Academic Challenges

Language Barrier

Chinese students’ difficulties with English are identified and discussed in a number of research studies (Kao 1987; Lou 1989; Chang 1990; Ye 1992; Yeh 2000; Wan 2001). Empirical studies agreed that language proficiency is the major source of stress and resulted in much frustration for students from China at American universities and colleges (Perkins 1977; Lin 1998; Sun and Chen 1997; Wan 2001). Kao (1987), for instance, studied the problems of Chinese students who attended universities in the Washington, DC area. The findings revealed that Chinese students viewed the English language as the major obstacle to their academic success. At the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Chinese students’ academic experience revealed that they have difficulties in academic writing (Ye 1992). When dealing with the image of Chinese students as well adjusted and high achieving, Donovan (1981) pointed out that this image is clouded by limited English proficiency and social adjustment which characterized many of the students from China. Li (1993) concluded that language-related problems were common among Chinese international students, since a vast majority of them did not have an English-speaking environment when they were in China, and it was the first time for most of them to sit in a classroom where the lecture was delivered in English with a targeted audience of English speakers.

In the investigation of 268 Chinese students who studied in ten upper Midwest universities in the United States, Lou (1989) indicated that language problems were considered as the major adjustment problems. Lou further noted:

Oral English appears to be the most difficult problem for Chinese students. Speaking English and making oral reports in class have the highest problematic ratings among the English and communication problems. Writing papers and limited English vocabulary are also rated high by Chinese students. Reading text/materials does not appear to be a problem for Chinese students. (p. 22)

In terms of factors accounting for language difficulties of Chinese students, Wang (2003) suggested, from the point view of Chinese students, that there are four factors associated with their language barrier. They are the following:

  • 1. The influence of Chinese language. “Chinglish” expressions are frequently used.
  • 2. Lack of contextual knowledge or cultural background.
  • 3. Lack of language training. The language training most Chinese students once received often fails to adequately help them to meet the academic demands of their programs.
  • 4. Lack of chance to practice English. Many of Chinese students chose to hang out with other Chinese fellows instead of host nationals, which further hinder their language improvement.

Wang’s study (Wang 2003) revealed that while Chinese students struggle with English to succeed in their academic study in the United States, they have found ways to deal with various situations. Sometimes they solve their problems on their own, such as practicing more to develop their language skills or changing to majors where language demands are relatively low. Sometimes they ask for repetition. Sometimes they ignore or act reticent. Sometimes they smile, pretending they understand. From a communication perspective, Lu (2002) identified circumlocution, confirmation check, approximation, clarification request, and appeal for assistance as effective communication strategies for Chinese students to deal with their language difficulties.

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