Language barriers in the seminar

September 26, 1997

Jennie Bristow examines the pros and cons of the influx of overseas students

LECTURERS are preparing themselves for a new set of faces in universities at the start of the United Kingdom's academic year. A growing number of these new faces will be students whose first language is not English, whose education is entirely non-British and whose stay at a British university may only be a few months.

Overseas and visiting students from the European Community have become an accepted and expected feature of many undergraduate courses in recent years. As universities and colleges seek to maximise their income, there is fierce competition for fee-paying students from Southeast Asia and other dynamic regions of the world. The popularity of European exchange schemes, such as Erasmus, also means that a number of "temporary" students is assured.

Universities with a high proportion of overseas students use them as a selling point. They stress the international and cosmopolitan flavour of the courses and social life. It gives students the opportunity to mix with others from different backgrounds and cultures.

But how straightforward is it to teach seminar groups of students with different languages, educational backgrounds and academic interests?

Jane Henderson has been a lecturer in law at Kings College, London, for nearly 20 years. For her, the language difficulties faced by non-British students are not a problem. "I think at Kings we tend to get people whose English is reasonable: we weed out those who have problems with the language during the admissions process," she says.

However, Stephen Medcalf, reader in English at the University of Sussex, says language differences can slow things down. "If you are running a class on Dickens and you expect students to read it in a week with other literature as well, it can be a problem, simply because overseas and European students read more slowly," he says.

But even home students do not always take advantage of their fluency in English, he admits. It is more a question of motivation than language.

"I work on the basis that in any tutorial group you will have one person who does all the reading, one who does none of it, and three who do some of it."

If language is not a barrier to running seminar groups of mixed nationality students, do lecturers encounter other problems? Roger Mansfield lectures at the University of Wales business school on courses with about 60 per cent of overseas students. Small group tutorials are a problem area, he says. Here the emphasis is on speaking and cultural differences work against full participation. "In some cultures females have a more limited role, and they are not used to speaking in tutorials. Getting them to speak is difficult, and this affects the group dynamics."

Students also have had a different educational experience. Dean Garratt now lectures in business economics at Leicester University after working for the university's management centre teaching in the Far East. "It was a very different experience to lecturing over here," he says. "The students seemed to have much more respect for the lecturer: they arrived on time and stayed quiet when the lecturer is speaking. Then they bombarded you with questions."

Different teaching styles between British and European universities also have an impact on the way European students respond to seminars. Jeremy Lane lectures in English in the school of European studies at the University of Sussex. Here seminar groups are made up by 5 to 10 per cent of overseas or European students. "Overseas students tend to have a more traditional background in their subject - more in-depth," he explains. "Sussex students are more likely to have a wider knowledge of a subject."

The approach to assessment also differs. Hazel Briggs, a lecturer in law at the University of Kent, teaches seminar groups in which half or more of the students are from overseas or the EU. "Some students, especially French students, have a very different approach to writing assignments: they are much more formulaic."

Teaching mixed groups of home, EU and overseas students is a challenge to lecturers who find themselves juggling with different languages, cultures, teaching styles and knowledge.

Despite this, there are many benefits to mixed groups. Lang-uage difficulties can mean that non-British students work much harder than their British peers. The depth of the education received by many non-British students can be an invaluable addition to a broad, but relatively shallow, course. The cultural interaction can enable students to see a subject in a broader light.

The size of the seminar group is the concern most often raised.

Dr Garratt says: "Our seminars are in groups of seven at the moment and are set to rise to ten, when you would not really want more than three or four."

If the effect of multicultural seminars is to continue to be positive, institutions need to ensure that this educational motivation remains, and is not subsumed by a more cynical financial imperative.

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