Crossing the Language Barrier

3 April 2019

Behind the scenes of Australia’s highest-ranked university, a few Chinese international students at the University of Melbourne are struggling with their courses due to language barriers.

“I don’t physically go to my lectures because I can’t keep up with how fast the lecturer moves through the content,” said Abby, a Chinese international student who wishes to remain anonymous. “I like to watch the lecture capture afterwards, that way I can put the parts I don’t understand through a translation software.”

Abby’s struggle with the course is not a single case. In the latest International Student Survey conducted by the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) International, 49 per cent of around 2,000 student participants struggled to understand course material.

The survey also found that 30 per cent of participants cited ‘language barriers’ as an issue, making it the second most prevalent difficulty that international students face.

“UMSU International believes this is an issue whose root cause must be addressed, “ said Jonas Larsen, president of UMSU International.

According to the University’s entry requirements, international students from a non-English speaking background need to pass an English language proficiency test that is internationally recognised. This could be either Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), Pearson Test, Cambridge English Score, or International English Language Testing System (IELTS). For applicants who have outstanding academic performances but achieve a minimum score in the language test, the University will require them to sit in the Diagnostic English Language Assessment (DELA) upon their enrolment at the University, and then offer them various language support programs such as academic writing classes in accordance with their grades.

However, some of these requirements are reportedly too low for a level that is sufficient for tertiary studies. For example, the IELTS website states that students with a score of 6.5 out of a highest 9 still need to improve their English ability before they are fully able to undertake “linguistically demanding academic courses”, and are at a level that is perhaps acceptable for “less linguistically demanding academic courses”.

Phoebe Huang, president of the Melbourne University Taiwanese Students’ Association, believes that it will be difficult to resolve the issue of insufficient English ability amongst international students. “[The University] should have high standard [sic] for international students when enrolling in uni,” she says.

Huang recounted an instance where a friend, during class, posed a question in Chinese to his lecturer, to which the lecturer answered in Chinese as well.

“I feel like if you can’t even ask your questions in English you’ll experience difficulties,” said Huang.

The language barriers could also prevent international students from adapting to the foreign environment. “It’s virtually impossible to become friends with local students because my English isn’t very good,” said Fiona, another Chinese international student who wishes to be anonymous.

Currently, the University’s Academic Skills hub has programs in place to support students with their English language and study skills. They offer workshops that focus on vocabulary building, pronunciation, and grammar, as well as Academic Writing drop-in sessions with a Peer Leader, which can all be booked through the Student Advising System.

“We aim to work with other UMSU departments to make the university aware of the impact this is having on international students,” said Larsen.

“We aim to facilitate platforms and forums through our range of events for international students, where they can have the ability to get study friends and conversation partners helping those struggling with their English skills.”

The insufficient language support for international students is also found in other Australian universities. In November last year, the ABC interviewed several university academics who expressed concerns on some international students’ poor academic performances due to their limited English competence. Premier of Victoria Daniel Andrew also wrote a letter to the National Tertiary Education Union calling for a review of international students’ university entry requirement, according to an exclusive report by The Age in January.

In response to Farrago’s request for comment from the University on the ABC report, a University spokesperson said, “The University of Melbourne is proud of the diversity of its student body and believes this creates an outstanding learning environment for future global citizens…our international students come from more [than] 130 countries.”


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