Why we study in a country where we can ‘barely speak the language’: An Asian student on #Edifess738
Being plunged into an unfamiliar culture isn’t easy
The controversial Edifess post of last week attacking Asian international students for coming to study in a country where they can "barely speak the language" evoked a heated discussion of racism, freedom of speech, and the required levels of language comprehension for international students. Many Asian students responded by proudly highlighting their “nearly perfect” TOFEL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores, so as to separate themselves from their fellow Asians who another Edifess poster claimed “seem to not understand a word of what’s going on around them.”
Last semester my friend and I were on our way to a German Society pub quiz, and asked if my German flatmate wished to join. He replied: “I came to Scotland for my year abroad to learn about a new culture, not to join a German society.”
Me and my friend both laughed. I found his answer both reasonable and amusing, but when I tried to apply his theory to my fellow Asian friends, some of whom are insulted for only sticking with their own people while they study abroad, I felt strange. However, I was still unsure what the issue really was.
As I scrolled through the endless Edifess hashtags, I saw this — “I speak a few languages but my Spanish is extremely broken and I’d never attempt to study in Spain in Spanish.”
I immediately realised the problem, and the reason why my German flat mate’s theory is not applicable for most Asian students. The initial motivation for Western students to come and study is just not the same as that of the majority of Asian students.
Whilst the UK, Europe, and the US have similar levels of higher education and similar per capita numbers of high ranking universities, the level of higher education in Asia is significantly different. Asia has a huge population, a comparatively out-of-date education system, and rapid economic development that has comfortably outpaced social development in the region. In such an environment, it is not strange that Asian students who study abroad are considered more competitive in the job market, and that their parents are willing to invest significant sums of money on an education overseas.
Thus, a considerable portion of Asian students who study in Western countries do so because they are forced to – rather than wishing to learn about a foreign culture, as was the case with my German flatmate.
Forced by the broken education system at home, forced by the increasingly over saturated job market, or forced directly by parents desiring a brighter future for their kids. But most importantly, forced by their own desire for a better education. When they are forced to leave the environment with which they are familiar, to be immersed in a totally different culture and language in order to get a better education, it’s unfair to blame them for sticking with their own people after class, or for not speaking perfect English. Whilst Asians who were born or raised abroad, or who were lucky enough to take advanced and expensive English classes in their home countries, may be able to get a “perfect score” in TOFEL and to speak English confidently, others may not.
I’m not saying that the language barrier is not an issue for some international students to be concerned about, in fact I truly appreciate the people that pointed it out via Edifess and drew people’s attention to the issue. Even if the comment was somewhat aggressive, debate is the first step to solving a problem.
However, it is unjust to simply think that all the international students are on the same track as yours, and declaring that “if I can’t speak Spanish well, I’m not going to study in Spain”. When your issue is a matter of wanting to stay in your comfort zone, some of the Asian students who may not speak perfect English have had the great courage to move to a brand new environment to study, in order to improve themselves and their prospects.
These students take the difficult decision to uproot themselves from a familiar culture, and to throw themselves head first into challenging courses, made harder by the presence of an unfamiliar language. These issues merit far more attention than their accents and grammar slip ups – and Asian students deserve more credit than to be attacked for it. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind, always.