Five Myths About International Students Debunked

We recently published Languaging Myths and Realities by Qianqian Zhang-Wu. In this post the author explains what inspired her to write the book.

With the internationalization of higher education, millions of multilingual international students travel across the border to pursue tertiary education in Anglophone countries. In the United States, the largest international student host country in the world, Chinese international students represent the largest ethnic group. How do newly arrived Chinese international students negotiate their identities and draw upon their bilingual resources to navigate English-medium instruction at the tertiary level? How do they function linguistically across academic and social contexts? How can higher education institutions in English-speaking countries understand the within-group variabilities and dynamics among Chinese international students in order to provide better academic and linguistic support? Seeking to unpack these questions, my monograph Languaging Myths and Realities: Journeys of Chinese International Students draws upon rich ethnographic methods, including a 4-month digital ethnography, over 500 hours of bilingual language logs, semi-structured interviews, and texts analysis of writing samples among many other data sources, to closely examine Chinese undergraduate students’ first-semester languaging journeys in American higher education.

As a former Chinese international student pursuing tertiary education in the US and now an English professor working in an American university, I have always been fascinated by the mismatch between multilingual international students’ English language proficiency as measured by high-stakes standardized assessments and their actual ability to function linguistically across contexts. For instance, despite my perfect score in reading as measured by TOEFL, upon arriving in the US in 2012 as an M.S. Ed student in TESOL, I found myself scratching my head when reading about common academic concepts such as “L1 as a scaffold” and “English as an auxiliary language.” Similarly, regardless of my full mark in the TOEFL listening subtest, I was panicked when the barista repeated my order of “a small coffee with nonfat milk” as “a TALL skinny latte,” even though in reality the “tall” latte I finally received was way shorter than I had thought.

My lived experiences have made me curious – if high-stakes gatekeeping standardized language proficiency assessments do not always linearly predict multilingual students’ ability to meet the linguistic demands in English-medium environment, how can higher education institutions in Anglophone countries deliver linguistically responsive instruction to support their growingly superdiverse international student populations? I carried this question with me throughout my years as a graduate student. When I finally became an English professor specialized in multilingual writing and working closely with multilingual students in 2019, I did not hesitate to dedicate my very first monograph in life to explore this topic.

In my book Languaging Myths and Realities: Journeys of Chinese International Students, I took a unique insider-outsider perspective to examine the lived first-semester languaging experiences among 12 Chinese undergraduate students studying in American higher education. Through the lens of bioecological model of human development and languaging theories, my research has found that Chinese international students are not simply “Chinese international students.” My participants, while all able to meet the TOEFL threshold for university admission and are too often categorized under the catch-all umbrella term of “Chinese international students,” went through drastically different journeys during their initial experiences studying in English-medium higher education. Depending on their various language and education experiences prior to tertiary education, these students demonstrated complex within-group dynamics linguistically, academically, and socially. This has prompted me to propose a continuum to capture multilingual international students’ varying degree of academic and linguistic readiness for tertiary education in English-medium countries. I argue that higher education researchers, administrators and instructors must adopt a developmental perspective in understanding the dynamic languaging experiences of students from culturally, racially and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Challenging the largely misconceived homogeneity of Chinese international students has served as the foundation for my book to further unpack the diverse languaging practices, educational equity for international students and progressive pedagogies for English language users from various linguistic backgrounds. Joining the broader discussions on monolingualism and racism in American higher education, my book triangulated rich ethnographic data from various multilingual and multimodal sources to debunk 5 commonly held myths regarding international students including:

  • Myth 1: TOEFL results accurately predict international students’ abilities to function linguistically on college entry
  • Myth 2: An English-only policy is necessary in college classrooms to help international students improve their linguistic functioning in English
  • Myth 3: First Year Writing guarantees international students’ successful writing performances in content-area courses
  • Myth 4: English is responsible for all the challenges facing Chinese international students
  • Myth 5: Chinese international students are well supported in American higher education, both linguistically and academically

For more information about the book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Making Language Visible in the University by Bee Bond.

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