Struggling with English? You’re Not Alone: Observations of an unlikely second-language English speaker

Language constitutes an enormous part of our lives. In typing emails, when ordering our morning coffee (though the first order of the day often seems to come out more like a caveman-esque grunt at the poor barista), when reading the news, even our thoughts are dependent on the language that we speak.

I was born here in the UK, but contrary to what you might think, my first language is not English , but Welsh. For those of you who think it’s a language invented by J.R.R Tolkien, you wouldn’t be too far from the truth. The writer who created the Lord of the Rings universe modelled the fictitious Elvish tongue on the Welsh language. As one one of the few surviving Celtic languages, Welsh is spoken by roughly 1 million people, who mainly live in Great Britain.

With an estimated 1.1 billion English speakers worldwide, it is the closest thing we have to a universal language. However, only 400 million of these people are native speakers, which means that well over half of the world’s English speaking population learnt English as a second language, at school or by watching American television.

Throughout my childhood, I attended a Welsh medium school, meaning that I didn’t have English lessons until I was almost 10 years old. Even then, every class was taught in Welsh, the only lessons that were taught in English were the English classes. I learnt French through Welsh, we weren’t allowed to speak English outside of class, and I didn’t find out what the English word for protractor was until I was 18 years old.

Whilst incredibly grateful for my bilingualism and the advantage it has given me in learning many other languages, this apparent superpower came with an unexpected downside — I had never written extensively in English.

On receiving feedback on essays and assignments, professors would call me out on my incorrect grammar and unusual sentence structure. “You write like a foreign student” a lecturer once told me, handing back a piece of work.

A friend of mine, whose first language is also Welsh, often laments that during translation classes she must do twice the work, translating from French into Welsh then into English.

As of yet, I have not found a community in which to speak in my native tongue. This propagates a particular kind of loneliness, in which you are unable to express yourself in the language you are most comfortable. Whilst English is indeed a language of opportunity, opening doors to new employment and to travel, with years spent speaking exclusively in English there is a risk of losing an invaluable part of your unique heritage and identity. At The University of Sheffield there are over 5,000 International Students from 125 countries, so you’re bound to find someone who you can chat to, making a foreign country feel a little more like home. So seek out friends, find a pen-pal, or call your parents a little more often than you intended to, and keep that language of yours alive.

There is plenty of support for non-native speakers of English, or even those who just feel their writing could be improved. If you are struggling with language or writing, book a session with the Writing Advisory Service at The University of Sheffield, who offer advice and support to students with all levels of written English. There is also an online service and video tutorials are available to lend a helping hand. Seeking help is nothing to be ashamed of, I routinely seek help from friends and professors to check over my work before submission.

It’s taken me years of reading and writing in English to get to where I am today, and with my year abroad in Russia looming, once again I’ll be thrown headfirst into the struggles of being at a university who speaks what is my fourth language. Wish me luck, I’m going to need it.

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