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Key Barriers Faced by NESB Students

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The number of international students enrolled in Western English-speaking universities has significantly increased in the last 10 years, and is a trend expected to continue. There are 125, 392 international students studying in New Zealand, and New Zealand Education (2018) suggest a consistent growth of this number. In Australia, it is predicted that the number of international students will rise to over 800,000 by 2018, and will increase ‘sevenfold’ by 2025 (Ryan & Carroll, 2005). In Australia, 80% of international students are those with non-native English-speaking backgrounds, particularly from Asian countries (IDP, 2005). The increasing number of English language learners presents challenges for not only these students, but also the schooling systems. However, it is not only language barriers holding these students back, and this essay aims to outline the key cross-cultural barriers facing these NESB students in their academic studies. The following essay aims to identify these barriers in NESB student life, and to determine the primary patterns in research in order to have a broader understanding of why the above statistics occur. It will also offer implications on how to overcome these barriers, from the perspective of the institutions and all students. 10 academic studies were evaluated to identify repeating patterns in the area of NESB student communication barriers. It appeared that many components of student life contribute to the difficulties NESB students face, namely learning styles, course guidance, international student support, discrimination, class communication and social support.

Course Guidance and International Student Support

Wolf and Phung (2019) found that support services, particularly tutoring and social interaction programs helpful, but recommended more speaking opportunities and ‘life support’ for future students. Burk and Wyatt-Smith (1996) found similar views in that non-native English speakers needed very explicit directions and much more guidance than English-speaking students. Burk and Wyatt-Smith’s 1996 study revealed that many participants did not attend Orientation Day because they were at work commitments and reluctant to take time off, many who now regret missing out on being shown how to access books, journals, and other resources. Burk and Wyatt-Smith (1992) found that many students refused to see ESL councilors for help with assignments, as they felt as graduate students, they were responsible for overcoming their own English language weaknesses. In this study, several participants knew psychological counselling services were available, however not one student had sought this assistance. Although institutional services and facilities (such as learning support, health services, and vocational guidance) were found to be rated as good or excellent, students appeared relatively uninformed of these services (Ward & Masgoret, 2004). In relation to this, Treloar (2000) found common themes emerging from focus group discussions, including issues with course structure, group learning, assessment, support, and proficiency with mainstream Australian English. The study found that participants felt that examination questions had little relationship to the course, and a major absence of guidelines and direction during examination preparation (Treloar et al., 2000). Additionally, these participants raised concerns of the unstandardized nature of the assessor’s activities such as oral assessments 'blatantly unfair' (Treloar et al., 2000). The students perceived program support for international students as disappointing, with some participants strengthening this perception that 'all they want is our money' (Treloar et al., 2000). Mullins, Quintrel and Hancock (2006) also found that students were provided with inadequate information about course material, a critical point which can have undesirable consequences for student fulfilment and achievement. Mullins, Quintrel and Hancock (2006) reported that course content was a noteworthy area of concern with NESB students, predominantly regarding the examination procedure. Most students did not have a strong understanding of the criteria staff were using in exam work, and what was or wasn't satisfactory (Mullins, Quintrel & Hancock, 2006). Furthermore, they found that students were not concerned with their own shortcomings, but the inadequacies in the teaching, services, facilities and social setting (Mullins, Quintrel & Hancock, 2006). It was recommended that staff needed to try to clarify more visibly, be inspiring, and comprehend the education system differences (Jones, Roberson & Line, 1999). Long (2008) identified several opinions on institutional offerings, including several NESB students enrolling in smaller classes, which significantly helped them to focus and allows for more personal attention and interaction with teachers.

Communication in the Classroom

Marlina (2009) found that NESB students see tutorial and lecture participation as both enjoyable and educationally beneficial, indicating that if they were to feel comfortable participating, they would do so. The participants in Marlina’s 2009 study made a point in arguing that they do not just ‘sit there’, but actively listen, think, process and link with prior knowledge before expressing their opinion. Marina (2009) concluded that NESB students were more likely to participate if their teacher is ‘enthusiastic, motivating, and accepting’, while less likely where peers and teachers exhibit stereotypical ‘passive behavior’. When teachers are perceived as showing preference towards English-speaking Australian students, sending non-verbal messages that students are ‘unintelligent’, or teaching in an authoritarian way, NESB students interpret this as disrespectful and are more likely to withdraw (Marlina, 2009). Long (2008) identified a number of key issues in the area of improving outcomes for NESB students. Collaboration was a major issue where the research suggests that mainstream English teachers should endeavor to seek advice from professionally trained ESL teachers when they feel a student is struggling to meet class expectations (Long, 2008). Staff also found this to be acceptable as they felt it was a major issue that could support both teachers and students (Long, 2008). Burk and Wyatt-Smith (1996) also found that students had complications speaking English during tutorials and lectures, affirming a major problem with the American English taught to them being very dissimilar to the Australian colloquialism. Mullins, Quintrel and Hancock (2006) found that contribution in tutorials and seminars were a strong apprehension for various students, with seventeen percent demonstrating these problems were serious. Singh (2019) found challenges in academic speaking practices, lack of self-assurance in communicating orally, and lack of English language proficiency as major indications of the success of NESB students. Predominantly, it was acknowledged that many students can proficiently communicate orally but choose not to speak up until they are prompted or stimulated to, in which typically results in admirable communication (Singh, 2019). A key aspect contributing to this is the difficulties these students have in relation to their local peers (Mullins, Quintrel & Hancock, 2006). Burns (1991) found similar results where NESB students had extreme trouble in joining discussion, due to not only inadequate English, but cultural values relating to questioning authority figures. A lecturer in Singh’s 2019 study stressed that her colleagues are more animated and use more technical and specialist lexis associated to their field. Moreover, this participant described fast speaking and the use of words less commonly used in ‘normal’ discussions which affected the readiness of student classroom interaction (Singh, 2019). A momentous finding in Long’s 2008 study was delivery of content in that teachers needed to develop an awareness of the impact of selective choice of vocabulary, writing, and delivery of instructions on the understanding by NESB students. Also apparent was the benefit of using legible handwriting in lectures and in marking student work (Long, 2008).

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Learning Styles

In Singh’s 2019 student, 13 lecturers raised the issue of difference in learning culture as crucial to the academic success of NESB students. In their 1996 study, Burk and Wyatt-Smith found that writing was perceived by all NESB participants to be their greatest difficulty. Burk and Wyatt-Smith (1996) found that on the 31 participants, only a few reported a fairly strong sense of conflict between the learning styles at home and in their host country. Although there were few remarks concerning approaches to knowledge and academic authority, a number of Asian students perceived lecturers not having time for appointments, or that they preferred help from equivalent students (Burk & Wyatt-Smith, 1996). Poyrazli and Isaiah (2018) found unfamiliarity with the U.S. college system a key causative factor in the success of NESB students, affirming that the large classes, grading system, education style and class arrangement among the topmost influences. Wolf and Phung (2019) summarized the key findings from their quantitative and qualitative analyses, stating that most complications found in NESB learning stemmed from the linguistic strains of the writing and listening tasks, and the participants unfamiliarity with the academic writing style. Gil and Katsara (1999) found that a high percentage of NESB students didn’t collect any material on the education system of their host country, or even their own program of study.

Social Support

Wehbe (2013) describes the common complications facing English learners in an academic environment. He identifies culture shock as a cause of anxiety originating from language challenges, social isolation, identity confusion, weather and food differences, accommodation, homesickness, role and status change, and a new education system. Poyrazli and Isaiah (2018) found that cultural differences led to impediments on social interactions both in and out of the classroom, including making friends, language barriers, understanding accents and prejudice and discrimination. The social support systems within ethnic and racial groups fulfil a profusion of constructive roles, including coming together to authenticate and share experiences, providing a sense of belonging, and a sense of self-worth (Smith, 1991; Tajfel, 1981 & Turner, 1984). In their 2018 study, Poyrazli and Isaiah found that several students had difficulty making friends with their new American peers, leading to interactions being between people from their own countries.


In Poyrazli and Isaiah’s 2018 study, one student reflected their experience of discrimination as high because he was from the Middle East: “Maybe because of the politics that’s going on right now, but when you meet someone, ‘where are you from?’ the second they know you’re from the Middle East or you’re international, some people are interested, some start asking questions, and some people just take step back and get quiet… That was a bit of a cultural shock to me because back home in Syria, we have Christians, we have Muslims, we have people who come from out of town, we all talk together and hang out together. Here it was different”. Of high concern to NESB students was contact and developing relationships with New Zealanders. One in four students said they had no communications with New Zealanders in social surroundings, and over a third stated they had no New Zealand friends (Ward & Masgoret, 2004). Though it can be claimed that NESB students have a habit of being exclusive, seventy percent of these students advised they wanted more New Zealand friends, and findings established that amplified contact with New Zealanders positively impact academic, social, and psychological outcomes for NESB students (Ward & Masgoret, 2004). The previous paragraph explains why international students tend to form ‘alliances’ with one another. Treloar et al. (2000) found that NESB participants experienced serious levels of racism, professed to be a major determining factor of how alienated they felt. Participants reported that this racism dropped confidence, reduced participation, and contributed to feelings of isolation (Treloar et al., 2000). Mullins, Quintrel and Hancock (2006) found that ten percent of international students specified prejudice and racism was a serious problem, and fifty two percent indicated it was a minor problem, also finding that international students rated fair treatment of international students as poor.

Conclusion and Implementations

This literature review highlights the barriers facing NESB students in the English-speaking classroom. The results call for recommendations for higher education institutes to improve the educational experience of NESB students. Communication in the classroom and course guidance are leading barriers among the literature, and discrimination, learning styles, social support and financial barriers a mentioned in a significant proportion of the literature. The major gap in the literature is in the small sample size or participants, where quantified data could contribute immensely. Particularly, the use of summary statistics is influential in gaining support for international student studies, which can result in more support of the reader. In the future, it is recommended that both qualitative and quantitative data research are employed in such studies. It is also recommended that further research be done on strategies to overcome the barriers for NESB students, that can be applicable to both the student and the teacher. With the ever-increasing number of international students worldwide, particularly NESB in Western universities, this topic demands attention.


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