Linguistic racism can take a high toll on international students

Even seemingly innocuous comments on the way that students use dominant local languages can have severe effects on mental health, says Sender Dovchin

Sender Dovchin's avatar
Curtin University
20 Sep 2022
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Linguistic racism in universities can have an adverse effect on mental health

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Zhikai Liu, a Chinese national and student at the University of Melbourne, took his own life in 2016, only three months after his arrival in Australia. Later, according to the final report of the Victorian Coroner, Audrey Jamieson, Zhikai experienced suicidal ideations and demonstrated symptoms suggestive of depression due to “confronting language barriers” and “study difficulties at university”.

While Zhikai’s story made headlines across the Australian news media, there are still no official research data on the conditions of international students in Australia who are experiencing mental health difficulties. The Coroners Prevention Unit of Victoria also reported that it could not locate any Australian or international studies addressing mental health, depression and suicide issues among international students.

Our recent study sought to intervene in this research gap by stressing the challenges associated with international students’ mental health and well-being in relation to their English language practices in Australia. Our data show that one of the most critical factors affecting international students’ mental health is the link between psychological distresses and perceived “linguistic racism”. The concept of linguistic racism refers to the violation of one’s fundamental human rights and how one’s linguistic rights are denied in both institutional and non-institutional settings due to how one speaks, writes and uses certain languages.

Linguistic racism can be both overt and covert. Overt linguistic racism refers to direct or explicit verbal and non-verbal acts and offences such as derogatory language, hate speech, verbal or physical abuse and name-calling. For example, some female students from eastern Europe in Australia have reported that their accents are constantly pathologised through sexist rhetoric such as being described as “sexy” or having a “hot accent” but also xenophobic rhetoric such as “Russian bride” and “sounding like a hooker”, “bitch” and “prostitute”.

Covert linguistic racism, on the other hand, is an indirect and subtle subordination of language users based on their usage of certain languages, often in the form of social exclusion, interpersonal and institutional rejections and other microaggressions. For example, to avoid foreign-name microaggressions, many international students have reported that they adopt renaming practices to suit English speakers' mouths in terms of pronunciation and their ears in terms of hearing. Many Chinese students in Australia offer alternative, Anglo-sounding names to their lecturers and peers – “just call me John” or “you can call me Sarah” – because many people cannot pronounce their names correctly. It is embarrassing to hear their names mispronounced, and they seek to avoid correcting their teachers or peers and appearing rude when it happens.

One of our research participants, a student from Indonesia, Asmara, often experiences covert linguistic racism even though she speaks fluent English. From primary-school age, she went to an English-medium private school in Indonesia, and she is highly proficient in English. Nevertheless, Asmara explains, she has observed covert forms of linguistic racism from people who seem to stereotype her English proficiency based on her “ethnic garments”.

Asmara enjoys wearing her hijab, but as soon as people see her in it, they automatically assume her English is “non-standard”. She reports that people seem genuinely shocked by her fluency in English as soon as she opens her mouth. These people cannot hide their surprise or disbelief because her English sounds just like that of native English speakers. They respond to her fluency with sincere compliments such as: “Oh, my gosh! Your English is so good! Where did you learn it?” However, Asmara says that these types of compliments make her feel worse because her English has always been proficient.

To be excluded and rejected based on one’s language practices can have significant consequences; without acceptance by the dominant society, humans are cast to the lowest levels of the social hierarchy. These forms of linguistic racism often result in a “linguistic inferiority complex”, with psychological damages resulting from the homogeny of hegemonic language, in which linguistic identities and communicative abilities are denigrated or rejected.

Linguistic inferiority complex is an exaggeration of normal feelings of inferiority, which may further instil self-marginalisation, self-vindication, loss of belonging and self-shaming. For many international students in Australia, learning, using and speaking English means becoming victim of the imagined ideal of “perfect” homogeneous English. Alarmingly, most international students who participated in our study have developed linguistic inferiority complexes, which lead them to live a life that parallels other adolescents who are at risk of severe depressive symptoms and mental health issues such as contemplating suicide or engaging in risky behaviours such as eating disorders and substance abuse.

To ensure that we, as educators, do not perpetuate linguistic racism ourselves, we must acknowledge the linguistic diversity in the classroom. That is, accept that our students are all linguistically different, with diverse socio-linguistic backgrounds and histories. Each person's linguistic difference is unique and one way should not be used against another.

A good starting point is to call our students by their birth names when we find international students who offer us alternative English names. Explain to students that we hope to learn to pronounce their names correctly and get to know them as we work together. Apologise in advance if you are unsure how to pronounce names and make a real effort to learn birth names.

Next, it could be useful to provide students with opportunities to express themselves in their heritage languages, dialects and varieties in the classroom. Starting a dialogue about our students’ home languages and expressing a desire to learn about their modes of expression may create a safe environment that could help prevent linguistic racism. Similarly, our students should be encouraged to educate themselves about linguistic racism and its adverse effects in the classroom.

Creating an inclusive classroom is vital, as all students, including international students with non-English-speaking backgrounds, should challenge and engage with local or English-first-language students.

Sender Dovchin is associate professor and director of research at the School of Education at Curtin University, Australia. She is also a Discovery early career research fellow of the Australian Research Council, focusing on issues of language and discrimination.


If you’re having suicidal thoughts or feel you need to talk to someone, a free helpline is available around the clock in the UK on 116123, or you can email jo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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