Research project: Language Barrier in classroom

The University of Wollongong (UOW) is an Australian institution ranking among the top 2% of universities in the world. It is a multicultural environment with 12.291 international students coming from 179 nationalities represented at UOW, according to UOW statistics in 2017. And I am proudly contributing to the cultural diversity of UOW as being a part of the international student’s community. This has made UOW one of the leading universities in cultural diversity. As opposed to the benefits this diversity brings to UOW, there are several problems that hinder students from enjoying their university life and getting the most out of their education. And one serious and common issue that we are facing, not only at UOW but around the world, is the language barrier, particularly in the classroom. Realising how common this issue is amongst international student community, I began to conduct a research in order to find a way to solve this problem. In this research, I will bring out analysis on the reality of this problem at UOW, its cause, effects and how to tackle it.

When I started my first year at UOW, I was filled with excitement. I made new friends from different countries and learned many exciting cultural values. However, I soon felt ‘lost in translation’ when I attended my classes. As soon as I started my first tutorial, I was struggling with understanding what other classmates spoke and catching up with what my tutor taught, which later results in lack of knowledge gained in class. Later then I realized this was not the problem of my own.

In fact, many international students experienced the same. Many have reported having trouble interacting with their teachers and classmates. “They noted difficulties in communicating with their professors due to language barriers, cultural differences, and different expectations from professors” (Hsiao-ping Wu et al, 2015). Some of the international students also confessed that “the professors speak too fast or use certain idioms, terms and abbreviations with which they are not familiar” (Mark 2015),  which later leads to the deterioration in their learning process.

This problem does not involve the tutors only. In reality, there is a significant communication gap between international and local students in and outside the classroom. 33% of international student respondents said they find it “difficult” to make friends with local students, according to a survey conducted by 700 international and domestic students in Australia (Marsh 2016). One of the main reasons for this includes mentality and personality of international students such as feeling shy or embarrassed. According to an empirical research conducted by Sawir with twelve international students who had come to Australia to pursue their undergraduate study in an Australian institution, a Vietnamese participant confessed that “I think for me the most difficult part (now) is speaking. I feel very shy when I speak English in my class. I rarely speak I just listen because I am very shy”. Another participant suggested that “It’s really important for teachers to encourage their students to participate in what they teach. They should create interesting activities in class so that students would have a chance to speak”.

After all the impacts of lack of English proficiency on international students in classroom mentioned above, now we can say without a doubt that this issue is alarming and getting more common amongst international students. However, the question arises: Did international students actually make an effort to improve their English? If so, was that enough to help them through university’s time? If not, what were their reasons?

Research shows that teachers believe they are not equipped enough to deal with teaching English in class. “Most English language programs are under-resourced and operate outside of subject teaching. Practices can be disjointed and not connected to assessment within subjects” (Arkoudis 2015). Besides, I have conducted a survey with 21 participants, both domestic and international student, asking whether they think English is a necessary tool to help students achieve high performance in subjects. Here is the result:

Survey Data

As you can see, 11 participants agreed that mastering English is a must to achieve high performance in subjects at university, 7 disagreed and 3 chose ‘neutral’. Besides the 11 participants who thought being fluent in English would be necessary, those who disagreed and chose ‘neutral’ believe that one can still get high grades without being fluent in English provided they understand the contents and memorize key points in lectures and tutorials.Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 2.35.42 am.png

Answer from a participant who chose ‘neutral’

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 2.43.10 am

Answer from a participant who disagreed

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 2.43.49 am

Answer from a domestic student who disagreed

As being asked, the 10 participants admitted that oftentimes they feel “conceited” and ” neglect the need of mastering English” since they believe they are able to perform well in subjects without being expert at English. Without this, it is difficult for universities to know whether their graduates have the necessary levels of English language communication for future employment or not (Arkoudis 2015), which makes it harder for employers to hire applicants as they look for graduates with sufficient level of English. “High English language skills are important for all graduates, not just international students”, according to employer surveys.

To come up with solutions to overcome language barrier, the urgent thing that educational institutions should do now is to “bridge the social gaps between domestic and international students both in and outside the classroom”, which concluded by a survey from the Council of International Students Australia. As a tutor/lecturer, one needs to “look at examples where there is a more international focus as well as assessments and projects that actually encourage, or have an element of the requirement for international and domestic students to work together” (Dion Jeremy Lee, cited in Marsh 2016).

In conclusion, language barrier is proved to be a serious issue that requires effort from the students themselves and the assistance from their university and faculties. Only when international students and domestic students open up with each other plus the help from teachers can the class be effective so that students can make the most out of the educational institution they are studying at and the university itself can gain more prestige and credibility in the world.

Featured Image Source


Arkoudis, S 2015, ‘More international students should mean more support for communication and interaction’, The Conversation, 20 April, viewed 16 March 2018, <>.

Graduate Careers Australia 2013, Graduates Outlook 2013 – The Report of the Graduate Outlook Survey: Employers’ Perspectives on Graduate Recruitment, viewed 16 March 2018, <>.

Mark 2015, Challenges Faced by International Students in Australia, My Assignment Help, weblog post, 29 October, viewed 16 March 2018, <>.

Marsh, N 2016, ‘Australia: 30% of international students find it “difficult” to make local friends’, The Pie News, 25 October, viewed 16 March 2018, <>.

uownow 2014, University of Wollongong – Your future is bright, online video, 2 October, Wollongong University, viewed 16 March 2018, <>.

Wollongong University 2017, Statistics, 4 April, viewed 16 March 2018, <>.

Wu, H, Garza, E & Guzman, N 2015, ‘Research Article – International Student’s Challenge and Adjustment to College’, Education Research International Volume, viewed 16 March 2018, <>.




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