The entry and dramatic increase of “international” or foreign-educated students in the US academy has posed a tremendous and sustained challenge to academic discourse (and thereby policy and practices) because this is a very diverse group. In the absence of (or rather refusal to adopt) better approaches, the US academy has so far tried to tackle the complex challenge of defining the stunningly diverse group known as international students in terms of what they “lack.” The challenge of defining international students is further complicated by the fact that most international students are also “nonnative” English speaking (NNES) individuals, so the issues of the two largely overlapping bodies are conflated together. The result of the two problems above is a fascinating persistence in policy and practice to define international students as learners with “language problems” more than anything else.
Even after scholars in the field of language, writing, and other social sciences have demonstrated for quite some time that NNES, international students can and should be recognized for the rich linguistic and rhetorical resources that they bring into the classroom, mainstream pedagogical practices as well as official language policies continue to assume that these students are a single “group” that can be primarily defined as deficient in English. Even worse, their proficiencies in other languages that they speak and write are normally considered irrelevant to their academic success in the US. In the rest of this post, I’d like to list some ways that would be useful toward accounting for the complexity due to the internal diversity of international students—assuming, for the purpose of the current argument, that they are also NNES—in terms of their language identities and proficiencies.
The main reason why international students have been defined in terms of their language deficit rather than language diversity is because language challenges are the primary manifestations of all kinds of underlying challenges as these students try to adapt to and succeed in a new academic system. Teachers and other support providers see language see language as both symptom and problem, so they try to tackle what they see. But this approach is becoming increasingly counterproductive because international and NNES students’ language identities and proficiencies are multifaceted, multilayered, and complex to the point of confusion to themselves as well as others who consider their language identities closely. Therefore, the fundamental assumption that academic discourses and groups of students are definable by distinctive features and borders must be questioned in favor of more open, fluid and practical conceptualizations that can account for the complexity and confusions in students’ language identities.
Frist, instead of viewing “international” as outsiders, these students should be viewed as if they are on a spectrum in terms of their knowledge of the new academic system, understanding of its norms/expectations, and the level of skills needed for succeeding in it. A student told me that she had to constantly tell people that her family immigrated to the US four generations ago and that she doesn’t know what part of China they came from (in spite of some accent in her English). In contrast, I have had students who came to the US only two or three years ago from a country where they spoke fluent English and went to schools that were similar to those here; these students have no challenges either with language or with their knowledge of academic work and expectations.
Similarly, it is necessary to distinguish between the use of the term “international” students for describing immigration status and its use for describing students who are new and unfamiliar with the academic environment, practices, and expectations of US academe. In fact, it is also necessary to be aware of the term “international” being used for describing “cosmopolitan” students who possess multiple competencies (and perhaps citizenships) in language and cultural/academic discourses. I once had a talkative and confident student (an East Asian diplomat’s son) whose writing had serious syntactic issues but who made sophisticated arguments on a variety of issues; I was confused whether I should suggest that this student take a basic writing course first.
Third, it is necessary to understand students’ language proficiencies in terms of the extent of their experience and confidence with a language rather than a fixed language identity (not to mention their nationality, family background, or immigration status). Today’s global citizens—including local students—must cross borders in order to be academically and professionally successful. In my classrooms (especially in New York), I have heard U.S.-born children of second and even third generation immigrants describe themselves as “international” based on their sense of global citizenship, and in one case based on how the student thought others perceived her.
Fourth, it is important to realize that multilingual international students also face a lot of problems other than challenges with language. I once had a student who grew up in South Korea (after moving there from Delaware) so she had significant challenges with grammar and syntax (which she was quite worried about). But there was another student in the same class, a naturalized Afghani-American citizen, who had developed highly fluent spoken English in the ten years he’d been in the US but he wrote at a very basic level and was not worried about it! Motivation, discipline, health issues, personality, and any number of factors complicate language proficiency and other issues that are assumed to be similar among international students—even if the term is defined one way or another.
Finally, in order to understand and take into account the many complex issues and factors that affect international, NNES students’ language identity and proficiency, it is necessary to listen to individual students’ stories and perspectives, thoughts and ideas, aspirations and anxieties about language use, writing proficiencies, and academic abilities and ambitions. If we do so, we will see that some students are convinced that English is a challenge for them even when other issues are far more significant than their language proficiency; these students need to be taught that their difficulties with language may be a manifestation of other academic challenges. Others need to be convinced that they do need to work on their language. Individualized approach will also provide us the opportunities to identify new patterns and complexities and perhaps new and better solutions to the problems.
More than anything, international students should be understood and treated as a vastly diverse group whose challenges go far beyond learning the standard language of the academy, whose proficiencies and perceptions about language and communication are very complex and often confusing, and who can tackle their challenges to a great extent if they are encouraged to acknowledge and explore the complexities instead of being put in simple and outmoded boxes of linguistic identity–the worst of which is the box of deficiency.