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INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS AND THE POLITICS OF
LANGUAGE AMONG ‘GLOBALISING UNIVERSITIES’
IN ASIA
Brenda S.A. Yeoh, Michelle Foong and K.C. Ho
National University of Singapore
Globalisation : now, University of Western Sydney, 23-24 July 2013
The pre-eminence of English
2


English - “the de facto language of globalised higher education” (Kell and
Vogl, 2010).
Reflected in international student mobilities
 Matthews and Sidhu (2005): “the movement of predominantly Asian students
from non-English speaking countries into Western English-speaking centres
remains fundamentally unidirectional and is a legacy of British and American
colonialism which secured English as the key language of global commerce”
Language boot camps for international
students in western universities (Taylor,
2004).
The pre-eminence of English
3

Brooks and Waters (2011) point to “the desire for fluency in
English” as the “one overwhelming concern” directly related to the
accumulation of cultural capital in order to navigate one’s way to
success in a globalised world.

Chew (2010): “linguistic migration,” that is, “migration [as part of
a “well planned and carefully calculated project”] necessitated
primarily in search of a ‘linguistic capital’, relating usually to
‘premium’ languages such as English, which is readily
exchangeable in the market place for other kinds of capital”.
In Asia ….
4


Recent revolution in Asian universities’ push towards internationalization,
accompanied by the growth of international ranking exercises.
English as the language of international reach in the strategies of
globalizing universities in Asia?



Special provision of academic programmes in English in non-English speaking
countries in order to attract international students with little familiarity of the
local language.
Ishikawa (2009): “the predominance of Japanese as a medium of instruction, a
symbol of cultural and linguistic autonomy, proves unpopular among
prospective students who increasingly demand English language courses and
degree programmes”
Altbach (2004): win-win strategy, allowing these universities “to attract
international students unwilling to learn the local language” on the one hand,
while “improv[ing] the English-language skills of domestic students and thus
enabl[ing] them to work in an international arena” on the other.
Aims
5
Using two contrasting case studies – The University of Tokyo
(Todai) and the National University of Singapore (NUS) –
and by drawing on quantitative and qualitative data, this
paper
Examines discourses and debates around the place of English in
a globalising university, highlighting paradoxes and tensions
embedded in language policy.
 Explores ways in which international students at both universities
cope with (un)familiar language environments and deal with
language barriers in the universities.
 Seeks to deepen understanding of the everyday politics of
language that international students confront, and the strategies
they employ in negotiating these encounters.

Methods
6

Globalizing Universities and International Student Mobilities in
East Asia (GUISM): multidisciplinary research project spanning 9
universities in 8 East Asian cities, of which NUS and Todai are
participating institutions.

Student surveys – 250 to 500 per university

Formal interviews with university officials and other key personnel
directly involved in the respective university’s internationalization process.

Analysis of published and non-print materials by NUS and Todai, such as
promotional literature, handbooks, prospectus, websites and other
relevant material.

In-depth biographical interviews were conducted with a total of 40
international students, 20 from each institution
7
The institutional perspective: discourses and
paradoxes in the language of internationalization
Fundamental issue that Asian universities grapple
with in rescaling the educational enterprise for a
global market lies with the language of
internationalization, given the:
assured position of the English language as the “’ground floor’
of the world hierarchy of languages” (Balaz and Williams,
2004)
predominance of universities in the Anglo-American world
NUS
8


Among East Asian universities, the National
University of Singapore (NUS) represents the
minority which has capitalised on its colonial
legacy of English based education to facilitate
internationalization
Singapore’s “Global Schoolhouse” strategy



restructuring of its national universities to achieve
greater prominence
attracting reputable foreign universities to set up
overseas campuses in Singapore
developing alliances with strong overseas partners
through global (English language) networks such as
the International Alliance of Research Universities,
Association of Pacific Rim Universities and
Universitas 21 (Sidhu, Ho and Yeoh, 2011).
NUS
9

NUS – a leading global university centred in Asia
“a thought leader on Asian matters” (NUS Corporate brochure
2010)
 “distinctive expertise and insights relating to Asia” (NUS Vision)
 “competing with leading universities [in Asia and the west] to
recruit the best minds” (NUS President Professor Tan Chorh
Chuan, President’s Address, State of the University 2010)
 “key node in global knowledge networks” (NUS Vision).


The student community is also highly diverse, with
“international students making up 20% and 60% of the
undergraduate and graduate student populations
respectively.” (NUS Corporate brochure 2010).
Todai
10

Instead of the wholesale adoption of English as the “global
language,” “internationalisation” is not seen to be incongruent
with the “Japanisation of Japan” (Hashimoto, 2000).

 English language dominance is to be resisted and deconstructed
“Well, as a society, I think …it is nearly a cliché …but Japan is one of the most
homogeneous societies in the world, even though we have a diversity element…
language communication is virtually all in Japanese…. And also the fact that…
Japan… more or less successfully achieve modernization without depending too
much on the help of the outside world… This created …an atmosphere where
somehow the system that exists now can manage all sorts of elements [without
recourse to the outside world] … so despite the fact we need a lot of
internationalization… it’s hard to achieve… real diversification”
(Senior official#1, Todai, 2010)
Todai
11

Todai’s current pursuit of “internationalisation” is articulated in terms
of an “openness” and “responsibility” towards the future of “Japan”,
“diverse peoples of the world”, and “human civilisation” in general, a
discourse which attempts to transcend the particularities of
nationality, ethnicity and language, and instead draw on the
language of world solidarity and universal truths:



“Japan too, is expected to display its unique characteristics and contribute to human
civilization, as it opens itself to the world…. It [Todai] thus dedicates itself to pursue the
truths and universal realities transcending national, ethnic, and language differences.
One of our key missions [of Todai] is to constantly create and develop forums for
education, research, and academic exchange in order to build bridges between different
nations, regions, peoples, languages, and cultures-and thereby deepen mutual
understanding on a global scale.
By promoting international education and research, Todai will strive to broaden its
internationalism and deepen its understanding of the various regions of the world, as it
promotes education and research that aspires for truth and peace”
(The University of Tokyo Guidebook, 2009)
Todai
12
English language courses first introduced as early as in the 1980s in civil
engineering in order to recruit students from Southeast Asia in tandem
with the expansion of the Japanese construction industry in the region 
until recently not central to Todai’s internationalisation strategy:
“I need to point out that some elements of internationalization, particularly in the form
of the increase in international students has been achieved without depending very
much on the language, of the English language of instruction… The largest
international student body is Chinese …nearly 900 Chinese students…and the second
is Korean …students…600 students…and then Taiwanese…These East Asian
international students speak nearly perfect Japanese… Internationalisation has hence
gone on without depending on the English language… I think that this is partly a
blessing to us, because we don’t need to change the language of instruction…. But
then, that has created … in a way, a narrowness of our internationalization… a
narrow [band in] geographic distribution… Those countries that use Chinese
characters… have a definite advantage in learning the Japanese language and so
…Chinese, Korean… Taiwanese, they really, as I said, have a very good command of
the Japanese language”
(Senior official#1, Todai, 2010)
Todai
13
Introduction of degree courses in English
a recent effort:
“Every effort is being made to increase the number
of courses that are taught in English, enhance our
services to international students and research
fellows, and translate numerous administrative
documents of the University into English.
(Message from the President, The University of Tokyo
2010 Admission Information for International Students)
Todai
14
Selected as one of the universities to promote
internationalization in Japan under the Global 30 Project,
Todai has begun to establish more courses in English,
through which students are able to obtain their degrees 
move towards internationalisation with greater diversity?
“Our current task is to broaden the scope of diversity…we
need to go beyond East Asia…. And for that purpose, the
need to increase courses taught in English is essential.”
(Senior Todai official#1, 2010)
“)
Todai
15
While the declared aim is to allow international students with no prior knowledge of the
Japanese language to complete their degrees in English, the subtext suggests that
Japanese language proficiency is still strongly preferred:
…prospective students need not have prior knowledge of the Japanese language...however, those who
have learned Japanese in high school or other institutions are especially welcome…during their
undergraduate studies, students are strongly encouraged to strengthen their Japanese language ability
to manage themselves in the Japanese language so as to be able to take classes conducted in
Japanese…such language proficiency may help students work in Japan or Japanese companies abroad
after they graduate from Todai....
...prospective students [who enrol in the advanced international program in economics] are those who
can disseminate messages both at home and abroad from Japan’s own perspective without being limited
to western ways of thinking.
(The University of Tokyo 2010 Introduction of Courses in English, pp.5-6)
“Although the program [graduate program in engineering] itself is in English, some Japanese skills will
eventually be necessary for graduates who hope to work in Japanese companies…to address this reality, we
offer a program that is seamlessly bilingual”
(Senior official#2, Todai, 2010)
16
The perspectives of international students
1. Place of language in choice of overseas university
17
Table 1: Reason(s) for selecting the university the student is enrolled in
University Attribute
Reputation of university
Latest knowledge and methods
Reputation for quality and expertise of
staff
Reputation of programme
Qualifications recognized by employers
Education in Host Country Language
(English in the case of NUS/Japanese in
the case of Todai)
Large number of international students
University advertises itself strongly
NUS
96.6
83.8
Todai
94.5
85.5
83.1
79.5
84.1
88.0
79.8
78.9
81.8
26.8
37.3
34.0
25.1
17.8
*Note: percentage “agree” = percentage of “important”+”most important”
1. Place of language in choice of overseas university
18
Table 2: Learning the Language of Country as a Reason for Studying in the Country
_________________________________________________________________________
Variable
NUS
Todai
t
df
(N=467)
(N=232)
_________________________________________________________________________
Wants to learn Language
3.18
1.98
17.679***
697
(SD)
0.78
0.96
_________________________________________________________________________
Note: *p <.05; **p <.01; ***p <.005
1. Place of language in choice of overseas university
19
The representative from NUS (at a study abroad fair in Leeds, his home
university) was telling me about all the places I could go, you can get lots of
really nice cheap food, nice hot and sunny, and reassured me that everyone
understood English… an English-speaking country in Asia would somewhat
be an introduction, finding out more, I always thought I wanted to work
abroad for some time. It sounded like a good idea to maybe work in
Singapore or somewhere in Asia.
(Tim, British undergraduate exchange student, NUS)
I have a very good friend from childhood and he used to study in Japan on
scholarship. He was there for two years as an undergraduate and still, he
couldn’t catch up with the language. And now he has to come back and start
everything all over again…. Japanese is one of the most difficult languages
in the world. It’s very hard. I used to study Japanese and I think “Oh my
God!”. It’s not for me…. English is definitely easier!
(Thi, Vietnamese undergraduate student, NUS)
1. Place of language in choice of
overseas university
20
…language wise it was a little difficult, their English is kind of, a bit
different from normal so there was a bit of difficulty in understanding, like if
you go to their research webpage and they talk about what they’re doing
and you go like…’huhhhhh?’ I guess you just need to spend a lot of, a slightly
longer time in trying to understand it, but it’s not that difficult, it’s not a big
problem.
(Charlene, Malaysian postgraduate student,Todai)
It’s not that I don’t want to learn Japanese, I really want to learn Japanese
because I think if you know Japanese in Japan, it’s much more convenient.
But I thought maybe I should be focusing on my research because that’s what
I’m getting paid for, …. But when my sensei said I should do it [learn
Japanese], I should do it…. That’s why I felt like doing it, but then there was
a point [where] I had too much work.
(Abbas, Pakistani Civil Engineering postrgraduate student, Todai)
1. Place of language in choice of overseas university
21
As an international student, it helps if you have basic Japanese language
ability, but I’m thinking what if you don’t have any of that, then it’s really
difficult to communicate. Also, because of that, you’re not aware of the sort
of support you’re able to get, because they can’t communicate to you. ‘Oh
you actually can get this’, they can’t tell you… When I first went to class,
everything, guidance, orientation, was in Japanese, like information on how
to register for your classes, rules, these are all important things – everything
is in Japanese. So you kind of like go ‘urgghhh!’, you’re totally left out in the
cold. Of course you can ask them, but you need to speak in Japanese, they
do give you handouts, but only a tiny part of it is in English, and you have
the feeling that you’re missing out on a lot of information…. I feel it’s
because the international student ratio is very small, so they can kind of get
away with not having guidance in English…. I feel like I missed out on a lot
of opportunities just because everything is in Japanese.
(Charlene, Malaysian postgraduate student,Todai)
2. Coping with (un)familiar language environments
22
The scores of the international students’ listening, speaking, reading and writing in English
(NUS) and Japanese (Todai) were aggregated to create an index of the students’
language proficiency. Figure 1 shows that the language proficiency of NUS students
(from score 11 to 16) in English is generally higher than the Japanese language
proficiency for Todai students.
35
30
Percentage (%)
25
20
15
10
5
0
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
Language Proficiency of International Students
NUS
14
15
16
Todai
Figure 1: The Language Proficiency of NUS and Todai Students in the Host Language.
2. Coping with (un)familiar language environments
23
Table 3: Coping with the use of (Language of Country)
_________________________________________________________________________
Variable
NUS
Todai
t
df
(N=467)
(N=232)
_________________________________________________________________________
Coping with Language
2.92
2.72
3.465***
697
(SD)
0.68
0.78
_________________________________________________________________________
Note: *p <.05; **p <.01; ***p <.005
When asked if they were satisfied with their adjustment with the host language, the lower mean
score of 2.72 suggests that Todai students on the whole were less satisfied compared to NUS
students whose mean satisfaction score was 2.92.
2. coping with (un)familiar language environments
24
While the NUS international students exhibited a higher level of proficiency and
coping ability with the host language (English) compared to their Todai counterparts
who had to wrestle with Japanese, the adjustment process was nonetheless significant
if more subtle.
People don’t even recognize me as an international student, they’d assume that I’m
Singaporean and when they find out, they’d be like, “oh you’re Malaysian, (but) you speak
English so well, you don’t look like a Malaysian”…it’s very irritating, insulting…the whole
mentality that they are so much better than everyone else.
(Jenny, Malaysian Chinese undergraduate student, NUS)
That group didn’t let me participate much in the work, they didn’t trust me, gave me all the
trivial tasks…when we have group discussions, they would say things like “does anyone have
any idea what she’s talking about?” that kind of thing.
Before coming [to NUS], I was working with an Australian boss. There was nothing wrong with
me [in terms of English communication]. When I came here, the whole world shattered. I started
to doubt everything, from my English to my competency, about everything.
(Kim, Vietnamese undergraduate student, NUS)

In the international classroom in Todai, courses where the language of
instruction is officially English are often in practice conducted in dual
languages.


Hyun, a South Korean PhD student, explains: as some Japanese students are not
comfortable with English, the “professors try to speak in English first, then
afterwards explain in Japanese too”.
In parallel fashion, mainland Chinese students studying in Todai who struggle
with English may resort to Japanese instead.

Hong (Todai) a Chinese PhD student, found oral English presentations and
communication very challenging (given both her and her host’s inadequacies with
the language) but was more comfortable with reading and writing in Japanese,
primarily because of the large number of characters borrowed from Chinese:

In my lab I was the only foreigner and the only girl. So I felt it wasn’t so easy to
start my work, because there were many instruments I didn’t know how to use, or
things that I didn’t understand, I found it hard to communicate with my labmates.
Firstly, when I speak English, they won’t reject me but they find it hard to
understand what I’m talking about, and it’s also hard for them to express
themselves, *sigh* so I felt it was no use talking, so I might as well not talk.

25
2. coping with (un)familiar language environments
26
I actually think it’s less stressful here because as an
international student in my lab, I get off with a lot, so they’re
(Japanese labmates) all like ‘ahh, it is okay Charlene’. For
example, during my lab seminars they have to translate some
lab reports from English to Japanese, and present to
everyone. I don’t have to present that because that’s not my
native language, so I don’t have to present in Japanese, just in
English. Also because their English level is not so good, I don’t
get bombarded with a lot of questions. I think in Malaysia, I
will not be able to get away with these sorts of things,
because the language and everything is all the same.
(Charlene, Malaysian postgraduate student, Todai)
3. Host language ability and formation of friendships
27
Friendship circle confined largely to co-nationals:
When I came to Singapore, at the beginning, I just communicated with Chinese
graduate students, because it’s easy, the first few months, because Singaporean
English is very hard to understand, very fast… [Interviewer: But you can speak
Mandarin to them [Singaporean Chinese]?] But some of them didn’t know Mandarin
and they prefer to communicate with you in English, I think so.
For me the definition of friends means you can talk to them about your real feelings
(交心). [It is] difficult with locals … I think English is a problem….and also culture, a
little bit different…And when you already know some [co-national] friends, … and
you’d be lazy to go make some new friends, you won’t take initiative, especially we
are already older, you won’t take the initiative, so everyone let it be (顺其自然,).
(Minghan, Chinese postgraduate student, NUS)
3. Host language ability and formation of friendships
28
Hong, PhD student from China, bows to the invincibility of “the
language barrier” despite an abundance of goodwill to form
friendships across the divide:
This [Japanese] girl has tried to make friends with me, she is my junior, so she felt, since I’m
senior she should have good relations with me, she is very adorable, so if the next day is my
presentation, she would put a note on my desk, ‘ganbatte!’[do your best!] Japanese are very
good at drawing, so she’d draw a small bunny and even write ‘加油’ in Chinese characters,
so she’s really adorable. But because of the language barrier, I really don’t know how I can
communicate with her better, at most have lunch together, and return her some small gift. If
she has any problems with her work, I can help her, but that’s it, I don’t really know what to
say to her. She also doesn’t really know what to say, already she doesn’t like to talk much.
The relationship among international students [in her lab] is really good, language wise, we
can communicate more [using English], I’ve [gained] more understanding of Thai and Korean
culture. With the Koreans, we would talk about Korean pop stars in dramas, singers, I think it’s
quite fun and meaningful.... [I am] very close to the Thai student, his parents are Chinese
ancestry, so I feel pretty close, though he doesn’t speak Mandarin, we feel closer. When
foreigners come together, you are actually closer (外国人和外国人在一起,反而更亲密一
些).
(Hong, Chinese PhD student, Todai)
3. Host language ability and formation of friendships
29
Interestingly not being fluent in Japanese did not affect third country
friendships as the language of interaction among third country networks
is most likely the major regional language, probably English and
Mandarin.
The relationship among international students [in her lab] is really
good, language wise, we can communicate more [using English], I’ve
[gained] more understanding of Thai and Korean culture. With the
Koreans, we would talk about Korean pop stars in dramas, singers,
I think it’s quite fun and meaningful.... [I am] very close to the Thai
student, his parents are Chinese ancestry, so I feel pretty close,
though he doesn’t speak Mandarin, we feel closer. When foreigners
come together, you are actually closer (外国人和外国人在一起,
反而更亲密一些).
(Hong, Chinese PhD student, Todai)
3. Host language ability and formation of friendships
30
25
Percentage (%)
20
15
10
5
0
0
1
2
3
4
5
Number of home country friends
Todai
NUS
Figure 2: Home Country Friendships, Todai and NUS
6
7
3. Host language ability and formation of friendships
31
50
Percentage (%)
40
30
20
10
0
0
1
2
3
4
5
Number of third country friends
Todai
NUS
Figure 4: Third Country Friendships, Todai and NUS
6
7
Conclusion
32


NUS leverages – with little hesitation – on its strong English
language legacy to build close affinities with the AngloAmerican world of higher education and to compete
effectively in the global league of universities.
Todai treads a more ambivalent path towards
internationalization, embracing a heightened discourse about
folding language differences into the larger goal of world
solidarity on the one hand, and maintaining the centrality of
the Japanese language to the higher education landscape on
the other, even as certain niche programmes take on English
as the language of instruction (at least on paper).
Conclusion
33



For both universities, language issues feature not only in
institutional discourses about globalization but also in
shaping international student mobilities and experiences.
The relationship between host language proficiency and
social adjustment is not a linear one.
Instead, as seen in both the case of the English dominated
environment in NUS and the more ambivalently layered
environment with two dissonant languages (English and
Japanese), the place of language as both enabler and
constraint in the adjustment process is negotiated in the
stream of everyday encounters.
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