‘Am I gonna understand anybody?!’: International students and their struggles to understand different ‘Englishes’ in an international environment

Hanh Pho
School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
This study explores struggles that international students encounter in the early-sojourn stage when studying master’s programmes in the UK. The study is important since it is one of the few studies in the cross-cultural transition field that examine the early stage of the sojourn. It contributes to enhance understanding of educators and higher education institutions about this stressful and crucial phase in which the students freshly arrive in the host country yet need to quickly adjust to a new environment. The research was conducted at a British higher education institution from October to November 2017 when the students had arrived in the UK for less than three months. Qualitative interviewing was employed (N=23). All interviews were conducted in English and then transcribed verbatim. Thematic analysis was applied. Research findings suggested that although the students experienced no major difficulties in the socio-cultural adaptation and adjustment in the early-sojourn stage, most of them encountered psychological stress and struggled to adapt to the variants of ‘English’ in the international academic environment. It is therefore suggested that more pre-sessional courses and workshops should be provided to develop language skills for international students. Seminars should focus on giving clear instructions and guidance to the students to increase their comprehension of lectures and to support them with their assignments. Psychological well-being helplines, as well as support from university staff and personal tutors, are highly recommended.

KEYWORDS: adaptation and adjustment, student voices and student support, internationalisation in higher education, academic challenges, psychological well-being, language issues

There is an exponential increase in the number of international students[1] pursuing higher education (HE) in foreign countries, from nearly a million in 2002 (Forest and Altbach, 2006). The figure doubled, reaching 2.1 million in the following year, and in 2017, there were over 5.3 million (UNESCO, 2019). The UK is the country with the second largest population of international students; after the USA (UUKI, 2019). In 2017/18, international students accounted for 35.8% of the total population of postgraduates in the UK (UUKI, 2019). International students have become one of the major financial funders for HE institutions (Gil, 2014), and support the research base in sciences, technologies, engineering and mathematics in the UK; and sustain thousands of education-related jobs in colleges and universities as well as non-education related fields in the local area where they live (UKCISA, 2016).
The growing population of international students has resulted in increasing research interest in the related areas such as cross-cultural transition, adjustment and adaptation. The sojourning experience marks a significant transition event in the life of international students (Cushner and Karim, 2004). However, because of many challenges in adjustment and adaptation to the new environment, international students usually encounter stressful and arduous experiences during their oversea stay, some of which are the acculturative stress (Berry, 2005; Kim, 2008), culture shock (Oberg, 1954; Furnham, 2004) and language shock (Agar, 1994).
However, research about their adjustment process in the early-sojourn stage remains relatively scarce. A study of the challenges that the students may face during the early phase of the sojourn is, in fact, crucial as it is within this phase that these students need to quickly adjust to a new academic, psychological and sociocultural environment. This is especially true for students undertaking a one-year taught master’s programme in the UK, due to their relatively ‘short’ time overseas. This study, therefore, focuses on examining the adjustment and adaptation of international students in the early stage of the sojourn.
Theoretically adjustment is defined as a process, whilst adaptation is an outcome of this process of ‘modifying cognitions and behaviours’ to improve interactions and experiences (Sussman, 2000, p. 360). However, in this study, adjustment and adaptation are used interchangeably, as often done by many researchers and scholars, for instance Ward and Kennedy (1992); Leong and Ward (2000); Pitts (2016).
Current studies of cross-cultural transition identify two domains of adjustment: 1) psychological (referring to the well-being and life satisfaction of individuals in a new culture) and 2) sociocultural (relating mainly with the performance of individuals in daily social life in the new culture) (Ward and Kennedy, 1992; Ward and Kennedy, 1994; Berry, 2005; Schartner, 2014). International students are distinguishable from other sojourner groups since they experience not only the change in the cultural environment, but also in the academic environment. Thus, in this case, it is necessary to examine the third domain of adaptation: 3) academic (associating with the academic achievement and performance of student sojourners such as GPA or class of the achieved degree). These three domains interact and connect closely with each other, one domain can impact the others and vice versa (Ward and Kennedy, 1994; Wright and Schartner, 2013; Schartner, 2014).
To provide an all-inclusive and thorough image of the experience of international students in the UK, this study examined all three domains of adaptation. In the study, topics related to the social and daily life, such as travelling around the local city, going shopping, eating out and meeting local people, were regarded as socio-cultural adaptation; while topics concerning about the study and issues emerging on the campus of the host university, such as going to lectures, doing assignments and befriending classmates, were categorised as academic adaptation. Based on research findings, recommendations and implications to improve their sojourning experiences are suggested.

As part of a doctorate study, this research was conducted at the beginning of the academic year (October to November 2017), when the students had arrived in the UK for less than three months. Semi-structured interviewing was applied since this method gave participants freedom and comfortable atmosphere to express their viewpoints and perceptions. Some questions in the interview guide were originally developed for this research whilst some were designed based on previous qualitative research such as the studies of Sandel and Liang (2010); Schartner (2014); and Pitts (2016) (see Appendix).

Twenty-three students undertaking one-year taught MA programmes at a higher education institution in the northeast of England participated in the research. There was, however, a small number of male participants in this study (N=3). More than half came from East Asia and Southeast Asia (N=13), which reflected the demographic nature of the population of international students in the UK in general. All participants achieved a minimum IELTS of 6.5 or equivalent, which is the English language requirement of the master’s course in the UK. Interviews were conducted in English and there was one conducted in Vietnamese, as requested by the interviewee since her native language was the same as the researcher’s. Each interview lasted for around 45 minutes, which were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim.

All transcripts were input into NVivo and thematically analysed (Braun and Clarke 2006). Key words and phrases were highlighted and coded with a label. Frequency and occurrences of codes were then compared within and across interview to identify themes and patterns which emerged across the sample. An inductive approach was used, and themes were data-driven, which allowed new findings to emerge from the data.

As most of the interviewees used English as their second languages, when categorising key words, for instance words with positive and negative meaning, the words were examined in the contexts when they were spoken. Statements that preceded or followed the words were also considered. For example, some participants used the word ‘silent’ to describe the host city. The context, the preceding and following statements, such as ‘I like the city. It’s a silent and peaceful city’, were considered to decide that participants used the word to indicate positive meaning.

Two findings emerged from this study. First, in the early stage of the sojourn, most of participants in this research appeared to encounter more challenges in academic adaptation than socio-cultural adaptation, which resulted in psychological stress and pressure. Second, the unfamiliarity to the variants of English was often counted as the main reason for their struggles in both socio-cultural and academic adaptation.

Adaptation of international students in the UK across three adaptation domains
Most of the interviewees in this research shared that they had little difficulty adjusting to the sociocultural environment in the UK (i.e. the host city and local people). The majority felt that the hardest period was the first few weeks of arrival when they were trying to settle in. Overall, the adjustment happened quite smoothly, and any difficulties were gradually overcome after a few weeks. In the first three months of arrival, nearly half of the students showed positive feelings (i.e. excitement and contentment) with the socio-cultural environment.

For example, words or phrases such as ‘modern city with colourful nightlife’ (Interviewee 9, from China) and ‘silent and peaceful city’ (Interviewee 10, from China), were often used to describe the local city. For some students, it was the ‘easy-to-adapt’ life and atmosphere in the UK in general and the city in which they were living in particular that created a sense of contentment and erased the pressure of adaptation within the students. As Interviewee 4 (from China) explained: ‘[…] I just started it here, so I find it quite relaxing.’

Local people were mentioned with positive comments such as ‘friendly, nice, welcoming’ (Interviewee 3, from Hong Kong). Interviewee 20, from Germany, was surprised when being helped by local people when she first arrived in the UK.

…the day I came here, I came with a large suitcase and there is someone coming straight to me and helping me with the suitcase. (Interviewee 20)

Generally, positive feelings and words were often expressed towards the daily life in the UK, for instance, ‘convenient’ (Interviewee 3, from Hongkong), ‘relaxing’ (Interviewee 4, from China), ‘easy to adapt’ (Interviewee 6, from China) and ‘not so difficult’ (Interviewee 21, from Germany).

In stark contrast, students often expressed negative feelings towards academic adaptation in the early stage. ‘Intensive’ (Interviewee 1, from Vietnam), ‘overwhelming’ (Interviewee 5, from Kuwait) and ‘busy’ (Interviewee 6, from China) were repeatedly used to describe these first three months. International students were often overwhelmed by the intensiveness of the one-year master’s programme. Although the students were fully aware of the duration, modules and formats of their chosen programmes, they could not anticipate the workload; thus, were unprepared for the intensiveness of the programmes.

So, before I came here, I thought I can handle that, no big deal. But when I really experience it, I realise that ‘OMG! It’s so much more intensive than I’ve imagined. (Interviewee 1, from Vietnam)

The interview data suggests that students’ dominant concerns were mainly around academic adaptation, rather than sociocultural adaptation, which strongly influenced the psychological adaptation. Three months into the programme and many students had already been stressed out, due to the unfamiliarity with the workload. In fact, when being asked about their feelings and thoughts about their experiences then, some students even regarded this period as nothing ‘except the anxiety and the stress’ (Interviewee 5, from Kuwait). As Interviewee 5 expressed:

It’s actually the first time in my life, I feel so stressful […] yeah like the workload is a lot, I’m not used to that much workload. (Interviewee 5)

As Brown and Holloway (2008) explain, in the first few weeks of arrival, student sojourners are usually thrilled by ‘the new culture’ and ‘the unknown future’, which explains the optimistic feelings of many interviewees in this study about their socio-cultural experiences. On the other hand, the strong influence of the academic adjustment on the psychological domain has been highlighted in numerous quantitative and qualitative studies in the field (c.f. Brown and Holloway, 2008; Doble and Supriya, 2011; Zhang and Goodson, 2011). The academic assignment overload remained a significant concern for international students and has been identified in many previous studies as one of the key challenges (c.f. Abel, 2002; Misra and Castillo, 2004; Korobova and Starobin, 2015).

Other challenges in academic adaptation that are frequently documented in the literature, such as different teaching and learning styles (Pedersen et al., 2011) and the transition to a higher level of academic study (i.e. undergraduate to postgraduate programme) (Hussey and Smith, 2010), were not reported by participants in this study. This, by no means, indicates that the students would not struggle with these issues during the sojourn. It might be that in the first three months into the programme, the students had yet to encounter these problems which could possibly arise later in the sojourn.

Although the extent of impact of these stressors vary depending on individual differences, with international students usually being suggested to experience higher amount of academic stress than local students (Chen, 1999). In general, academic stress could negatively influence the students’ quality of life and is the main reason for the imbalance in their study life (Doble and Supriya, 2011). This imbalance could, in turn, negatively influence psychological well-being (Pookaiyaudom, 2015). Despite the awareness of the importance of maintaining the study life balance, usually university students neither have the ability to manage stress and pressure (Pookaiyaudom, 2015) nor the time-management skill (Matinez et al., 2013) to balance their academic and social lives.

Among many issues identified by international students as key challenges across three adaptation domains, the variants of English were found to be the most influential issue to their academic and socio-cultural adaptation. The next part will discuss this issue in detail.

Variants of English as the most challenging adaptation issue
Firstly, in socio-cultural adjustment, English spoken language, particularly the local accent, was frequently identified as the biggest challenge. In the first few weeks of arrival, 17 out of 23 students revealed their worry (or ‘fright’ for some students) about a challenging future awaiting them ahead since it seemed impossible for them to understand local people.

I just arrived, I was new here, so I didn’t get used to the accent. I just guessed what he said. […] I can only get the first and the last part of the sentence. I just keep guessing what they say. (Interviewee 1, from Vietnam)

Even students who used English as their first language struggled to understand the local accent, as Interviewee 14, from the USA, recounted her experience on the first day in the UK.

We were in the taxi travelling from the airport to the hostel in the city centre, my taxi driver, the cabbie, I can’t understand a word he said. […] So, I was like “Am I gonna understand anybody?”

Some students expressed their disappointment, resulting from the gap between their expectation of the ‘posh accent’ seen in movie and the reality of the challenging local accent.

I’ve only been accustomed to the culture beforehand in the media, the posh English accent, as opposed to the X accent. (Interviewee 14, from the USA)

However, within the first three months, the students’ life appeared to be framed within the academic environment where they would normally go to class and get back home. Besides the daily chores (e.g. grocery shopping), they rarely participated in social events or socialised outside the campus. For example, Interviewee 5, from Kuwait, shared: ‘I’ve been here for like a month and I haven’t gone out with anyone…’ The difficulty in academic adaptation, particularly the intensiveness of the master’s programme, might partially contribute to this, or as Interviewee 18, from Italy, confirmed: ‘…the problem is that the master’s [programme], it takes so much time from your free time…’ This limited experience in socialising outside the campus could explain why despite having difficulty understanding the local accent, many international students still perceived socio-cultural adaptation to be not as challenging as academic one.

In academic adjustment, the unfamiliarity with variants of English was, again, referred as the main issue impeding their study early in the sojourn, even though all of the students satisfied the English language requirement of the master’s degree at the researched university. Nine students referred to unfamiliar accents and language uses of lecturers as the largest obstacles that reduced their understanding and comprehension of the lecture. It’s worth noting that these students from Business School which had a very international team of teaching staff.

[…] for example, a Slovakian lecturer, German or Indian one, it’s extremely difficult to understand them. I think everyone in my class is struggling… like the same […] For example, the Indian lecturer has the habit of speaking extremely fast and with his accent, no one can understand what he’s talking about. (Interviewee 1, from Vietnam)

Some of the professors they’ve got quite weird accent, it’s not Geordie, it’s not Scottish, I think it’s some European accent. (Interviewee 3, from Hong Kong)

For some students, it was the ‘specialised’ vocabulary (e.g. jargons and technical terms in their fields of expertise) and the speed of the spoken English that they worried about rather than the accent. For instance, Interviewee 4 (from China) shared: ‘Some words are kind of very specialised words.’ Meanwhile, Interviewee 10 (from China) found it difficult to follow the lecture since:

I think it must be difficult for me to follow my lecturer in class because most of them… their first language is English, so they speak rather fast.

The unfamiliarity with the accent also hindered these students’ participation in class (i.e. expressing and discussing ideas with others), as Interviewee 15 (from China) mentioned below.

You have to pay attention to what other students say… and sometimes the other native students, when they talk… I just understand 50% of what they are saying because they speak really fast. So […] if the class has 40 students and some of them are native speakers. Ok, no speak, just listen!

These difficulties in in-class participation and comprehension seemed to ‘haunt’ international students, throwing doubt upon their abilities and magnifying their anxiety, even though it was still early in their sojourns.

I didn’t write the essay before in English, I did it always in German, […] but I don’t feel pressure so much […] (Interviewee 20, from Germany).

In general, international students experienced difficulty in coping with the variety of different ‘versions’ of English in the host country’s socio-cultural environment and the international academic environment (i.e. spoken English and different accents of ‘English’), as opposed to the expected ‘posh’ English heard in media. They struggled with the variants of English (e.g. the host local accent and different accents of international teaching staff), the colloquial language (i.e. slangs), specialised vocabularies and the speed of speech. As Rosenthal et al. (2006) and  Sawir (2005) explain, since the previous English learning of student sojourners focuses extensively on grammars and is generally for scholarly skills (such as reading, writing and passing exams), student sojourners experience great difficulty in the colloquial use of English and its numerous variants.

However, since during the early stage of the sojourn, most of the international students rarely socialised or went to social events outside the campus, the students did not experience much trouble with socio-cultural adjustment. Their life generally revolved around their study and their concerns were, therefore, predominantly about academic adaptation (i.e. issues with their study, such as understanding lecturers). Many studies also support this finding and report that the life of international students is often framed within the campus. They generally have limited interactions with local people and students (c.f. Harrison and Peacock, 2009; Pho and Schartner, 2019; Schweisfurth and Gu; 2009; Wu and Hammond; 2011).

Moreover, many studies about international students in English-speaking countries have questioned the reliability of the current language test. Particularly, despite being the most popular test to determine English language proficiency of international students, research show that students who meet the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) entry requirement still have low English proficiency (Pantelides, 1999). The relationship between IELTS and academic performance of student sojourners is still in dispute (Sawir et al., 2012), with some studies reporting the negative correlation between the two (Dooey, 1999).

This study shows that although all of the students satisfied IELTS entry requirement of the host university, this did not guarantee that all would experience no difficulties in using English in the host country. Even students with higher IELTS scores could struggle to comprehend lecture and understanding new vocabularies in their fields of study.

The present research shows that due to the intensiveness of the study programme, academic adaptation appeared to be of the biggest concern of international students in the early stage of the sojourn. Socio-cultural adaptation, meanwhile, happened quite smoothly during this early period even though most international students struggled to understand the local accent. This was because international students tended to have limited interactions with local people and did not frequently participate in social events outside the campus.

The three domains intercorrelated closely to each other, in so far that international students often experienced mixed feelings in the first few months of arrival: positive emotions (i.e. excitement and contentment) to their socio-cultural experiences (i.e. travelling around the host city and enjoying its atmosphere), and negative feelings for the intensive academic workload. Academic adaptation could therefore negatively influence psychology adaptation in so far that many international students suffered from psychological stress and anxiety early in the sojourn.

More training workshops and seminars should be provided for the students to improve their skills in stress management. Teaching staff should be trained to identify and support students with issue in the study-life balance, such as directing them to counselling services (Doble and Supriya, 2011). During this early period, academic tutors are advised to pay extensive care to international students so that symptoms of psychological stress could be recognised early, and intervention and treatment can be given to the students timely. It is necessary for educators and institutions to consider the work capacity of the students before designing the course. Assessments and students’ workload could be determined by both teachers, students and administrators (Clift and Thomas, 1973).

The unfamiliarity of the variants of English intervened with both academic and socio-cultural adjustment of international students (e.g. difficulties in understanding different English accents of international lecturers and of local people). This issue with language, in general, could influence psychological adjustment of international students as it may diminish their confidence.

It is, therefore, important to offer training workshops or seminars for student sojourners in the early stage to enhance their proficiency and their confidence in the host language. Educators can facilitate academic adaptation of the students during this crucial period. For instance, lecturers may slower their speed when giving lectures and provide explanations (e.g. definitions and examples) for key complicated vocabularies. It may be useful if different English tests are used in combination with IELT as English language requirements for master’s programmes.

In sum, the author hopes that this paper has provided a glimpse into the life of international students in the UK and offered some useful suggestions to improve their academic sojourns. The author acknowledges the qualitative research design, such as the limited sample size and the generalisability of findings. Future research is, therefore, highly recommended to apply a range of methods to explore this complicated experience of international students when living and studying overseas.

Address for correspondence: t.m.h.pho2@newcastle.ac.uk ; hanhpho93@gmail.com

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[1] The term “international students” is used in this paper to refer to those who move to an overseas country for education purpose. In this case, it includes both EU and non-EU students in the UK.