A foreign student, not yet an international learner.


by Nattha Chuenwattana, PhD Candidate, University of Toronto Mississauga

“What does a foreigner have to do to master academic english?” I am always thinking about this myself as an international graduate student in archaeology with english as a second language. My choice of the word “foreigner” may raise a few anthropological eyebrows. However, I feel that it best summarizes my experience this year running workshops for students struggling with their english in the Anthropology Department at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM).

I have been a teaching assistant for the first year course in the Introduction to Biological Anthropology, and Archaeology (ANT101), at UTM for a few years. In this large course (N= 800 students), approximately 20% of the students have english as their second language. These “English Language Learners (ELL)”, many of whom are international students from China and other Southeast Asian countries, struggle to understand the instruction in the course. After discussing increasing problems faced by ELL students with my supervisor, we received funding to implement a support program for ELL students in ANT101. I was hired to design and implement four ELL workshops to run in conjunction with the course.

As an ELL student myself of East Asian descent, and a Chinese language learner, teaching these ELL workshops was personal, as learning english is a lifelong process for me. I developed a workshop similar to a tutoring course that many East Asian students participate in before their National examination. Within this framework, I added critical thinking discussions and writing exercises that directly related to course material. From my experience, the tutoring class back home offered a wide range of subjects from english to history. However, the majority of these tutoring classes did not emphasize critical thinking and analytical skills but only trained students to detect a recurring pattern of questions by exercising their memory. Memorizing without understanding formed the foundation of this style of learning. Consequently, it is very common for students to have a good English language writing score without being able to follow a discussion in class. I prepared for the first workshop without knowing if anyone was going to attend, and was pleasantly surprised that the average attendance for each of my workshops was steady at around 12-13 students. I tried to guide the students through the content of the course and give them skills to navigate the complicated world of post-secondary study in Canada. At first they seemed withdrawn and shy, but by the last workshop, they were enthusiastic and able to engage in most of our discussion.  

I learned from my students that it is very easy to live in Toronto without speaking English. The students had their own network of shops, supermarkets, services, and Chinese tutoring services for many university courses. In fact, some students received degrees by only attending the concurrent class at the tutoring school without stepping into an actual lecture at the university. They were able to pass a final exam with zero attendance. I was very frightened by this prospect, but my students calmly assured me in Chinese that there is no anthropology class offered in the tutoring schools.

After many sessions, I started to detect a pattern from students who did not want to speak english. These students have created their own mental territory or comfort zone outside of their country. They are effectively able to maintain their lifestyle as if they never left their own country. It was obvious to me that they considered themselves as “foreign” students, and not international learners.

What does a foreigner have to do to master academic english? In my opinion, it depends on the purpose of their learning, and their determination to study in the first place. Some foreign students have no english speaking peers. My workshops tried to fill in that gap by demonstrating that studying english does not mean that you betray who you are, and where you are from. Learning english is just another tool to access wider knowledge online and offline. In this ever-changing world, what can we do to best support our ELL students within the university setting? The university is no longer the sole provider or guardian of knowledge. The birth of thriving tutoring schools, targeting ELL learners for many university courses, may be the first sign that there is a gap in the university’s service. My experience teaching ELL workshops this semester taught me that the expectation from ELL learners has changed. The university might have to update their strategy on course structure and offerings in order to stay relevant and competitive on an international playing field.

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