English as a second thought

June 25, 1999

Frank Furedi describes the frustrations felt by many lecturers faced with increasing numbers of overseas students on undergraduate and postgraduate courses ("Mind your English language", THES, June 11).

The trail to the door of the International Centre for English Language Studies of dispirited or even panic-stricken overseas students intensifies in weeks two and three as students realise they cannot understand what their lecturers are saying. Lecturers who are not specialists in language and culture are increasingly seeing non-comprehending faces and lack of participation in seminars and tutorials. Under pressure of time and work, it is all too easy to see ourselves as standard and "the others" as conglomerates of strange behaviours. Lecturers need support and training from their universities.

And British students are often seen by international students as indifferent and even hostile. Many British students are unwilling to risk crossing the boundary into another culture. Cultural cliques and ghettoisation are the inevitable result.

Can anything be done? English language qualifications are the obvious starting point. Consider offer letters from schools. Be crisp. No more of the following: "We are pleased to accept you on to our MSc course subject to sufficient level of English language." One student gave up his job, left his wife and family in Taiwan, paid his air fare and arrived to find he needed at least a year's unaffordable English language preparation.

Moreover, lecturers in English should insist they are seen and heard. They have a pivotal role in the preparation and support of all students. They do not just teach language. They are acutely aware of cultures, too.

Preparation does help. Our experience shows that students who attend pre-sessional courses in the summer have a flying start over those who arrive the week before term.

A small proportion of the fees we get from overseas students is all that is needed to provide free English-language support to those who are struggling - and may include some British students, too.

British universities also need to consider how to integrate home students into the international experience. They should provide students' first experience of the environment that will undoubtedly be the future workplace for many of them. A module in intercultural communication for all students would include an awareness of our own and other cultures and also practical linguistic and interactional strategies for coping in multilingual and multicultural environments.

A fundamental acceptance of a global education and an international working environment is reflected in the slick promotion and scholarships offered by universities abroad. British universities and the government urgently need to rethink their strategies towards internationalism for all students.

Clare McKinley

Senior lecturer, marketing co-ordinator ICELS, Oxford Brookes University

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