Australia’s leading international student news website

Students go online for language help, endangering safety

Gayertree Subramaniam

Fri Jun 08 2012


A SHOCKING drug and rape case in Brisbane involving international students has highlighted the importance of being smart, and staying safe online. Gayertree Subramaniam has the story.

This year, a Brisbane man was accused of drugging and raping four international students from Korea. It was alleged the man met his victims on the Internet, by offering them free English lessons.

The case is shocking, but it highlights a serious issue: keeping vulnerable international students safe online.

English language skills are a requirement for receiving an Australian student visa but despite passing this hurdle, some students still struggle when they arrive. A quick search on classifieds site Gumtree throws up 206 postings for English lessons – an indication of how prevalent offers like these are online, both for free, and at a price.

And it’s no wonder, as many international students find it difficult to adapt to the life and culture here without a sound understanding of English.

The language issue

This is a struggle Koyee Li, a final year Monash University student from Hong Kong, can relate to.

“When I first came here, I could handle daily activities, but I faced difficulties in explaining myself clearly and deeply sometimes”, she says.

Through sheer determination and the realisation she needed to step out of her comfort zone and shed her inhibitions, Koyee managed to improve her English language abilities over time on her own.

But not all international students are able to do this, she says.

She says students have difficulty finding the appropriate means to hone their language skills, and many choose to pay for someone to help them instead.

“Local students are not usually interested in speaking with us overseas students. It makes it hard to improve our proficiency,” she says.

“The social opportunities to speak English beyond the classroom and when we’re out are quite limited (without turning to sites like Gumtree).”

Problems arise, however, when unsavoury characters step into the picture.

Koyee knows of friends who have been the subject of unwanted attention and harassment in the form of relentless phone calls, and even stalking, after agreeing to take up offers of English lessons. Fortunately, they managed to shake them off.

Related story:  Korean student stalked after advertising language lessons 

The alternatives

With online mediums proving to be a tricky avenue for English-language help, where should international students go to for tutoring?

Catherine Nguyen, national executive director of the Australian Federation for International students, recommends a student’s university be their first port of call for any services or help that they require during their time studying here in Australia.

“The major language providers would be the most reliable and if it’s the cost that’s the factor, they can always go back to their education provider who will definitely offer language support,” she says.

“They have their own academic units or English classes that can help students improve.”

Language institutions also offers a wide range of English courses from beginner to advanced level, but Ms Nguyen says students should still be cautious when picking a course.

“Students need to be really careful in terms of choosing to learn from a source such as a language school,” she says.

“When doing so, they should at least ask for referrals from friends or their education providers. Otherwise, it would be difficult to ensure they are reliable. They should also evaluate the standards of the school, through rating of other students, and the official websites.”

But both Ms Nguyen and Koyee agree that students need to step out of their comfort zones and mingle with people they’re less familiar with to gain a better grasp on English, and more easily assimilate into Australian culture.

“A lot of students struggle to get past their shyness, but once they overcome that and become more outgoing, they will gain a lot more confidence and find it so much more easier living in Australia,” Ms Nguyen says.

Related story: How to stay safe online

Have you had a bad experience online? Share your stories with us below.