#222      30 min 28 sec
Ready or not: International students, language barriers, and cultural fit

Higher education researchers Assoc Prof Sophia Arkoudis and Dr Chi Baik examine how and why international university students in English-speaking countries grapple with the language, and suggest solutions. Presented by Jennifer Martin.

"The challenge I suppose for international students is that while they're here, they're so engrossed in their studies that they don't invest time in developing those other cross-cultural communication skills, or other kinds of social interaction skills in English." -- Dr Chi Baik




Assoc Prof Sophie Arkoudis
Assoc Prof Sophie Arkoudis

Sophie Arkoudis is an Associate Professor in higher education and Deputy Director of the Centre for the Study in Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. Her research is associated with higher education policy development. Her research program spans English language teaching and learning in higher education, English language assessment, student finances, access and equity, academic workforce and internationalising the curriculum.

In 2012 she was awarded an Office for Teaching and Learning National Senior Teaching Fellowship that focuses on developing options and strategies for integrating English language learning outcomes in higher education curricula.

Dr Chi Baik
Dr Chi Baik

Chi Baik is a Senior Lecturer in Centre for the Study of Higher Education, the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses mainly on topics related to curriculum design and internationalisation of the student experience. She has been a chief investigator in several large national projects including one examining the workplace readiness of international graduates, and one focusing on enhancing interaction between domestic and international students in Australian higher education.

Credits

Presenter: Jennifer Martin
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

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VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

JENNIFER MARTIN 
I'm Jennifer Martin. Thanks for joining us. English is the language of international higher education. In order to gain the most out of their working lives, students know that mastering English is key to their success. Many from non-English speaking backgrounds travel and study abroad in order to gain these skills. But just how well are these skills being taught, if at all? Today's guests examine the state of English proficiency in higher education, and find that many international students emerge from their degree with little more language skills than they had when they arrived. They say it's time to expose this hidden curriculum, and develop a new approach which embeds English proficiency firmly into tertiary education, taking into consideration not just the rigors of the language, but also its cultural context and the demands of each academic discipline. Associate Professor Sophia Arkoudis is Deputy Director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne. She is joined in the studio today with Dr Chi Baik, who is a senior lecturer in the same centre. Together they have written the 2012 book English Language Standards in Higher Education: From Entry to Exit and their findings reveal we all have a lot to learn. Sophie, Chi, thanks for joining us. 

SOPHIA ARKOUDIS
Thanks for inviting us. 

CHI BAIK
Thanks Jennifer. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
Now Sophie, could you set the context for us by giving us an indication of the numbers of students who study internationally, where English is not their first language?

SOPHIA ARKOUDIS
We know that there are an increasing number of students who choose to study in a country other than their native country, or the country where they've conducted their secondary studies in. These numbers are increasing incredibly across the world. It seems that the main impetus for selecting to go overseas is because of English language. So a number of countries that offer English language as a medium of instruction in their universities are increasing their numbers of international students. Countries such as Australia, which has one of the highest percentages of international students, but also the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
So you mentioned Australia having the highest percentage of international students. Where does that sit?

SOPHIA ARKOUDIS
That normally sits at around 25 per cent of the students who are enrolled in Australian universities are international students. And of course, I think we need to unpack what we mean by international students, for our discussion here. We're really talking about students who are not residents of Australia. However, they can be coming from countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, English speaking countries. As well, they can come from places like India, where English is one of the recognised languages of the country, and also South East Asia, such as Vietnam, and increasingly China, where we have a lot of students from China, where English is very much an additional language for them. So there are varying groups of students there. We should also be mindful that our local students also come from a wide variety of backgrounds. We have refugee students, we have students for whom English is not their first language. So they come with different linguistic experiences as well, to higher education. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
And so Chi, could you just explain to us what are some of the challenges and obstacles that these students face at tertiary education?

CHI BAIK
I think it's very important not to generalise, and say that these students come with certain sets of challenges and obstacles, because students are very diverse. Students who have grown up in Australia perhaps have had secondary school in Australia but come from a home where English is a second or an additional language, often face quite different challenges and obstacles to adjusting to university, from students who undertook secondary school in a foreign country. They'll come with cultural adjustments that they need to make, with learning the more social English language skills, to make connections with other students. So it's not just about adjustment to academic studies, but it's also the social interaction that often students from foreign countries have to learn. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
So Sophie, this diverse range of backgrounds and experience, is that part of the problem of trying to tackle English language proficiency at tertiary level? 

SOPHIA ARKOUDIS
Yes it is part of the issue that we're trying to grapple with. But it's part of a broader issue that's confronting higher education teaching and learning. We can't actually assume that the students that we have that are ready to start university, first semester, first year of their undergraduate degree for example, are students that have all the same skill set. It was a myth to even believe that that happened in the past, but it's more of a myth to believe that that occurs now.

JENNIFER MARTIN
You are talking about Australia as an example, but does this apply internationally as well? As you're saying Canada, and the UK, Chi?

CHI BAIK
Oh absolutely. If you look at the literature and the research internationally in this area, students - international students and students from diverse linguistic backgrounds in the UK and in Canada face similar challenges and obstacles. The kind of trends in higher education in terms of widening participation, trying to increase access for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, that's a similar trend in the UK and in Canada as well. 

SOPHIA ARKOUDIS
Can I also add, that people are really struggling with this particular issue overseas as well, because we know we're not doing it well. We know that there are difficulties associated with this. A lot of it has to do around funding issues. But we know that we're not being successful in trying to develop our students English language skills while they're at university. Part of the reason why this is such an important issue now, is it's very much an equity issue. Because English language ability is a defining skill that students need to have to be able to access higher education. If we're at this juncture of our history in Australian higher ed, and worldwide - this is a phenomenon that's happening worldwide - we actually need to be focusing on how we develop our students English language skills so that they have the ability to be able to access the learning that takes place in higher education. If we don't, then we're actually putting them at risk of failure. What has happened in the past, is that we've assumed that that a proxy for passing a degree meant that the students had developed those skills. We know now that that's not necessarily the case. Along with developing the disciplinary learning skills that students need for learning in their discipline, they need to be able to develop the language skills in order to be able to express both in written and oral form, the knowledge and ideas of that discipline. It's really an issue about empowering the students. But it's a tricky and difficult issue, not easily solved. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
This is Up Close. I'm Jennifer Martin. Our guests today are Sophie Arkoudis and Chi Baik from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education here at the University of Melbourne, and we're talking about English Proficiency at tertiary level. So, Chi, could you give us some specific examples of the depth of this problem that both the students, but also the teachers are facing?

CHI BAIK
Yes sure. For students, one of the main issues in coming to university is very quickly they're having to not only learn a field of knowledge in the new discipline, but also are having to come to grips with these quite sophisticated and complex bodies of knowledge, in a second language. So the challenge is to adapt to that. To learn to use the language in a disciplinary acceptable way, in an academic way. This is very different from the kinds of uses of language that they've had in secondary school, and in their first language. So that's one challenge. Another challenge is to make connections with other students, to learn with other students. Then this is a different kind of language, the English language that's needed, this is not the academic or formal language, this is a more informal and social conversations. The ways to interact. Turn taking. Getting in to a conversation, having a common ground through similar cultural experiences. So they're some quite significant barriers I think for students who are coming from a different culture. Who are coming from where English is a second or additional language, to fitting in, to socialising with other students, and we know that socialising and fitting in with other students is a really important factor in success and in engagement in university. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
And not just I suppose during the length of the degree, but in terms of work readiness. Sophie?

SOPHIA ARKOUDIS
You're definitely right on that one. The social language development is a very important aspect of what students need to be developing, because employers tell us that communication skills are very important. When they talk about communication skills, they're not necessarily talking about the academic language that we tend to focus on in universities. They're actually talking about the ability for people to be able to talk everyday language with customers, the ability of people to seal the deal over lunch and have that type of communication skills that's required for that. Even in courses such as hospitality et cetera, people using correct register and tone when they're meeting clients, sending them to their seats, those sorts of things. They're really, really important skills. It's been very much a problem for us in higher education, because we know that we're not very good at doing that. We know that international students who have English as an additional language tend to not feel that they can socialise with students who are from English speaking backgrounds. That really limits their ability to also, I think in many ways, develop their academic language skills. Because when they're in university studying, doing group working, interacting with each other, it limits the ability to be able to negotiate the learning around there as well, which is not necessarily just an academic language issue. It's also a social issue. 

CHI BAIK
Absolutely. That's what we hear from the employers as well, about what they are seeking in terms of recruits from our university graduates. What they're really seeking is someone with cultural fit, who can fit into their organisation, and part of that cultural fit means being able to engage with colleagues in social interaction, and in tearoom chat for example. In meetings, to function in a sort of culturally acceptable way. I think that's a major challenge for our international students. They often focus in their university courses on their studies. They think this is what will get them a good job. To perform very well, and to get good marks. So they spend most of their time studying. Very few take up opportunities to do part time work, or casual employment, where we know a lot of these cultural fit type skills are acquired. That's I think the major difference between international students and our local students, is that our local students I think recognise quite early that they need a wide range of skills. That they need some experience, whether it's related to their field of study or not. That work experience, part time experience, working at KFC, working at McDonalds, all of that will help their CVs, and will help with those kinds of workplace skills that are perceived to be important by employers. Our international students are not aware, I suppose, of the importance of these kinds of informal interaction skills.

JENNIFER MARTIN
So this notion of being a good cultural fit, and having to make friends, is the experience of international students they tend to stick with people from their own background? How does that impact upon their English language skills Sophie?

SOPHIA ARKOUDIS
Well obviously very negatively. They choose to sometimes be around people from their own language background. As a first language speaker of Greek, I can really understand that, because our identities and our comfort zone is around people who speak the same first language as we do. So it's very understandable that they do this. But sometimes what's missing for them when they talk to you about the need that they have to be around their own language group, and their inability to be able to pull out of that and talk to native speakers, is once groups are formed in university, it's very hard to then make friendship groups with other people. People tend to congregate in those groups they establish early, and they stay there. And therefore it's a very difficult process for them to be able to form groups with others. So I think what we need to do, and what Chi and I have been involved in doing through some research that we've conducted, is working out how we can break down those groupings, and mix up the diversity in the classroom to actually assist students to be able to work in different language groups, and work together, and try to negotiate and understand different meanings and perceptions as well, in the work that they do. We think that this is very important because students obviously don't necessarily do it on their own. In the classroom or in the teaching context, they're a captive audience, so we can orchestrate this type of learning experiences for them. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
Chi?

CHI BAIK
I think there are numerous strategies. There are strategies in - that help students to break the ice initially, in the beginning of the course, through getting-to-know-you activities, through related or integrated social activities. But again students need that assistance from the university, or from their academics. 

SOPHIA ARKOUDIS
I think the focus of it has to be very much around learning. So given that a lot of the research that we did, showed that students didn't have the same necessarily cultural background in order to be able to break into groups, where they have a common ground if you like is around the curriculum and the subject material that they're learning. That's where the focus can be placed on the ideas that Chi's been talking about. It's very important that we teach not only our international students how to negotiate and talk with English speakers, but our local students who are working in a very multi-cultural society, to understand people from different cultures. Different backgrounds. And negotiate those understandings with them.

JENNIFER MARTIN
When we're talking about work-readiness, and making these links outside of your own culture, isn't this only relevant if the graduate wants to work in an English speaking country? Where's the problem if they come here for the education, and then go back home? What's the incidence of that?

CHI BAIK
There are no, sort of, statistics about how many percentage of students want to stay on in Australia after they've done their studies, and what proportion are intending to return to their countries. But a recent study that I did interviewing students, both local and international students, found that the majority, over 90 per cent, understand the need for cross-cultural interaction skills, no matter where they work. Because of globalisation, we're talking about internationalised workplaces. So they understand the importance of cultural fit, wherever they are, and the ability to work with people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, wherever they are. The challenge I suppose for international students is that while they're here, they're so engrossed in their studies that they don't invest time in developing those other cross-cultural communication skills, or other kinds of social interaction skills in English. But as a whole, students recognise that wherever they work, they are going to have to interact with people from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and this is a skill that they need to develop. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
Sophie, just what responsibility do you think universities bear in relation to ensuring this English preparedness? How much onus should be on the student, and how much on the institution?

SOPHIA ARKOUDIS
I think it should be a shared responsibility. I don't think it's totally the university's responsibility. I don't think it's totally the student's responsibility. I think what we need to have in place is very much a variety of approaches that are available to students and that are sustainable and fundable in the university environment so that we can have the type of English language development that we've been talking about. I think one of the problems in how we've done it in the past, has been that they've been very much English language support programs that have been external of the curriculum. So taking in to account some of Chi's earlier comments that she made about how international students tend to be more focused on their studies and working towards getting their degree, equally when we're looking at English language support, many of them are focused on the subjects that they're enrolled in rather than taking time out to look at the type of support programs that they can do. So we know - we have enough evidence to know that students who are in need of language support don't necessarily go to the English language support programs. 

CHI BAIK
Or they go when they're directed by their tutor, who identifies a problem.

SOPHIA ARKOUDIS
Which is often very late. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
Chi?

CHI BAIK
I think one of the problems has been, there's been a large focus on entry standards. There are two kinds of main English language proficiency tests that universities internationally accept. One is the IELTS, the International English Language Testing System, which is perhaps the favoured one in Australia and the UK. Then there's the TOEFL which is the proficiency test that's more commonly accepted in the US and Canada. So I think one of the problems has been that universities have really focused on entry standards for English language proficiency, and on making sure that students achieve the minimum language test score. So I think students also, once they achieve that score and are allowed in to university, they might have a false sense of security about okay now I have the adequate English skills to be able to do well in my studies. And therefore they perhaps don't realise that they need to take up these additional English language programs that most universities run. So students focus only on their disciplinary course, and don't realise that they also need to, alongside that, develop their English language skills. If you look at the kinds of programs that many universities offer, these are often peripheral to the core curriculum. If you look at the kinds of students who are attend these, these are often the high achieving students anyway. These programs often don't capture the students who are most at need, the students on the borderline, the students at risk of failing. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
Sophie, you've pointed out with these services, often they're underfunded considering the demand for their services. 

SOPHIA ARKOUDIS
Yeah, they can be expensive. Universities are currently under budget constraints. So it becomes a very difficult issue for them to address. However, I think that there are ways that we can make inroads into this. Because sometimes I think we talk in too big generalisations around this area. For example, all students are going to have problems. Well no, that's not true. We can't possibly fund this happening in every subject. Well no, we're not advocating for that. We're actually saying that what we need is a very strategic approach, where it gets down to a course level discussion about where these skills are going to be taught, what subjects, where energies are going to be pushed into, and really importantly where the assessment is going to take place. Because this is the area that we haven't really focused on. 

CHI BAIK
Just a comment about the budget, is that I don't think the problem is solved by increasing the budget on English language support. In fact I don't think that it needs more money in most institutions. What I think it needs is a more strategic approach. A little bit more, to be frank, wisdom in this area. That you're looking at student motivation, and where students are motivated is in their core curriculum, is through assessment. We know that assessment drives student learning, and it drives their motivation. I'm of the belief that English language development is predominantly the student's responsibility. These are not children. We're talking about young adult learners. And university is about independent learning. Self-regulated learning. But it's about motivating them in the curriculum design, through assessment. To send the message yes, we did permit you to come to the university with your English language proficiency, but we are going to assess, this is important, the university recognises that having an adequate high level English language proficiency, both oral and written, is important, and we will be assessing this. That message will be sent quite strongly through students, through assessment. Students will pick up on this, and will spend time on their own developing English language skills, rather than just relying on the support services, which are never going to meet the demand, or the need. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
Of course the person who does that assessment is the teacher. You say in your book that many teachers want to help their students with their English skills, but they lack themselves good practice and technique. So how do we address this? Sophie?

SOPHIA ARKOUDIS
Well I think again, it goes back to a bit of a multi-pronged approach, and thinking through how we do these things. I think at a very fundamental level, academics can decide whether students have correctly expressed ideas. Whether what they have presented is a coherent piece of writing, that it has clear message, clear argument, or whatever the aim and purpose of the written document was. At the very least they can tick off, saying yes or no on that. Then I think what we need to do is bring in our skilled language specialists, to work with students who have been identified as perhaps not meeting those requirements in terms of their work being clearly expressed, and work with them on the particular skills that they need to do. So I think really the answer, it might sound a bit simple and glib, but the answer is really academics need to take up some responsibility in making it more visible in their assessment practices. So students know that it is going to be assessed, and comments are going to be made about their English language levels, and skills, and that academics then work more closely with the people that we already have on the ground working in this area, to develop strategies and ideas on how those students, how their language skills can be developed further within the course. I think the secret here, as Chi was saying, is it's got to be linked to the discipline. It's got to have meaning for the students, and purpose for the students. It can't be something that's seen as an isolated extra that students are doing because they've been identified as deficit in this way. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
On Up Close, this episode, we're speaking about English proficiency at tertiary level, with academic Sophie Arkoudis, and Chi Baik, from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. I'm Jennifer Martin. Look, international students, let's face it they're a multi-million dollar, or billion dollar stream of income for universities around the world. You've mentioned budget cuts, the pressures that they're under. Is it a case of admitting students for the sake of their tuition fee, and just leaving this burden of English proficiency up to the students, up to the tutors, and up to, as you point out in your book, these small under-resourced support services? Sophie?

SOPHIA ARKOUDIS
I don't think we have any conclusive evidence that that's occurring. Certainly there are many people who express that similar sentiment, and none of the research that we have done would actually be able to comment specifically on that. However it seems that we have a moral obligation to our students if we're accepting them into higher education, we have to be able to supply them with the type of skill development that they need. English language development is a big part of that. I think also Jennifer, we need to maybe not make this just an international student issue. While our book focuses mainly on international students, there are equally needs in this area for students who are from English speaking background, who might even have gained very good and high grades in their year 12 courses, but come here and are a bit bamboozled by the type of language that they're supposed to use. For example, my daughter comes to Melbourne University. She undertook a science degree and as part of her studies, she did history. Her first history essay, she failed. Part of the problem was she was did not understand how a history essay is supposed to be structured. Very different from the type of writing that they did in her science degree. She had to go and seek support and understand how it was done, in order for her to get the good grades. It had nothing to do with her ability in other areas. It was just unpacking what the writing conventions were for that particular discipline. Sometimes we just ignore the fact that for our English speaking students, this is an important issue as well. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
Sophie, could you please talk to us about Universities in Asia, that use English as the medium of instruction?

SOPHIA ARKOUDIS
There are a number of universities in Asia who are offering English as a medium of instruction in their degree programs, and they're grappling with these similar sorts of issues. For example, the University of Hong Kong, they've currently had a curriculum renewal around their degree programs, and a particular focus of theirs is to ensure that their students are actually graduating with the necessary English language skills that they require for employment. They're using similar types of measures that we're looking at here in Australia as well. So it's a global issue. It shouldn't just be seen as an issue for countries like Australia, Canada, UK. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
Chi, we've spoken about work readiness, the need for generic communication and cultural skills. Can we talk a little bit now about the attitude of employers, when they interview these new graduates. Is there accent prejudice?

CHI BAIK
I wouldn't want to make too much of a point of accent prejudice. Having said that, I think it would be untrue for me to say that it doesn't exist as well. From the research that the Centre for the Study of Higher Education conducted, we interviewed students - international students and local students - as well as employers, about students' experience of seeking work. What we found is, that many employers now are using agencies who ring students and screen them, even before the interview process. This is a huge obstacle for many students for whom English is not a first language, because it's much more difficult to communicate on the telephone without the non-verbal signals. Also I think if the accent is perhaps less clear, less standard English for example, then it can often be seen as quite negative, as students are often cut off at that point, and not given an interview. So I don't want to make too much of a point and say that it's prevalent, accent prejudice, but I think we have to be real and recognise that at some points, some employers, that there is a level of accent prejudice. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
Looking at this issue of accents, if we take the wider population, it's - part of it is people becoming more accepting of a variety of voices. If we look at SBS Television, which is a public broadcaster here in Australia, their news anchor Lee Lin Chin speaks English with a distinctively Singaporean accent, and she's understood by speakers of English. So SBS is an example of an employer which values this comprehensibility over familiarity with a person's accent. 

CHI BAIK
I think you're right, and I think it's a matter of awareness that when we're talking about spoken English, we're not talking about one standard type, that there are varieties of English. You know, this is a field of study, looking at different varieties of English. So accent in itself, one type of accent, the Singaporean accent,is an acceptable variety of spoken English. So I think it's a matter of the whole community sort of recognising and acknowledging that there are different varieties of spoken English and that there's no one type that is standard or better than the other. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
Chi, Sophie, thank you so much for joining us today, and for helping us unpack this really complicated issue of English proficiency at higher education level. 

CHI BAIK
Thank you Jennifer.

SOHPIA ARKOUDIS
Thank you Jennifer. 

JENNIFER MARTIN
You've been listening to Up Close, and we've been speaking with Associate Professor Sophie Arkoudis, and Dr Chi Baik, from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. We've been talking about English language proficiency in tertiary education. Relevant lengths, a full transcript, and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia. This episode was recorded on Wednesday 31 October, 2012, and our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel. Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer. Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. I'm Jennifer Martin, until next time, goodbye. 

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close. We're also on Twitter and Facebook. For more info visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Copyright 2012. The University of Melbourne.


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