Language rights, agency, and cross-cultural understanding in international education

Dr Sherrie Lee, Independent Academic

International Mother Language Day  has been observed on 21 February every year since its establishment by the United Nations in 2000.  In New Zealand, the day is recognised and celebrated by organisations such as The New Zealand Federation of Multicultural Councils and The Office of Ethnic Communities, as well as schools and universities. In countries with migrant populations, recognising people’s mother tongues or heritage languages upholds respect for linguistic and cultural diversity. According to the UN, International Mother Language Day aims to do just this – to “inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.”

Understanding, tolerance and dialogue?

In contrast to the positive messages surrounding International Mother Language Day, the recent debacle at Duke University (North Carolina, USA) over Chinese international students speaking in their native language in the lounge area appears to contravene the very tenets of linguistic diversity. An assistant professor at Duke had emailed all first- and second-year biostatistics graduate students with a message directed at international (and, obviously, Chinese) students. An email excerpt quoted by several news reports reads:

“To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building. I have no idea how hard it has been and still is for you to come to the US and have to learn in a non-native language. As such, I have the upmost [sic] respect for what you are doing. That being said, I encourage you to commit to using English 100% of the time when you are in Hock or any other professional setting.”

The “unintended consequences” the assistant professor mentioned refer to students being disadvantaged during internship and employment opportunities because of the their apparent lack of interest to improve their English. Another possible consequence was that not conversing in a language that others could understand would be considered “impolite”.

A swift apology came from the dean to rectify the matter:

“To be clear: there is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other. Your career opportunities and recommendations will not in any way be influenced by the language you use outside the classroom.”

The Duke Asian Students Association and the Duke International Association have condemned the discrimination against Chinese students, while external commentators have highlighted how the Duke incident is symptomatic of wider tensions in US academe with regard to international students. Their responses highlight xenophobic sentiments among faculty staff and the institution at large despite the goals of inclusivity and cross-cultural understanding of global higher education. Another point raised is that international students, as with all other students, have personal rights to communicate in the languages of their choice. Furthermore, speaking in one’s native tongue does not indicate a deficiency in English language abilities.

The value of native language use in tertiary settings

My doctoral research on international students’ brokering practices has demonstrated that using one’s native language can be tremendously helpful for succeeding academically. First-year Chinese university students’ help-seeking interactions with peers often utilised Mandarin Chinese, a language they had in common with their academic brokers. Within a shared linguistic and cultural communicative framework, students were empowered to ask a range of questions about assignments, test their assumptions, and occasionally display their epistemic authority. In other words, using one’s native language facilitated learner agency in ways that formal English-medium instruction could not.

The analytical insights on my participants’ brokering interactions were further enhanced by my own bilingual capabilities in English and Chinese. I was consciously engaged in acts of translation between raw data and analysis, but also between my participants’ informal learning experiences in Chinese, and my largely English monolingual readership. In this small way, I, too, wish to “inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue” about international students in English-dominant universities such as Duke.

Priorities and responsibilities

With international education becoming an increasingly valuable export sector in New Zealand, it’s easy to see international students as cash cows rather than celebrating the linguistic and cultural diversity they represent. If international education is to fulfil the broader aims of global citizenship (as laid out in the NZ government’s long-term international education strategy), there needs to be a two-way street where local staff and students learn from international students as much as international students learn from them. Thus cross-cultural competency training is an urgent need, and so is a re-imagined curriculum that pays more than lip-service to the terms ‘international’ and ‘diversity’. To this end, may I invite multilingual educators and researchers to consider how you can play an important role in bridging cultural worlds.


SherrieSherrie Lee recently completed her PhD in Education at the University of Waikato. She is currently working at the Tertiary Education Commission as a career development consultant for international students and new migrants. Sherrie serves as the secretary of ISANA International Education Association New Zealand, and is an associate editor for the Journal of International Students. She regularly writes about her academic interests at thediasporicacademic.com.

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