward to doing business with you again.

I’m looking forward to doing business with you again. (casual)

4. Modal verbs

Another way to avoid being too direct is by using modal verbs. The past forms of modal verbs will, can, and may are commonly used in everyday communication to exhibit good manners. When making requests or asking for help, the word ‘please’is often added to make a better impression on the listener or reader.

Will you need my car tonight?

Would you need my car tonight?

Can you please call the security?

Could you please call the security?

May I please ask you to wait for a few minutes?

Might I please ask you to wait for a few minutes?

Remember, being polite helps us build good relations with the listener or reader, so it is definitely worth the effort. We’ll be back with some more tips.

The View From Campus: Why life on a U.S. college campus matters

This month we hear from Marty Bennett, award-winning international educator who has directed international student admissions and student services operations at several U.S. colleges and universities, worked with the U.S. Department of State’s EducationUSA network or advising centers around the world, and now consults with the British Council on U.S. higher education opportunities for IELTS test takers.

For many years I have asked new international students what has surprised them most about their time in the U.S. so far. One answer repeated more often than any other: “it’s not like what I’ve seen in the movies and on TV!” While there may be some appeal to living the life of a TV celebrity or movie star, this is not how the greater majority of people live.

When it comes to understanding what life will be like on a U.S. college or university campus, most international students have only what they’ve read or seen online. Very few have actually visited U.S. colleges before they enrol. As a result, many international students may rely on what the normal university experience is like in their home countries. To help give perspective on what it’s really like, I’ve been asked to respond to these five questions:

What is the most common challenge new international students face when adapting to the environment at U.S. colleges?

Adjusting to the lack of formality in relationships is perhaps the most difficult challenge to overcome. Not only do U.S. students have very informal connections with each other, but the student – professor relationship can have a really friendly and casual feel. This can be very hard to understand. There are many ways that international students experience a very different classroom environment that they may be used back home. From how well they participate in classroom discussions being a percentage of their grade, to how terms like plagiarism and academic dishonesty are defined will leave new internationals struggling to adapt.

How would you describe the life of an international student on a college campus?

Get used to most people you pass on campus saying “Hello!” “Hi, how are you doing?” and “Whassup?” and then keep on walking without stopping to have a conversation. This behavior is normal. Don’t be offended. In reality, international students at many colleges in the United States have access on campus to services, social events, advising, clubs, and activities that simply do not exist in most other countries.

How seriously do U.S institutions take the responsibility of providing for a great variety of students’ needs and interests while they live in and around campus?

For many colleges, they are the home away from home for their students, especially international students. As a result, U.S. institutions tend to provide a full range of facilities, activities, event, organizations, and services to their students. Unusual offices that help students with everything from resume crafting and interview training, counseling services for mental health concerns, to special interest clubs, to intramural sports, and dozens if not hundreds of service opportunities for students wishing to do volunteer work, U.S. colleges cater to the full range of students’ needs.

What do most international students find most surprising about what happens on campus outside of the classroom?

Other than the friendly “hi’s” and hello’s” they will get from most students on campus, the sheer scope of different events, activities, and clubs available to join is what is most surprising for international students.

What advice would you give international students to best prepare them for life on campus?

Perhaps the best advice I would give to students about coming to the United States for a college or university degree, is twofold: 1) keep an open mind – expect to be surprised by what you encounter, and 2) if at all possible, talk to current international students from your country or region of the world before you go, so you can get the perspective of someone who has been through what you are about to experience. Good luck!

Sounding Polite (Part 1)

Communicating in English isn’t as hard as many people think. Once you have a collection of common words and learn to string them together, you can pretty much begin to use English in most everyday situations. On such occasions, poor grammar or diction doesn’t always get in the way of getting the basic message across.

That being said, making sure that you sound polite or appropriate when using English is a lot harder to achieve, especially if you’ve just started learning the language. This is because all our energies go into somehow conveying our thoughts, so we sometimes fail to recognise that what we say might be too direct or offensive.

Here are some tips to help you sound more polite when speaking English.

1. Softening expressions

In some cultures, being blunt or direct is acceptable, whereas in English-speaking cultures, this is frowned upon. Therefore, it’s a good idea to use softening expressions that make what you say less direct. Examples of such expressions are I’m afraid, perhaps, I think, I reckon, maybe, I was wondering if, and to be honest.

Examples:

I can’t help you.

I’m afraid I can’t help you. 

I don’t know much about politics, so I can’t comment.

To be honest, I don’t know much about politics, so I can’t comment.

You should ask someone else for advice.

Perhaps you should ask someone else for advice.

Could you help her?

I was wondering if you could help her.

2. Avoiding negative words

There’s no doubt that people respond better to positive sounding words, making it easier to manage social interactions. Keeping this in mind, avoid using negative words wherever possible. Instead, use a positive equivalent along with a negative helping verb. Here are some examples:

It’s a bad idea to call her at this time of the night.

It isn’t a good idea to call her at this time of the night.

I find him so boring.

I don’t find him interesting.

I think this project report is useless.

I don’t think this project report is useful.

You will fail the exam if you don’t prepare well.

You won’t pass the exam if you don’t prepare well.

We’ll be back shortly with more suggestions on how to sound polite when speaking English.

Understanding the IELTS Listening Test

When moving to an English-speaking country for work or study, one challenge that many foreigners face is communication. Even those with reasonably good English skills are stunned to find themselves struggling to follow the brand of English spoken abroad.

This is for the simple reason that native speakers pronounce differently. They employ a range of pronunciation features that many non-native speakers aren’t familiar with, such as contractions and weak forms.

Being an essential survival skill, listening comprehension is commonly assessed by language tests meant for migration, work, or study. Here’s an overview of the Listening section in IELTS, the language test trusted by universities, governments, and businesses the world over.  

Skills tested

IELTS Listening tests a wide range of skills needed to function efficiently in an all-English environment. This may include understanding factual information and main ideas, recognising the opinions and attitudes of speakers, and following the development of an argument or a talk.

Content

Unlike Reading, the Listening section in IELTS is the same for Academic and General Training test takers. The test has four sections, and includes both monologues and conversations. Conversations can involve as many as four speakers. While the first two sections are set in everyday social situations, the last two have an educational or training context. A range of voices is used, which means that test takers are likely to hear British, North American, Australian, or New Zealand accents.

Timing

IELTS Listening lasts approximately 30 minutes, at the end of which test takers receive an additional 10 minutes to transfer their answers from the question booklet to the answer sheet. All the recordings are played once only, so test takers need to be alert throughout.

Questions and marking

The test has a total of 40 questions, each worth one mark. Question types include multiple choice questions, labelling maps or diagrams, giving short answers, and filling in a form. Once a raw score out of 40 is calculated, it is converted to the IELTS 9-band scale using a conversion table.

Here’s a quick tip to finish off: IELTS listening is designed to be progressively difficult, so if you are aiming for a high score, make sure you get almost all answers in the first couple of sections right. Good luck!

The View From Campus – How Public Universities Make Admissions Decisions

This month’s article is featuring Robert Hardin, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions for International Recruitment, at the University of Oregon

About the university

Q: Describe your institution in 5 words?
A:
Green, unique, groundbreaking, welcoming, and thoughtful.

Q: For what is your institution best known overseas?
A:
The University of Oregon has alumni from around the world that have made an impact, including: Phil Knight (founder and president of Nike), Daniel Wu (actor), Renee James (former president of Intel), Ann Curry (journalist), Ken Kesey (author), and Chuck Palahniuk (author) to name just a few. UO is also known around the world for having successful sports teams and individual athletes.

Q: What are your top academic programs (undergrad & grad)?
A: The University of Oregon’s top academic programs are: Accounting, Architecture, Education, Psychology, and our sciences, particularly Biology and Physics.

Q: What are the top 5 countries represented at your college?
China, Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan. We are an international university with over 3,200 international students (about 14% of the student body) from 103 different countries.

Q: How does your institution use IELTS in the admissions process? How valuable a tool is it in evaluating prospective students?
IELTS is one of the few ways we allow students to prove English proficiency. It is a helpful and valuable tool for us to determine if a student has the level of English needed to be successful at the University of Oregon.

Making admissions decisions

Q: Do most public universities have set deadlines for international admissions?
A:
Yes, most US public universities have deadlines. However, some deadlines are more flexible than others. At the University of Oregon, we accept applications after the deadline if there are spaces available. However, if you want to apply for scholarships, you will need to meet all posted application deadlines.

Q: What are institutions looking for in an application essay/statement of purpose?
A: We want to get to know a little about the applicant. The essay is your opportunity to tell us something about yourself other than your grades and test scores.

Q: What needs to be in a letter of recommendation that my teachers/professors are asked to write?
A:
Teacher letters of recommendation should go beyond what grade you received in a class. We want to know more about how you performed as a student. For example, a letter of recommendation from your maths teacher talking about the hard work and effort it took to earn your grade in the class will help us better understand your true academic potential.

Q: How important are test scores in university admissions decisions?
A:
In the US, there is no standard practice for admission decisions, so each university sets different expectations. However, the vast majority of US universities value your class grades more than your test scores or other factors.

Q: What are the most important factors public universities use to determine admissibility of international students?
A:
Grades are usually the factor that public universities consider the most important.  At the University of Oregon, our research shows that high school grades are the best predictor of success for new college students. Test scores are often the second most important factor. After test scores and grades, it is common for public universities to use other factors such as grade trend, strength of curriculum, extracurricular activities, essay, and teacher recommendations.

A Quick Guide to Nouns (Part 2)

In the previous part, we spoke of three different types of noun – countable, uncountable, and collective.

Here are some more varieties that pop up in our everyday conversations.

Common and proper nouns

We use a common noun to refer to people, things, or places in a general sense. For instance, the word woman can mean any adult female, while the word restaurant can be used to talk about any place where you can buy and eat a meal.

By comparison, a proper noun refers to a specific person, thing, or place. It can be the name of an individual, a place, an organisation, etc. For instance, Emma Watson refers to a particular adult female, whereas Hard Rock Café is the name of a specific chain of theme restaurants.

As a general rule, proper nouns always begin with capital letters in written English. If a proper noun has more than one part (e.g. Martin Luther King, NOT Martin luther king), then the first letter in each gets capitalised.

Here’s a quick comparison to help you understand the difference between the two types:

Common noun Proper noun
woman Emma Watson
man Martin Luther King
city London
country Germany
restaurant Hard Rock Cafe
motorbike Suzuki Hayabusa

Concrete and abstract nouns

As the name suggests, a concrete noun refers to people or things that exist physically. In other words, they can be experienced using our senses – sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Examples of such nouns include light, aroma, music, coffee, and cotton.

Abstract nouns, on the contrary, have no physical existence. They refer to ideas, qualities, and conditions, none of which can be experienced via senses. Words such as honesty, joy, friendship, sorrow, lies, and time are all abstract in nature.

Compound noun

A compound noun is formed by joining two or more words to make a single noun. It can be a single word, a hyphenated word, or two separate words. Here are some examples: sunrise, toothpaste, passer-by, mother-in-law, washing machine, fish hook.

Remember, a noun can fall into more than one category. Sydney, for example, is both a concrete noun and a proper noun. Being aware of various types of noun can help you use language more confidently and accurately.

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