Do international students need better English skills?

Why some on campus are calling for more language help


International students at the University of Winnipeg (Marianne Helm for Maclean's)

Professors at the University of Regina, which has doubled its international student population from 730 in 2009 to 1,448 in 2013, say students are being admitted without good enough English.

English professor Susan Johnston told CBC that some don’t have the listening skills to understand what’s going on in classes and they also appear to be crafting papers in one language and converting them to English, “through some kind of Google Translator or BabelFish program.”

The discussion isn’t limited to Saskatchewan. The international student population grew by 60 per cent nationwide between 2004 and 2012.

While universities are happy to have the extra tuition, funding and diversity that foreign students bring, schools face pressure to make sure these new recruits can read, write and speak well enough to succeed.

Students Nova Scotia, an advocacy group, recently studied international students. After consulting government, professors and students (both foreign and domestic) they concluded that, “language fluency is possibly the most important academic challenge affecting international students.”

The extensive report says that the usefulness of English tests used to admit students may be part of the problem. The report cites a study from the University of Western Ontario that showed the widely-used Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is a poor predictor of academic performance, possibly because the tests are written while much of what goes on in classes is oral.

Fraudulent tests are also a problem, at least in the U.S. The University of Denver noticed many international students were failing, so they decided recently to re-test them upon arrival. Marjorie Smith, director of Denver’s Office of International Student Admission, told Inside Higher Education that 23 out of 120 students (all from China) failed. The same article points out that businesses have opened in China to combat fraud by helping vet students through video recordings.

Students Nova Scotia supports the economic and cultural advantages that international students provide, but they want the government to make sure all students who graduate have good enough English. They propose, among other things, making sure some of the provincial funding for international students (estimated at $30 million) is earmarked for English language instruction.

Not everyone sees a problem, however. Rafael Garcia, the international student representative to the University of Regina’s Student Union, says he thinks students are getting all the language help they need. He says the concerns he hears from foreign students aren’t about academic trouble but are instead things like finding housing or, for Muslim students, spaces to pray.

Garcia left Venezuela for Canada six years ago and took nearly two years of English as a Second Language courses before starting his bachelor’s degree in business administration. Even after the two years of ESL, it was a difficult transition, he says, but the University of Regina was there to help.

“In first year, I had to put in maybe two to three times as much work as I’m doing now,” he says. “I’m sure every international student goes through that phase,”  he adds. He says the UR International office was very supportive and pointed him to the campus writing centre where tutors help students like him improve their essays. Heading into year four, he still uses the freely-provided service.

Deirdre Flynn, who teaches English Literature at the University of Toronto, says international students struggle. “As one who has written articles in a second language (French), I know they have to work ten-times as hard as native speakers when it comes to articulating complex, linguistically and logically sophisticated arguments in a second language.” She adds, “I know how frustrating it can be for them to stumble on basic language issues when they are thinking at very high levels.”

But are Flynn’s students passable? “It is not fun or easy for them to write in English,” she says, “but they do it well enough to earn their marks and, ultimately, their degrees.”

Still, it’s easy to understand the concern. If large numbers of graduates can’t conduct themselves well enough in English, Canada will lose out. Either the course standards will fall and students will be graduate with lower-quality degrees or more of them will fail and head back to their homelands bitter about Canadian education. Either way, Canada’s reputation for high-quality universities would suffer and we would miss out on the cultural and economic rewards international students bring.


Do international students need better English skills?

  1. A very interesting article, thank you for sharing it! It is important for newcomers and international students to gain a certain level of English or French if they want to prosper in Canada. There are many community services available, it is good to know that there are also services at Canadian universities.

  2. English language proficiency has never been a good predictor of academic success. It doesn’t really make much sense to say that a person who is fluent in English has X% chance for academic success. Unfortunately the owners of the most popularly used English assessment instruments have committed two sins. One is to convince potential test takers they can “learn” English and prepare for their assessment exams by purchasing a variety of ‘test prep materials” from them. The other is that these same organizations imply in their promotional literature that high scores translate into academic. We all should recognize that academic success is based on many qualities the learner brings to the table.
    Also, let’s not remove 100% responsibility from international student admissions departments that look for ways of determining international students admissibility that will take little time. What better way than to have a “cut off” score on an English assessment test.
    Anyhow, there are many issues here and I only provide my thoughts in hopes of generating other opinions on this subject.

  3. I took a few courses at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University). Everyone was obliged to take an English course to make sure we could read and write English fluently. That seemed like a good idea. Thr professor said nmany people start university without knowing English. I’m glad to say, having been born and brought up in England, that the professor said my English was perfect.

  4. I would go the extra step and suggest international teachers also need better English skills. My son’s linguistics teacher this semester was Korean. Nothing more to say than “it was fun”. I am sure many students have something to say about the struggle understanding professors who have ESL.

  5. Generalizing ‘International Students’ is too simplistic .
    I don’t think students coming from places where English is the official language of instruction find any trouble understanding the courses they take.Various accents may pose a problem initially but this is soon mastered

  6. I am a native Canadian teacher of English as a Second Language with over 20 years experience. I was also an Information Technology professional for 1 of Canada’s 5 major banks and acted as a coach to help improve the speaking and writing skills of many of my non-Canadian colleagues.

    • A very complex issue, to be sure . Having taught basic to “advanced” ESL and college prep courses in Canada and abroad, I can see the dilemma. One must realize there are many variables which also need to be addressed. Foreign students’ motivation is certainly in their favor. – as is prior language study in their native countries. there are many countries where English is taught in primary levels, and up, e.g. The Netherlands.

      I would agree with the other opinion stated above – that commercial TOEFL packages on the market are inadequate. most are good – as far as they go. They unfortunately miss the mark in listening skills. The examples, IMHO are often culture bound, or do not reflect the level necessary for university lectures.
      The accent ( we all have one, whether we realize it or not) can often confuse a student who has only studied Standard Received English.

      The most successful students I have found, attempt to get out of their ethnic enclaves and socialize (at leas t part of the time) with native speakers. Single students also seem to progress more quickly – and it’s because they are not communicating with a partner. It’ s always easier to slip back into one’s native language of course when at home or with that partner.

  7. I can see how this is an issue. I just finished College in Ontario and there were about 30% international students in my program. Most of them had very poor english skills. Thier essays and reports were no where near up to snuff. They did fine orally for the most part, but I know a lot of them did just as the article mentioned, write in their native language then use online translators. Working in a group with people who did this was very frustrating and made it hard to understand them.

  8. There is very substantial research in Australia over more than 10 years about the English language competence of international students – prior to entry to higher education, during study and at the point of transition to work anor further study. There have been two national Symposia on the issue (2007 and 2013) and very significant and highly impacting outcomes nationally affecting all education sectors – universities, vocational education and training,, ELT and schools. A major outcome in 2008 involved the development by the Australian Universities Quality Agency of “Good Practice Principles for English Language Proficiency of International Students in Australian Universities”. More recently the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency has developed framework English Langauge Standards for all students, which Australian higher education institutions are attempting to come to grips. I was the project leader for both Symposia and the joint author of a number of the research papers which informed the Symposia. I also authored the two outcomes reports. I would be happy to share some of this material with those interested. .

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