The role of language in exchanges

This morning I read an article from the BBC about an incident at Duke University, where a professor emailed students about her concerns over Chinese students speaking Chinese, rather than English, while on campus. Apparently, two colleagues had overheard students speaking Chinese (“loudly”) in a lounge/study area and asked this professor for their names. They wanted to know so that, allegedly,


 they could remember them if the students ever interviewed for an internship or asked to work with them for a masters project. They were disappointed that these students were not taking the opportunity to improve their English and were being so impolite as to have a conversation that not everyone on the floor could understand.

from:https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-47022374

The professor e-mailed her students and asked them to speak English “100% of the time” in the building or “any other professional setting”. The professor has been removed as director of the programme, as a result of the backlash against this e-mail.

First off, let me say that I’m not surprised by this incident, for several reasons. When I was in high school checking out universities, I visited Duke and decided not to apply–despite being considered a “prestigious” school, campus life felt very Greek-oriented and sports-oriented. Also, I’ve seen the way some people (lecturers, students, locals) react to international students speaking their native languages–I’ve heard the same things as these staff members in the e-mail have said.

It’s racist and ridiculous for a number of reasons, but my main issue is that the students in question were not in a “professional setting”. They were in a “student lounge/study area”. Why shouldn’t they speak their native language there? Why does “everyone on the floor” need to understand what they’re saying? What if a couple of native English speakers decided to whisper?

And even if they were in a “professional setting”, lighten up. My seminars are often 90-100% Chinese students, and I’m absolutely fine with them speaking Chinese with each other when they discuss the readings. I put the discussion questions up on the screen and they break up into small groups, discuss them in Chinese (and/or English, depending on the group’s preferences), then share their thoughts with me and the rest of the class in English after a few minutes. I would much rather ensure that they understand the content than use my seminars as an “opportunity to improve their English.” It will improve–but in the meantime, we need to talk about Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory (which has already been translated from the original German). If speaking English with me and Chinese with their peers helps us get through these difficult readings, then by all means, feel free to speak Chinese!

It’s taken me a few years to come to this position, though–back when I started working with international students, I thought they should engage in “immersion”. If they committed to speaking English all the time, they would become fluent quickly and everything would be easier for them. But now I realise that this is a very privileged, unrealistic position. Immersion works, yes, but it’s incredibly mentally exhausting. It’s such a relief to speak your native language when you’re abroad.

Last September, I experienced this sense on a smaller scale–I was in Paris with my family, responsible for doing most of the ordering and translating and navigating with my limited French. We stopped at a deli to get sandwiches for lunch, and I struggled to understand and make myself understood. The woman behind the counter was very sweet, asking us about our son and where we were from, and it turned out that she was from Ecuador. I was so relieved–I switched to Spanish and we both grinned. Suddenly it was so much easier to communicate! And that wasn’t even my native language, so I can imagine how relieved my students must feel to speak in Chinese after hours in the library struggling to get through Adorno and Horkheimer. It’s not just about language acquisition–we need to take a holistic approach to understanding the international student experience.

Michael Haugh picked up on some of these ideas in his article on international students in Australia. The so-called “English problem” amongst international students has been blamed for a perceived decline in standards in Australian higher education. His interviewees shared some very interesting anecdotes, and I think many of my students would find them relatable. Haugh’s conclusion suggests that

 …it would be useful to draw greater attention to policy-makers in higher education to the moral complexity of the ongoing discourse of complaint about the English language skills of international students. In this way, we can move beyond the view that the so-called English problem is simply a matter of an objective, measurable deficiency on the part of international students.

from: Haugh, M. 2016. Complaints and troubles talk about the English language skills of international students in Australian universities. Higher Education Research & Development,35(4), pp. 727-740.

Immersion vs. bilingual education will continue to be an area of debate in exchange diplomacy, particularly in terms of language acquisition and culture learning effectiveness. In terms of the way international students are treated on campus, however, there’s no question that we must respect students’ right to communicate amongst themselves in whatever way they choose.

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