To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Dr. Zhang-Wu unpacks research of multilingual international students

Dr. Qianqian Zhang-Wu—Assistant Professor of English and Director of Multilingual Writing at Northeastern University—has found that international students face a lot more challenges than just a vocabulary barrier. In “Languaging Myths and Realities: Journeys of Chinese International Students”—a virtual talk at Brandeis on Wednesday, March 6—she explained that cultural differences also play a large role in the collegiate success of multilingual international students. 


She explained that for her research, she uses the term “‘multilingual students’ instead of ‘English language learners’ as to not perpetuate … the idea that their home languages do not matter.” She said that she didn’t want to place English as the peak language, but instead reflect it as a secondary language for the students in her study. 


Before unpacking her research, Zhang-Wu utilized an interactive activity to get participants in a specific mindset. To start, she had participants try to describe their weekend in two minutes, but had a catch: no one was allowed to use the letter “n.” While participants tried to write down their answers, Zhang-Wu gave frequent time updates. “I mean to be annoying,” she joked. She explained that this exercise was to make participants understand to feel pressure when speaking and to feel like they can’t communicate clearly. “[This is] exactly the everyday experiences of many of our multilingual International students,” she said. 


She followed that up by diving into her own research, conducted at Hillside University. She stated that her first key finding was that “international students have a lot of within-group variabilities.” She explained that the 12 students she studies, all from China, all faced different struggles, based on past experiences and chosen majors. 


One of the issues Zhang-Wu highlighted was cultural differences. For this, she gave a few examples. She said that one student struggled with math, because in his school in China, his teachers were more focused on getting the right answer, but his teachers in America cared more about showing your work and the way the answer is calculated. Another student, she said, faced struggles outside of class, as they worried that befriending American students would make them a “traitor” to their Chinese friends. 


Her second key finding was that the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores did not accurately predict “ability to function linguistically” in college. She explained that students with access to private tutoring, or students who had the ability to take the TOEFL exam many times, had inflated scores, ones that more reflected test taking skills rather than language. One example she gave was of a student who struggled with understanding their friends’ banter—they were confused as to why everyone was “keeping up with the credentials.” Zhang-Wu clarified that this was actually “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” but that a cultural barrier prevented the student from recognizing the name. 


She noted that these differences and various experiences “came from one ethnic group … such a small population among our diverse international students on campus.” Her slides read, “International students are problematically teated as a homogenous and group defined by  raceless-ness and linguisitic incompetence.” 


One type of resource won’t fit all issues, she noted. So how can universities help international students? “Firstly we must help multilingual students understand their linguistic needs and challenges beyond their TOEFL scores,” stated Zhang-Wu. She said that universities should encourage students to “move on from their TOEFL scores … and instead focus on … their ability to function linguistically across disciplines.” Other tips included utilizing office hours to understand a specific professor’s expectations and to take advantage of any offered support systems on a campus. 


This event was co-hosted by the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life; the International Students & Scholars Office (ISSO); and the English Language Programs, according to the event description. 


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