4 Reasons Why Some International Students Struggle with English

International students in the UK, the USA, and Australia need to participate actively in seminars and tutorials, understand advanced lectures, follow tutors’ instruction, read advanced scientific materials, write well-argued assignments, interact with friends, peers, and administration staff. None of these is possible without well-developed English language skills.

International students should understand that without an adequate level of English social adjustment at university might be compromised, learning progress might be incapacitated, and the prospect of completing a degree is threatened.

Studying in a second language is cognitively harder than studying in the first language. It means that processing information, learning, reading, and writing in a second language requires more time, more mental resources, and bigger effort than in the home language. The best way to overcome this cognitive challenge is to develop language proficiency which can reduce this mental overload.

It should not surprise that on the whole students with better English language skills have higher chances of academic success.

Despite that, many international students enter universities with the level of language skills that doom them to fail. The truth is that some students should never be accepted to universities with the level of English they have, even if they meet the official English language requirements and get the required scores on IELTS or TOFEL.

Today I want to delineate the top reasons why some international students are linguistically unprepared for studying abroad. It is a subjective list partly based on my experience as a university tutor and teacher of English for Academic Purposes.

Still, this list is consistent with the research on developing English for universities. So I believe I will present a relatively balanced view of factors affecting students’ language proficiency.

Why do I write about it?

Students who understand factors predicting English language performance can avoid a dire predicament in which many international students find themselves at university abroad (an awful realization that their English is not on the necessary level to succeed and there is nothing they can do to change the situation quickly).

So let’s start with the list.

1. Students spend too little time on learning English

All students preparing for university abroad should be aware that their English proficiency largely depends on the quantity of time invested in language learning. It is really simple. The more time students spend on learning a language, the quicker they achieve the desired results.

Some students might have heard about a famous 10,000-Hour Rule (popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers). Gladwell posited that the key to success or expertise in any field (so also in language learning) is simply practicing a specific task for a prolonged amount of time. 10,000 hours to be precise.

Although Gladwell’s rule is only a crude simplification, yet it makes sense that ‘time-on-task’, or ‘time-on-learning’ is probably the most important factor affecting students’ English language performance.

According to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, students need about 2,400 hours of study to reach level C2 (1,200 hours of classroom learning + 1,200 hours of independent work). That number might have to be doubled in the case of students whose first language is unrelated to English (e.g. students who speak Chinese or Arabic as a first language). They might need much more time to master English – probably about 4,800 hours.

We can look at the time needed to master the English language from the perspective of a migrant child in the USA. Let’s imagine a Mexican child who started a very good primary school in the USA with great teachers who understand the needs of children learning English as an additional language. These teachers provide the child with the best English language instruction. The child is immersed in the English-speaking environment.

So how long does this child need to master his/her English?

The research is pretty conclusive and provides an answer to this question. Developing oral proficiency in the USA takes 3 to 5 years and developing academic English proficiency (so, in fact, English variation needed for success at secondary school and college) can take 4 to 7 years. Altogether children learning English as an additional language might need from 7 to twelve years to become proficient in English (Hakuta et al., 2010).

Frankly, I am not entirely sure whether the 10,000-Hour Rule, Common European Framework of Reference, or the research conducted by Hakuta and his colleagues provide a better estimation of the time needed to master English. In my opinion, motivated international students who know how to learn effectively might actually need less time to master academic English. Still, it is obvious, that the task requires substantial time and persistent commitment.

Now, some international students learning English can spend six hours a day, seven days a week, for several years learning and actually enjoying thoroughly the process of language learning. Other students have enormous difficulty in finding 60 minutes, twice a week for learning and improving their English. It would be odd if the time dedicated to English learning did not predict students’ language performance.

Students whose English language proficiency is poor often spent too little time on learning the language before university. I meet sometimes students who started to learn English seriously only a year before entering university. That is probably enough time to reach C1 level, providing students are already on a solid B2 level and their native language is similar to English (e.g. French, Spanish, Portuguese), plus students know what they are doing. But many of these students are actually in a different position.

For instance, some students are only on B1 level. Many Chinese and Arabic speakers often need more time to learn English than their European peers (due to the unrelated to English home language). Also, many students spend this crucial year trying all tricks of the world to get the desired score on the ILETS/TOFEL test. So they don’t really learn the language needed for university. They learn how to crack the test. And it is not the same thing. The fact that some students were successful on the standardized tests does not mean that their English is actually great. Often the first university assignment, test, or exam exposes students language deficiencies. Sadly, at this stage, little can be done to help students quickly. The 10,000-Hour Rule might be hyperbole but there is no way students can improve their academic reading or writing rapidly.

2. Students don’t employ ‘deliberate practice’ in language learning

Many students might ask here ‘what the hell is a deliberate practice’?

Let me explain by using a metaphor.

Leaning Academic English for university is a bit like climbing Mount Everest.

Climbing the highest peak in the world is of course feasible. Many people of different nationalities, ages and abilities stood on the summit. Still, for most people, it is the ultimate challenge that should never be underestimated.

Over 300 people died attempting to reach Mount Everest. Climbers need several months of preparation, previous experience with fixed lines, the right equipment, the help of Sherpas to choose the optimal routes and assess risk. With luck and good weather, the adventure takes more or less 50 days.

Now, it would be crazy to prepare for this huge challenge hiking in the countryside without a plan with people who have never climbed in the Himalayas. That would be simply a mindless, aimless, thoughtless practice.

To reach the summit climbers need to engage in the process in which they define their targets, assess correctly their skills, engage in demanding activities aligned with their main goal, receive constant feedback from experienced climbers, focus on the performance. This focused preparation is called ‘deliberate practice’ – a concept described by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson in his book ‘Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise’.

Unfortunately, many international students approach learning academic English for a university like the guys who are hiking in the countryside in the hope of climbing Mount Everest. They wander around, talk to accidentally met hikers, don’t reflect whether what they do makes any sense.

As I said before, it is virtually impossible to be good at anything without the substantial time investment. It counts for running, football, chess, also language learning. I would hope that most prospective international students are aware of it.

But here’s what many students might not be aware of. Time spent on English language learning does not always guarantee the results.

We all have seen students who spent in English classrooms 10-12 years and their language level leaves much to be desired. Or students learning English intensively for two-three years and not being able to get beyond B2 level.

What is the mistake these students make? They invest time in language learning but the quality of their learning is poor. They work harder but not necessarily smarter. And the quality of learning matters a lot.

Particularly, in the context of language learning for university where students not only have to master the English language but also its distinctive academic form.

One more example (unrelated to language learning) might help explain ‘deliberate practice’

If I wanted to become a chess champion and decided to practice chess every day, the initial progress would be probably rapid. Quickly, I would become a better chess player than all my family members and friends. However, after let’s say 2000 hours of practice the progress would probably slow down and stagnate. Any more practice would be merely a mindless repetition of what I have already learnt and its results would be disappointing. Any potential progress would be too small to win any serious chess tournament. As Albert Einstein (allegedly) said ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results’. To move my chess skills on a higher level I would have to change my practice. I could do the following things: play chess with better players than I am and probably lose many games in the process, find a chess master who could teach me all-important tricks of the trade, leave my happy comfort zone and start working on complex chess problems, practice specific openings, avoid known variation in the game, focus on performance and get high-quality feedback on my progress. Now, there is no guarantee that I would finish off as a great chess master, however, there is little doubt my skills would be on a much higher level than if I continued the mindless practice for another 2,000 hours. In short, I would have to do ‘deliberate practice’.

Sadly, many international students don’t understand that what contributes to success in climbing and chess works also for language mastery. Consequently, students approach preparation for IELTS, TOFEL tests and learn academic English exactly in the same way as they were learning general English in secondary school. That is of course not an optimal approach.

Why ‘time on task’ approach does not work well for students preparing for university? Why more learning does not mean automatically better language performance?

Students who want to be successful at university need to reach C1 or C2 level proficiency. It is pretty much a native-like proficiency level. It is an ambitious goal in itself. To make things more complicated, students have to also master notorious academic English.

So students have to learn field-specific vocabulary, features, structure, and conventions that distinguish academic language from the language students used to learn at school. As Short and Echevarria said ‘academic language is a second language for all students’ (2016, p. 2). Even native speakers of English struggle with academic English. International students learning the academic language are in a precarious situation. They need to improve their general English and simultaneously develop academic language proficiency. It is a bit like learning two languages at the same time.

Most students notice that when they reach B2 English proficiency level, the learning progress starts to slow down. Students reach the dreaded plateau. They can learn 1000 more words and the improvement in reading, writing and speaking is barely noticeable. For many students, this limited progress is highly frustrating and hugely demotivating. At this stage, it would be irrational to repeat ineffective actions to break the plateau. So we can say that specific needs related to learning academic English necessitate a different, more focused approach.

To overcome the arrested learning students need to change the way they approach the learning process and ‘deliberate practice’ seems to solve most of the problems with academic language learning.

What is ‘deliberate practice’ in the context of students preparing for university abroad?

Students use ‘deliberate practice’ when they focus on the language needed for the IELTS/TOFEL tests and the university course they want to attend. Students don’t waste time learning idioms or colloquial vocabulary which are not likely to be used in the contexts for which students are preparing.

Students engage in SMART goal setting. So the goals are specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-sensitive. If students need to improve vocabulary, they know what vocabulary they need to learn, why they learn it (e.g. to improve reading), how many words they need to learn, how many words per day, how the progress will be measured, etc.

Moreover, students engage in backward goal-setting.

Normally most international students focus first on IELTS and TOFEL tests and don’t care about the proper English skills needed for university. Such an approach seems to make sense since students need to get a required score on the tests before they can actually enter university. However, this approach leaves students in a precarious situation, since university requires different language skills than the ones required on the IELTS and TOFEL.

Instead, students who use ‘deliberate practice’ think about their ultimate goal (PhD, doctorate, master’s degree) and understand the language requirements needed to achieve this goal. Then they do reverse planning which incorporates IELTS or TOEFL preparation in language learning. Reverse planning contributes hugely to academic performance since it helps students understand what skills and resources they need to be successful and what the areas for improvement are.

The next thing students employing ‘deliberate practice’ do is leaving their comfort zone. They abandon (at least partially) textbooks, boring and predictable materials. Instead, students engage in intellectually demanding activities. For instance reading authentic academic materials (journal articles, research projects) and discussing these materials with tutors with academic backgrounds. Academic tutors force students to answer challenging questions, explain difficult concepts. It does not sound like fun, however, it pushes the limits of students’ abilities and helps students to improve their language performance, knowledge, and productivity. This approach is also great for academic growth, overcoming fears, building self-confidence, and learning that failure is part of the learning process. Instead of waiting for the time students feel ready to tackle challenging academic tasks, they embrace the challenge and take, so to speak, the bull by the horns.

Then students practice a lot (important!), pay attention to results, and modify the learning process if needed. They choose effective strategies and tools which they can evaluate since they understand the learning process. Students take responsibility for their learning, nurture good learning habits, eradicate or replace bad ones. Finally, they seek constant, high-quality feedback on performance from great tutors who understand the value of deliberate learning.

In other words, students learn how to learn like experts.

Does deliberate practice work for international students? Always! Providing students reached a certain threshold of language proficiency. For beginners, the time spent on learning is probably more important than ‘deliberate practice.

The problem is very few students use ‘deliberate practice’ in language learning to improve their performance.

The majority of students prefer adhering to the 10,000 hours’ rule without targets, being nested happily in their comfort zones where they read pseudo-academic stuff for IELTS/TOFEL test. They don’t assess their progress; they engage in feel-good learning activities that don’t actually work but feel like they did. Such students rarely care about their real academic performance. If they do, they measure the performance using a flawed IELTS/TOFEL benchmark. Students often abdicate responsibility for learning outcomes and prefer to be spoon-fed by teachers who use boring materials and often flawed methods. Such students are oblivious to their bad learning habits.

They are like the guys who hike merrily in the countryside in the preparation for climbing Mount Everest.

3. Students ignore difficulties related to studying in a second language

Research shows convincingly that non-native students who learn academic content (e.g. law, science, physics) in their home language get better results than students learning the same content in English. For instance, the study conducted by Trenkic and Warmington in 2019 demonstrated that the speed of processing in a second language might be twice as slow as in a native language. Stated differently, learning, reading, writing, and speaking in English might take students twice as much time as the same activities in their first language. The problem is caused by the cognitive load (or rather a cognitive overload). We, humans, have limited working memory (’the magical number seven, plus or minus two) which can process only a limited amount of information at one time. International students who learn academic content in a second language (e.g. English) have to learn new challenging concepts (often unknown in the first language), plus deal with linguistic challenges related to the language in which the new context is presented.

The problems related to the slower information processing in a second language manifest themselves during academic discussions. Frequently, international students remain silent, even if they are fluent speakers and discussions are dominated by native speakers who can quickly process the questions and formulate the answers. In a similar way, many native-English speakers are able to write a semi-decent academic assignment overnight (not a good idea!). I have never met an international student who successfully pulled off the same feat.

4. Students hope they improve their English at university

Although simultaneous learning of content knowledge and improving English is possible in certain contexts, it is hard at university. There are too many things to learn in a very short time and international students have no time for concurrent intensive language learning. That is particularly true for postgraduate students who experience a very steep learning curve. Let’s imagine learning advanced research methods and statistical inference and working on improving academic vocabulary. It rarely works. Also, arguably the two most important skills for university: academic reading and academic writing are notoriously hard to improve quickly.

Students who hope to improve their English while studying at university abroad remind me of Yasuhiro Kubo, the guy who allegedly threw his parachute out the airplane door and jumped out of the plane without it. He caught the parachute in mid-air, secured it, and landed without mishap. International students who want to improve their English during university courses are trying to achieve a similar thing. They want to catch their language proficiency parachute on the way down to the ground. In my opinion, they are asking for trouble.

The assumption that English language skills will improve rapidly during the sejour abroad is unsubstantiated. I described that in detail in a different post.