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Academic Concerns

There are three subcategories to the academic concerns: (a) language, (b) achievement, and (c) interaction with faculty.


Students spoke about the added pressure that being a nonnative English speaker placed on them. A male accounting student recalled his first year’s stressful experiences:

When I first came here, I could not follow what the professors were saying in the seminar. During 3 h of the seminar, I did not know what to do or what to say, just like a retarded person. After each class, I had to borrow my classmates’ notes to catch up. I had so many things on my mind. There was no way for me to go out and relax. I had to stay at home to work on those materials I missed in class and try to learn by myself what the professor taught that day. The language pressure was so heavy in that first semester that my hair fell out frequently. (Participant 6)

A social justice student concurred:

Since my major is social justice, we have a lot of class discussions and presentations. I truly had difficulty speaking in class because of the language barrier. I am not good at speaking English. It was not easy for me to participate in the discussion. I felt stressed before class and frustrated and depressed after class. No one can understand how I felt sitting in class unable to say anything. I dared not to open my mouth except once because of the encouragement of the professor. I tried to make it clear but it seems no one understood what I was trying to talk about. All of my classmates looked so confused. At that moment, I felt so embarrassed and humiliated that I wished I could escape from the classroom immediately. There was so much stress, frustration, and sorrow. So many times, I cried like a crybaby at home. I felt so helpless and powerless. (Participant 5)

Besides listening and speaking problems, academic papers also pose a problem especially for those students whose majors are in the humanities and social sciences. An organizational behavior student commented:

In the department where I study, graduate students need to write tons of papers: memos, term papers, presentation papers, and final papers. If this is a lot work for American students, it almost makes me lose my breath. As you know, unlike informal speaking where the usage of words does not have to be precise, academic writing requires words and sentences to be used in the exact way they should be. Since most of my papers were going to be read by professors who are normally very critical, I could hardly ever get away with mistakes. Many times, what I got from my professors is just, “please redo it” or “your writing is so confusing and I did not get what you want to say.” Even after I revised a paper,

I dared not to give my professors, because I was afraid of being rejected again. I could not count how many times I grabbed my paper and cried in the bedroom. I was so sad, stressed, frustrated, and depressed. (Participant 19)

A public administration student reported:

I concentrated as much as I could on my coursework, but it was much harder than I expected since my native language is not English. Several of my course professors told me to find a tutor and have them correct my papers. I was so sad because it took me many nights working on my reports. It was not easy for me to face this kind of frustration since I had always been a remarkable student. I did spent more days on the next assignment, but my professors gave me the same suggestion. I was sad, fearful and did not know what to do because I worried that professors would tell me the same things. I could not share my feelings to my parents in China. They would think I did not try my best. I just swallowed everything and became very depressed. My papers simply were not good enough. I continued to receive B or C grades. I also began to perform poorly on exams for fear of failure and extreme nervousness. (Participant 11)

In terms of those factors leading to their language barrier, three of my respondents indicated that they habitually organize in Chinese and then translate it to English with little consideration of how the Americans would express the same idea. Just as a student stated:

Chinglish expressions are frequently used in my writing and professors feel my papers are very awkward. I do not know how to get rid of Chinglish expressions. (Participant 16)

Four of my respondents attributed their language barrier to the lack of training in China. A female student stated:

The language training most of us once accepted often failed to adequately help us to meet the academic demands of our programs. Other than a relatively small portion of students whose major was English in Chinese universities, most Chinese students have little systematic training in the English language, especially in speaking and writing in the language. While in China, a non-English-speaking environment, the preparation for English academic writing for most Chinese students was obviously inadequate. Furthermore, once Chinese students arrived in the United States, most of us started our graduate programs immediately without any additional training in speaking or writing in English. (Participant 3)

Chinese students usually worry that their actual performances on all kinds of tests will be crippled by their English proficiency. A biochemistry student recalled his extremely stressful experience of preparing for a speaking test in order to become a TA:

Since I am not a native speaker, I must pass the speaking test to work as a teaching assistant.

It only has been 3 months since I was here, and I am still not confident about my spoken English. The preparation for the speaking test, and the fear of failure, resulted in high level of anxiety and stress. Many nights, I could not sleep at all. I have so many things to worry about. What if I could not get the question raised by the tester? What if the tester is unable to understand my Chinglish? What if I fail this exam? I could not afford to fail the exam, because there was no chance to make it up until the next semester. I frequently woke up in the middle of the night from nightmares. I dreamed that I failed the speak test and had to drop out of the program due to lack of financial support. I cannot fully describe my fear and stress to you. (Participant 9)

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