The Influence of Language Difficulties on the Wellbeing of International Students: An Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis

By Glory Gatwiri
2015, Vol. 7 No. 05 | pg. 2/2 |


Five key themes emerged from the analysis: Sense of Loss, Cultural Stress, Language Barriers, Social Support, Emotions, and Physical State.

I. Sense of Loss

This theme encapsulates the losses that respondents of this study faced after arriving in Australia. These losses ranged from perceived loss of family, friends, and people who offered moral support from their mother countries, to the loss of their former roles where they enjoyed respect and admiration of other students. This new change of life seemed to affect their perceptions of self and threatened their social and academic functioning. In a literal and symbolic sense, it was similar to feeling robbed of their previous lives, which meant participants no longer felt ‘whole’.

“I feel lost in Australia, I came here, expecting something different…I guess (laughs nervously) now I just feel lost. No friends, no family, I have to cook by myself, back in Brazil, my parents hired people in the house to cook and clean. Now some time I sleep hungry because, I eat too much Subway, and I do not want to be fat. Australia is not what I expected it to be; my country is better and I feel like I am just wasting my time here" (Hannah, Brazil).

"Coming here was good idea in the beginning, but not anymore. I have lost many of my friends because we don’t speak as much, I lost my boyfriend who said he doesn't want a long-distance relationship and I lost my Job as a chef, now I am a waitress, I don’t want to think about it because I will start to cry. (Starts tearing up) (Cata, Colombia).

II. Cultural Stress

Cultural stress was a significant concern for every participant. There are several challenges that international students face especially if their home country culture is strikingly different from the host country culture. Here, participants felt that there was a sense of cultural stress in relation to their well-being. Getting used to a new way of living and having to fit in with the locals as illustrated here, proved to be strenuous for some students. Cultural shock factors varied for each participant from the food, the lifestyle, social norms, and the English language itself.

"I remember during my first few months here, an Australian guy asked me out, I agreed. After the date he was very sexual, I mean he started touching me… (Long silence). I was very scared because, I said no, I do not want to have sex but he still keep on touching me. Back home, very few people have sex on the first date. I do not think I can do it’’ (Rita, China).

"In Colombia, if I say, I will be there in 30 minutes, that means in 2 hours (laughs loudly), people don’t keep time and nobody thinks it’s disrespectful, but here, here you are late for 5 minutes, everyone is offended, I don’t understand… it’s just five minutes” (Cata, Colombia).

III. Social Support

The third theme that emerged from the interviews was the need for connectedness and social support. Students drew their social support from their families, friends, partners, and available professionals. Connectedness among people guides individuals’ feelings, thoughts, and behaviors in social situations (Lee & Robbins,1998), and people with high levels of connectedness are better able to manage their own needs and emotions .

“Once I got bad marks in my English Test, I had to sit for the exam again, I was very depressed and frustrated, and I talked to one of my teachers who referred me to counselling. I have never been to counselling before. So I told the lady why I had come to see her and she gave me some advice" (Fazul, Saudi Arabia).

“My girlfriend at the time talked to me all the time. I never felt lonely. When I saw her online, even before we could start chatting, I felt better because I knew if I called her, she would pick the phone and talk with me. I wish I was back home, my life is not good here" (Suke, Mongolia).

IV. Language Difficulties

All the participants measured their academic achievement by their ability to speak English. Their feelings about this ranged from hopelessness to a sense of failure. Others felt it was unfair to be expected to perform just as well as those for whom English was their first language.

“If someone looks like they will not understand, I don’t ask them questions. Because I know my mistakes and I am afraid that people will laugh at me. I know it's stupid but that’s how I feel" (Hannah, Brazil).

"For me I must say, writing is the hard one, especially official documents. One day I tried writing an official letter to the department of migration for something about my visa, but I could not find the words. It was wrong. They asked me to write the letter again after some more time. I felt bad because I knew what was in my mind but I couldn’t say it well by writing" (Fazul, Saudi Arabia).

V. Emotional & Physical State

Participants talked about the different emotions they experienced since their arrival in Australia. Although most of the emotions were spoken of in a negative way, there was also an element of positivity in their various discussions. Most participants experienced bodily pains such as migraines, extreme fatigue, loss of interest and motivation, extreme insomnia and sometimes hypersomnia. These could be seen as the symptoms of deep psychological distress attributable to the change one experiences after moving to another country (Lee, Koeske, & Sales, 2004).

“For me, it's just the loneliness, I can't tell you, it's very lonely to be here, no family, no friends, no good English. It is very lonely. I miss my parents, my brothers, and my cat. I wish my cat was here” (Hannah, Brazil).

“When I hear people talking English fluently I feel so jealous then I wonder why I can’t speak like that. In Australia, I think girls like boys who speak good English. In my country, the girls used to like me, but here they do not even speak to me” (Suke, Mongolia).

There were also psychological issues that manifested themselves physically.

“I get tired very easily and I sleep most of the times” (Fazul, Saudi Arabia).

“I don’t experience any pains in my body but I can't sleep well, I get flashes of heat and sweat so much at night. I think of English all the time and how I can pass this exam, because if I do not pass, I will lose my offer at Melbourne University” (Suke, Mongolia).

“At first I thought it would go away but the headache did not go away, I went to the school doctor and he said I was thinking too much. He gave me some pain killers and told me to take it easy” (Cata, Columbia).


International students enter Australia from all parts of the world and for many; this is usually their first experience of living in a different society. After being uprooted from the security of their home country, surroundings and culture and from the support provided by families and friends, adapting to their new environment is frequently much more difficult for international students than anticipated.

There seems to be a relationship between not being able to communicate effectively (understanding what others say and being understood) and measures of mental health (depression, anxiety and stress). Failure to achieve this level of communication may lead to negative psychosocial consequences for international students that seriously interfere with their adaptation to the host country and their capacity to achieve optimally in the university setting. The better English speakers students become, the more they feel socially connected with other people in Australia and the less the psychological stress they experience.

This study has shown a strong connection with the issues outlined in the current literature. Participants’ experiences of acculturation included feelings of shock and disorientation as they tried to create a new sense of self in the face of the losses suffered in their new and unpredictable circumstances. Results have revealed that for this group, problems with the English language were the largest single determinant of international student problems. The problem of the language barrier was the recurring and underpinning theme in all the other presenting themes. In this study, participants saw language as influencing their level of cultural stress, their sense of loss, their emotions, and negative impacts on their physical state.

The language barrier is the theme that holds all the other themes together in this study. All participants said they felt that their communication skills were intimately tied to their levels of cultural stress, academic difficulty, and emotions such as sadness, hopelessness, and disappointment. A major source of most of their frustration stemmed from the fact that they could not communicate effectively. Participants also reported that their desperation to improve their English ability caused them to study long hours leading them to feeling insecure, fatigued and at times de-motivated if they perceived their efforts as not yielding results as quickly as they would have liked.

The lack of positive responses from the Australian public to people who are considered ‘different’ has also contributed significantly to how international students view themselves. Participants reported that they were afraid that they would be considered stupid if they spoke in broken English in front of their Australian counterparts. The participants felt that this was quite unfair because if Australian students travelled to non-English speaking countries, the locals would not expect them to speak fluently in Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese, or Mongolian. The expectations many Australians had of international students that they should be able to communicate effectively, caused these students to feel significant personal and interpersonal distress. Therefore, the Australian cultural expectation of fluency in English as a prerequisite for both social connection and academic respect could possibly also be playing a significant role in influencing the psychological wellbeing of international students.

Author’s Note

The author of this study is an African female from Kenya, aged 23 years, with a background in Social Sciences and a specialization in Social Work. I am an international student who came to Australia to pursue a master’s degree, at which time I began my own acculturation process. When I began my study, the language barrier hit me as the first and foremost challenge, even though I could speak English relatively well. My first weeks of study were filled with anxiety, somatic pain and minor depressive symptoms such as insomnia, lack of appetite, loss of interest in doing the things I loved and irritability. In class, my body was always tense resulting from my efforts to understand what my lecturers and classmates were saying and trying to make my accent sound better). Sometimes I had something to say but I missed the opportunity while trying to organize my thoughts into something that could easily understood. After class, I felt exhausted and had headaches from cognitive overload and tension. Even though people were quite friendly to me and tried to support me in every way possible, I still felt extremely self-conscious. Being black in an all-white, middle class, private university also made it easy for me to stand out. Lecturers found my grammar wanting and always referred me to support services within the school. This made me doubt myself even more as I became aware of my own inadequacies. I have improved with time because of a lot of help and patience from faculty members and fellow students and exposure to frequent communication in English, but some moments were very embarrassing and dreadful when I tried to say something that sounded wrong or offensive in the Australian culture. My psychological wellbeing and self-image suffered the most. I also lost a dramatic amount of weight due to persistent lack of appetite, decreased self-confidence, withdrawal, and self-criticism of both my academic work and general appearance. I had unexplained physical symptoms such as constant headaches back and shoulder pain, and hot flashes of heat, which would make me dizzy.

My interactions with other international students that I met in my residence group led me to believe that they were also under stress due to language barriers, and often-experiencing similar psycho-physiological reactions. Being aware of my personal experiences allowed more room for both similar and different experiences from my participants to emerge. Clearly articulating my own experiences also helped me to keep their meaning separate from what I experiences and what the participants revealed. Doing so allowed the subjective data from the participants to be fully appreciated (Barusch, Gringeri, & George, 2011).


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