Language rights, agency, and cross-cultural understanding in international education


This post was originally written for Ipu Kererū Blog of the New Zealand Association for Research in Education on 4 March 2019. In light of the Christchurch tragedy that took place on 15 March 2019, I’m re-posting it on my own website with a renewed sense of urgency to champion linguistic and cultural diversity.


International Mother Language Day  has been observed on 21 February every year since its establishment by the United Nations in 2000.  In New Zealand, the day is recognised and celebrated by organisations such as The New Zealand Federation of Multicultural Councils and The Office of Ethnic Communities, as well as schools and universities. In countries with migrant populations, recognising people’s mother tongues or heritage languages upholds respect for linguistic and cultural diversity. According to the UN, International Mother Language Day aims to do just this – to “inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.”

Understanding, tolerance and dialogue?

In contrast to the positive messages surrounding International Mother Language Day, the recent debacle at Duke University (North Carolina, USA) over Chinese international students speaking in their native language in the lounge area appears to contravene the very tenets of linguistic diversity. An assistant professor at Duke had emailed all first- and second-year biostatistics graduate students with a message directed at international (and, obviously, Chinese) students. An email excerpt quoted by several news reports reads:

“To international students, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building. I have no idea how hard it has been and still is for you to come to the US and have to learn in a non-native language. As such, I have the upmost [sic] respect for what you are doing. That being said, I encourage you to commit to using English 100% of the time when you are in Hock or any other professional setting.”

The “unintended consequences” the assistant professor mentioned refer to students being disadvantaged during internship and employment opportunities because of the their apparent lack of interest to improve their English. Another possible consequence was that not conversing in a language that others could understand would be considered “impolite”.

A swift apology came from the dean to rectify the matter:

“To be clear: there is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other. Your career opportunities and recommendations will not in any way be influenced by the language you use outside the classroom.”

The Duke Asian Students Association and the Duke International Association have condemned the discrimination against Chinese students, while external commentators have highlighted how the Duke incident is symptomatic of wider tensions in US academe with regard to international students. Their responses highlight xenophobic sentiments among faculty staff and the institution at large despite the goals of inclusivity and cross-cultural understanding of global higher education. Another point raised is that international students, as with all other students, have personal rights to communicate in the languages of their choice. Furthermore, speaking in one’s native tongue does not indicate a deficiency in English language abilities.

The value of native language use in tertiary settings

My doctoral research on international students’ brokering practices has demonstrated that using one’s native language can be tremendously helpful for succeeding academically. First-year Chinese university students’ help-seeking interactions with peers often utilised Mandarin Chinese, a language they had in common with their academic brokers. Within a shared linguistic and cultural communicative framework, students were empowered to ask a range of questions about assignments, test their assumptions, and occasionally display their epistemic authority. In other words, using one’s native language facilitated learner agency in ways that formal English-medium instruction could not.

The analytical insights on my participants’ brokering interactions were further enhanced by my own bilingual capabilities in English and Chinese. I was consciously engaged in acts of translation between raw data and analysis, but also between my participants’ informal learning experiences in Chinese, and my largely English monolingual readership. In this small way, I, too, wish to “inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue” about international students in English-dominant universities such as Duke.

Priorities and responsibilities

With international education becoming an increasingly valuable export sector in New Zealand, it’s easy to see international students as cash cows rather than celebrating the linguistic and cultural diversity they represent. If international education is to fulfil the broader aims of global citizenship (as laid out in the NZ government’s long-term international education strategy), there needs to be a two-way street where local staff and students learn from international students as much as international students learn from them. Thus cross-cultural competency training is an urgent need, and so is a re-imagined curriculum that pays more than lip-service to the terms ‘international’ and ‘diversity’. To this end, may I invite multilingual educators and researchers to consider how you can play an important role in bridging cultural worlds.

The original blog post was re-posted with permission and can be found here.

The ethical challenges of global connectivity – A response to Fazal Rizvi

A personal response to the opening keynote by Fazal Rizvi – ‘Global connectivity and its ethical challenges in education’ at the 29th ISANA International Education Association Conference, 5 December 2018, Sydney Masonic Centre, NSW, Australia.

Professor Fazal Rizvi, a name synonymous with ‘cosmopolitan identities’ in international education (see his 2005 paper), presented to international education practitioners, a dilemma in our contemporary times. International education, a notion that implies openness, cooperation, and collaboration, operates in a world that is moving towards ethno-nationalist sentiments.

US President Donal Trump encapsulates such sentiments with his calls for US protectionism, and so do the political landscapes in other countries such as Turkey, Hungary, Italy, Brazil, France, and India. Even while the world is becoming ever more connected, anti-globalisation is gaining traction, revealing the tensions and limitations of so-called ‘global connectivity’. There is a deep-seated fear of the potential loss of national sovereignty in the face of job loss and migrant communities encroaching on the spaces of local populations. On the other hand, globalisation offers little tangible benefit for the every(wo)man, and can be argued to favour the transnational elite, i.e., those who have the resources to engage in, and reap the rewards of, global mobility. Viewed as such, globalisation is, in fact, anti-democratic.

Rizvi invites us to understand the concerns of those against globalisation, and question if the assumptions and charges are valid, and how such perspectives can be harmful and unproductive. He also considers the question if there is really a fundamental binary between globalisation and nationalism. Specifically for international education practitioners, how do we get our students to respond to these competing claims of internationalisation and patriotism. Do these go together in parallel, in dialectical fashion, or can they only exist in conflict?

Rizvi also reminds us that nationalist sentiments are driven by both facts and emotion, and so it is important to address both the politics of global connectivity and affect. International education posits a global village of sorts, but the world as a whole is not a community in any real or concrete sense. He stresses that people are inherently social beings who wish to belong to a tangible and concrete community, and such desires undermine the abstract notions of globalisation.

Rizvi points out some facts of global connectivity:

  • Our economy has become dependant on global mobility as in tourism, trade, migration, and education.
  • Growing levels of intercultural exchange are seen in service economics.
  • Different cultures rub up against one another; ‘cosmopolitan’ cities become so because of tourists and international students.
  • Even if government policies appear to curb mobility, migrant populations will continue to increase as a result of complex individual choices.

The overriding sentiment towards these facts, however, is one of resentment. If globalisation used to represent some universal moral truth, then it is now up against those who demand specificity in their own moral truths (plural). While Rizvi proposed the concept of cosmopolitan thinking more than 10 years ago, he now recognises the need for new theories. He argues that cosmopolitanism and the associated images of corporations must be resisted as a universal value, but adopted as a way of engaging with everyday issues and conflicts.

Rizvi looks to education as the hope for such cosmopolitan thinking, in view of the failures of media which have become increasingly fractured, and of religion which appears to divide rather than bring people together. Education, and in particular, public education, has a crucial role to play in teaching people how to engage in ethical learning.

He puts forth the need for engaging in cosmopolitan thinking which views social identities as dynamic, and forces us to consider how we can live across differences. Students need to be taught how to be reflexive, that is, to be critically self-referential. We ask questions about why and how we do things, and learn how to work through contradictions. And before we can ask of our students to do so, we ourselves, need to be ethically reflexive practitioners in international education.

What I have summarised above is Rizvi’s call to arms for international education practitioners to recognise the competing forces of globalisation and protectionism, and to actively – reflexively – work against unproductive outcomes. Both intellectually and in practice, I am inspired to take up an ethical response to the current state of affairs. But before I can take on the giants of globalisation and protectionism, I want to respond to a nagging and troubling aspect of international education that is seldom discussed. My troubling thought can be summed up quasi-rhetorically – What is international about international education?

To paraphrase Betty Leask (2009), the presence of international students alone does not internationalise education, or foster intercultural interactions and understanding. To push the point further, using the term ‘international’ or ‘internationalise’ has the grammatical effect of modifying the nature of the noun that follows, but the meaning and significance of ‘international’ is lost in the everyday concerns, both petty and grand, of those who fall under the purview of ‘international education’. The overriding concern for education providers and student consumers alike is ‘return on investment’ (see Altbach & Knight, 2007).

As part of the system of global connectivity, international education is far more valued as a commodity than an opportunity for engaging meaningfully with cultural and social differences. In other words, international education itself is implicated in the unproductive forces of globalisation. Spending three days at the 2018 ISANA conference in Sydney , I observed well-meaning practitioners showcasing ‘best practices’ of meeting the linguistic and cultural needs and demands of students, but rarely highlighting any challenges related to interactions between international students and the host community. Walking around downtown Sydney, one of the leading Australian cities for international students, I saw rows and rows of East Asian shops (food, services, goods) patronised predominantly by East Asians, suggesting to me that at least this group of international students (who form the majority) can remain comfortably in their familiar spaces, without having to entertain the possibility of intercultural engagement.

I have only painted a broad stroke of what can be considered un-international in international education. Addressing learning and living needs, and helping international students adapt to new surroundings, are important responsibilities to be fulfilled by education providers. Often, national grouping of students are helpful (at least initially) to reduce the sense of isolation, and facilitate more efficient communication. However, beyond providing services and opening up ethnic-friendly spaces, there is also a need to proactively bring together different nationalities, including that of the host nation, to engage in conversation, let alone debate, about being ‘international’ and engaging in ‘post-cosmopolitan thinking’. Where there are international gatherings, at least in my own international student experience, they very rarely go beyond differences safe enough to chat over pizza and juice.

There seems to be an ongoing inertia or reluctance to challenge commonly held narratives of internationals (a common nominalisation for international students which is ironically divisive) who haven’t got enough English to save themselves, and need rescuing from their own deficits. My own research has attempted to thwart the deficit narratives by examining how co-ethnic/national interactions enhance informal academic learning through ‘peer brokers’ who are able to translate and interpret the Western/English demands of university curriculum in linguistically and culturally responsive ways. Through such brokering practices, students experience agency in their academic pursuits.

While one of my conclusions is to encourage sociolinguistically compatible interactions for enhancing student agency, another important implication of my research is the role of brokers who straddle two different cultural worlds. How might such individuals be viewed or view themselves as the missing link in intercultural engagement and difficult conversations about living ‘internationally’? Perhaps brokers who can switch between worldviews are potential bridge builders between the ‘internationals’ and ‘others’ / ‘sojourners’ and ‘hosts’, and eventually lead to alternative vocabulary we can use to describe those in and around international education.

If I were to take on that kind of a brokering role, I would start with difficult conversations. To consider how international education can rise up to the challenges globalisation and protectionism, we must firstly reckon with the ironies of, and tensions in, the global industry international education has become. We have to re-consider how ‘English language’ and ‘Western thought’ are both selling points and selling out in becoming global. And this is just the beginning of my ethical response.

Being a Diasporic Academic – Identities in Flux

Presentation at the ISANA NZ 2018 Symposium – The International Student Experience: Connecting Research and Practice held on 8 November 2018 at Victoria University of Wellington, Rutherford House, Wellington, New Zealand.

Tēnā koutou. And in the four official languages of my country, Singapore, Good morning, da jia hao, selamat pagi, Vaṇakkam.

I am a PhD candidate, currently awaiting examiners’ feedback on my thesis. I came to New Zealand almost four years ago with my family, with the primary purpose of pursuing PhD study, and with the aspiration of starting life afresh.

Today, I’m not sharing about my research, but about being an international PhD student, or what I have termed, diasporic academic. While I will be drawing from my experiences to unpack what it means to be a diasporic academic, I hope that you, too, can relate to being diasporic academics yourselves.

In the past year or so, I have thought deep and hard about being a diasporic academic. The concept is not mine and I am indebted to Wendy Larner (2015) who introduced this term at a conference keynote several years ago. The concept has also been taken up by other scholars such as Yang and Welch (2010).

As far as definitions go, if you know the meaning of ‘diaspora’ and ‘academic’, you will arrive at a person who has relocated from one country to another, and is based in the host country undertaking some kind of research work. More than physical location, however, is the recognition of diasporic academics’ on-going connections with both home and host, and having the capacity to facilitate international and cross-cultural exchanges.

Diasporic academics manifest themselves in various other terms, such as overseas-born or foreign academics, visiting scholars, or what Larner points out, the new global academic elite who rotates between leading institutions. For example, there is a certain academic who is a Distinguished Professor at Beijing Normal University, China, Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a research professor affiliate at the University of Waikato. With the notion of the elite, also comes the notion of a hierarchy of diasporic academics, from those who are well-established and going around the globe, to those who have just relocated themselves physically – and intellectually. It is those who have just embarked on the journey that I’ll like to turn my attention to – those who move to another country to undertake doctoral study – international PhD students.

Being a Diasporic Academic – Identities in Flux from The Diasporic Academic on Vimeo.

New Zealand is attractive to international doctoral students for a range of reasons, such as full work rights, domestic fees, and hospitable family visa provisions. Partners of international doctoral students are eligible for work visas, and children are enrolled as domestic students, meaning, they do not pay international fees.

Too often, however, international students are perceived to be young and carefree. International doctoral students are typically more mature, have professional experience, and often have other obligations such as caregiving and meeting other needs of their family.

What are their aspirations? They may be here on scholarship given by their home government or host country. New Zealand offers doctoral scholarships such as NZ Aid which aims at capacity building in developing countries. They may be pursuing global careers where a doctoral qualification from NZ may be the link to a job elsewhere. Or they may consider NZ a migration destination for career development, family life, or pursuing a quality of life that safeguards their interests and personal beliefs.

What challenges do they face? Professional identities are often challenged in terms of their legitimacy and relevance in a new environment (Fotovatian & Miller, 2014), whether on the basis of one’s language, accent, colour, or worldview. The manifestation of such tensions can be seen in patronising attitudes towards the non-White, non-native English speaker (Kidman, Manathunga, & Cornforth, 2017).

Those with families face additional stress and need to reckon with transformations in their children and spouses – whether positive or negative (Loveridge, Doyle, & Faamanatu-Eteuati, 2018).

I myself have personally reflected in several of forums about the disinterest from my host community in the ‘others’ (see posts on forming academic networks (Lee, 2018) and the international PhD student experience (Lee, 2017))

What becomes of them at the end of their study? There’s not a whole lot of data on this, but anecdotally speaking, those who return home may be armed with a prized qualification, but little is known about their transnational networks, or what they do with such connections. Those who remain in the country, may not go on to academic jobs, and their career trajectories may be influenced by their partners’ job prospects as well.


I would like to offer a biographical reflection of my own experiences as an international PhD candidate, and share what I have learnt from ‘failures’ and what ‘success’ looks like.

Failure, as you can see, was for me being disconnected from things I so badly wanted to connect with. New Zealand friends, academic networks, professional circles. I think the more disappointing experience was acquainting myself with Kiwis. Conversations rarely progressed on to much else. Our lack of common backgrounds and histories, let alone some kind of ongoing collegial space, made it a seemingly insurmountable task.

My successes as the picture suggests, was building on the invisible but perceptible bonds I shared with fellow diasporic individuals, within and beyond the university. I found kindred spirits at conferences and on social media like Twitter, and we have formed our own networks on the fringes of New Zealand centric ones.

Being diasporic for me had become a valuable resource for personal sense-making. Being the ‘other’ was enough to attract those who were too. But banding together allowed us to understand our peripheral membership in one particular local place, but strengthened our positions as global citizens in connection with one another.

Being diasporic meant I saw myself as a broker between my Southeast Asian worldview, and the views from other places, whether you wish to call it North and South, or East and West. Instead of feeling frustrated by the disconnect, I decided to move on to spaces which allowed me to make connections.

Being diasporic enriched by my research. I wasn’t content to use the theories as they were. I wanted my participants’ non-English words, my out-of-culture interpretation to give life to my analysis.

Recognising the full potential of being a cultural bridge and knowledge broker led me to embrace the identity of a diasporic academic. I am the diasporic academic.

I hope that after my sharing about being diasporic, you will consider being reflexive about your experiences in your academic journey and subsequent career development. Who are you, where are you, why does it matter, what and version of yourself will you be tomorrow?

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa.

References

Fotovatian, S., & Miller, J. (2014). Constructing an institutional identity in university tea rooms: the international PhD student experience. Higher Education Research & Development, 33(2), 286–297. http://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2013.832154

Kidman, J., Manathunga, C., & Cornforth, S. (2017). Intercultural PhD supervision: Exploring the hidden curriculum in a social science faculty doctoral programme. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(6), 1208–1221. http://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2017.1303457

Larner, W. (2015). Globalising knowledge networks: Universities, diaspora strategies, and academic intermediaries. Geoforum, 59, 197–205. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.10.006

Lee, S. (2018, January 23). Being optimistic through academic networks. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://nzareblog.wordpress.com/2018/01/23/lee-academic-networks/

Lee, S. (2017, December 6). International doctoral students: The potential of diasporic academics. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://ieknow.com.au/2017/international-doctoral-students/

Loveridge, J., Doyle, S., & Faamanatu-Eteuati, N. (2018). Journeys across educational and cultural borders: international postgraduate students with young children. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 39(3), 333–347. http://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2017.1351867

Yang, R., & Welch, A. R. (2010). Globalisation, transnational academic mobility and the Chinese knowledge diaspora: An Australian case study. Discourse, 31(5). http://doi.org/10.1080/01596306.2010.516940

International Education – Global Currency or Global Citizenship

Presentation at the Global Knowledge Economy Seminar organised by the Postgraduate Students’ Association held at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, on 15 October 2018

My topic today was New Zealand’s fourth largest export industry in 2016, then valued at more than $4 billion dollars, and supported more than 30 thousand jobs across the country. International education is big business for New Zealand, as it is for the traditional players – the English-speaking nations of the US, Canada, UK, and Australia.

The recent International Education Strategy released by the Ministry of Education has declared is aspirations for international education to be the vehicle for global citizenship. But I do wonder whether the forces of global currency overwhelm such lofty, but certainly important goals.

First, let’s think about why international students come to New Zealand. While the perceived high quality of educational offerings is one factor, research suggests that the stronger factors are:

  1. that New Zealand is overall a more affordable destination, and
  2. New Zealand’s reputation as clean, green, and safe.

Next, let’s consider what international education contributes to New Zealand. As I mentioned earlier, international education is an export sector, meaning, education is treated as a form of goods and services.

Looking at the 2016 stats, there were about 130 thousand international students enrolled in schools, language centres, private institutions, the polytechnics, and universities.

Half of the international students hail from China and India, both emerging middle-income countries and engines of global growth.

Universities take the largest share, hosting a fifth of the international student population, and receiving almost 40% of the tuition income.

This thin slice of statistics reflects what keeps the sector humming along. The sellers – educational institutions – desire income and profit, and the buyers – Asian students – want decent qualifications from an English-speaking country.


You might think that I’ve painted a rather crude picture of international education, but I’ve yet to meet someone who has attributed the $4 billion dollar figure to the desire for world peace.

But even if world peace is not at the forefront or the producers and consumers’ minds, it doesn’t mean that international education is only worth in terms of dollars and cents. It is, after all, not a sector that deals with milk powder or premium beef, but a sector that is capable of transforming lives of all students, the educators, and the community.

The University of Waikato, for example, hosts many nationalities among its students. As an international student myself, I feel privileged to be able to interact with my peers from Vietnam, India, China, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Vanuatu , Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Timor Leste. I enjoy learning about their different histories and social customs.

I am beginning to build a global network of friends and colleagues. And while I cannot promise there will be world peace, I can say that I have grown to be more sensitive and appreciative of the different, and at times, conflicting, geopolitics across the world stage. In other words, I am learning how to be a global citizen. I’m not sure whether my Kiwi peers have the same experience, or feel the same way. But the research suggests that they are probably ambivalent or indifferent.

Perhaps Prime Minister Jacinda Arden could offer all of us some inspiration to become more globally minded and action-oriented. In her speech to the United Nations General Assembly, she said, and I quote:

“Given the challenges we face today, and how truly global they are in their nature and impact, the need for collective action and multilateralism has never been clearer.”

PM Arden was talking about climate change. I think the same applies to international education.

The value of international education must not remain solely at the level of trade. It has the enormous potential to build bridges across cultural and political divides. My conclusion is for you to take the first step in making it happen.