“There’s a lot of Chinese students that have really poor English, and it makes group work with them difficult due to communication blocks.” “The Chinese students never said a word in those tutorials, even when the tutor asked them directly. It was a bit sad really, because it totally stifled discussion.” “I used to live in a huge student apartment building with mostly Chinese students. They all seemed to talk to each other and avoided anybody else.”
These are the critical comments shared on the website Reddit under a recently discussed topic: What do Australians think of international students?’
In a University of Melbourne research study in 2021, language barriers were identified as one of the major obstacles hindering Chinese students’ academic advancement. Group discussions were named ‘embarrassed talk’ by the subjects of the study, but they expressed that writing drafts and rehearsing helped to build up their confidence.
Similar views have been shared by Ruihan who completed a one-year postgraduate course at the University of New South Wales in 2021.
“I would join the class discussion when I had prepared for the topics. And I would listen to others if I didn’t know the topics well,” Ruihan told the PIE.
“There were topics raised by our lecturers, which Chinese students were not very familiar with. Also, many of my classmates came with rich working experience and were very expressive. My English was not as good as theirs but they would encourage me to share my ideas.”
The language issues occur not only in the situation of students like Ruihan whose time spent in Australia was relatively short. A Chinese PhD student Mike has also been affected by not reaching the native speaker level but he believes it doesn’t cause much trouble.
“There have been occasions where communication didn’t go smoothly when we worked on group assignments, mainly because of language barriers,” Mike told the PIE.
“But as long as everyone has a collaborative attitude towards the assignment, it is not a big problem. The real problem occurs when there are reluctant group members who could be either local or international. So, the language is not the most important thing, the attitude is.”
“The language is not the most important thing, the attitude is”
Users of Reddit also point out that poor academic performance has not been an exclusive issue for international students. But they advised international students to acquire Australian English skills and meanwhile learn more about Australian education culture.
The topic of adjusting to the new country has also been trending over a long time on Chinese social media. Although most of the students have learnt English for at least 10 years and passed English tests, many of them experienced frustration when they first arrived in Australia.
They struggled to understand the language because of slang and even the way people greeted each other was not what they had learnt in textbooks. They felt lost when others were laughing while they had no relevant cultural knowledge to understand them.
To integrate into the new culture, some students shared that they went to language exchange events, watched local programs, and were engaged in mandarin teaching and first made friends with those who were interested in Chinese culture. Others believe that it is important to preserve their cultural identity and comfortably fit in, rather than totally changing themselves.
International education is Australia’s fourth largest export industry, with Chinese students making up the largest cohort. Chinese enrolments at Australian universities were 140,786 in 2021, according to federal government data. It could be tempting for Chinese students to stay in their comfort zone.
“It is definitely true that Chinese international students stay in their ‘Chinese bubble’ and also do not tend to participate much in class discussions. I think these issues are symptomatic of a gap in cultural knowledge and competency,” Anthony Paul Williams, a sessional teacher at Monash University told the PIE.
Williams believes that Chinese students struggle with the idea that the teacher in Australian universities is not always the one imparting the information. This results from the teacher-centric style that is still prevalent in Chinese education.
“Chinese international students should first try to involve themselves more in classrooms, be open to new experiences and educational cultures, make friends with their classmates and then try to move those skills gradually beyond the classroom,” he said.