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Misconception or actual fact: International students don’t speak up

Trinity College Foundation Studies

Tue Sep 05 2017


“Why don’t international students speak to students of other nationalities?”

“How come they’re so quiet?”

“They sure don’t like to participate in class.”

“It’s like they don’t want to talk or something.”

These statements and questions have long followed the international student community, perhaps to their detriment. One of the biggest perceptions of international students by educators, students and the general public is that they aren’t communicative; that they are too shy to speak up. But is this observation of international students actually true or just a false generalisation? Are international students really as quiet as they are made out to be? Or are they actually a lot like their domestic counterparts than they think when it comes to speaking up?

From the perspective of educators

When we spoke with staff at Trinity College Foundation Studies, a school which offers international students a pathway to the University of Melbourne, most of the responses we received suggested that international students weren’t as shy as most people perceive them to be. As James O’Maley, lecturer at Trinity College pointed out, international students can still be as nervous or shy as any other domestic student when they’re put on the spot.

Despite the obvious language barrier, students do make an effort to try and get their ideas forward in class. But it all depends on the situation and context of their classroom, we learned.

Glen Jennings, Deputy Dean at Trinity College, suggested for example that overseas students might not want to participate in certain discussions given its sensitivity. Another factor also included the student’s relationship with their teacher. Of the 20 international students we spoke to as part of our research, 57 per cent said their confidence to contribute in class discussion was dependant on who their teacher was and what that discussion was about. Other factors also included the students’ confidence with their teacher.

Other reasons students might not want to contribute in class includes culture. Asian teachers, for example, usually need to permit students to speak, thus making students passive learners. After years of receiving one form of education, adjusting to another — in this case, Australia’s ‘open’ classrooms — will understandably take some time to get used to.

Dr Maureen Vincent, psychologist and educator at Trinity College, advises other educators to give international students “that confidence and just talk”.

“Talking is the best way to improve themselves; do not be afraid of making mistakes, grammar or meaning, just talk,” Dr Vincent said.

From the perspective of domestic students

While many domestic students agree language, nervousness and cultural differences contribute to international students’ perceived inability to speak up, domestic students we surveyed also revealed their classroom behaviour was similar to their international counterparts.

Imagine being in a tutorial and your teacher stops talking and begins looking around the class to find someone to contribute. You might think to yourself , “Don’t pick me”, and avert their gaze. If that sounds like you, then you can also bet that domestic students in that same class are thinking the same thing as well.

Students generally don’t love being called on to say something and while international students might not want to be put on the spot because of concerns regarding language, there are just as many domestic students who may not want to speak up because they too aren’t comfortable saying something that might be misconstrued.

Surveying 20 random domestic students at Trinity College’s dining halls, we found that 70 per cent of those surveyed considered themselves to be quite shy or quiet during class discussions. An overwhelming 90 per cent also didn’t feel comfortable when they were called on to answer questions. Only a small number of those surveyed felt they had the confidence to speak enthusiastically in class.

The observation then, that domestic students are more willing to participate in class, therefore is a bit of a misconception itself. as well. At the end of the day, whether you’re a domestic or international, we’re all just students. And not wishing to be put on the spot is just one of the things that all students can at least relate to.

Improving your grasp of the English language

That said, if you are a student in need of improving your English in hopes that you can speak up and better contribute in class there are ways to do so.

At Trinity College, there a series of opportunities and programs that help students improve their communication and collaborative skills. Drama lecturer, Jack Migdalek runs a pronunciation club on Tuesday; Deputy Dean Glen Jennings, along with several other Trinity College staff members, have initiated an English Conversation Corner, which welcomes all students to participate in discussions and have their voice heard.

And for students who simply want to reach out and make new friends in class, just have the courage to say the first word and be friendly and nice to others social situations.

Do you feel international students are quiet or is this just a big misconception? Have you met international students who have contributed plenty in class and are social butterflies themselves? Students that are friendly both with internationals and locals? How else would you suggest students improve their communication skills? Let us know in the comments below.

This story was produced by Media and Communication students at Trinity College Foundation Studies as part of Meld’s community newsroom collaboration. Education institutions, student clubs/societies and community groups interested in being involved can get in touch with us via