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

By Glory Gatwiri
2015, Vol. 7 No. 05 | pg. 1/2 |


Language difficulties are cited as the most critical issue facing international students today. This study particularly looks into the influence of language difficulties on the wellbeing of international students. The study was conducted at a student accommodation in Melbourne, Australia using an Interpretive Phenomenological Approach (IPA). This explored the subjective experiences of five international students from Colombia, Mongolia, China, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia. Results were organized into six themes, all of which supported the hypothesis that language difficulties influence the level of psychological wellbeing among international students. Language was the superordinate theme that held all the other sub themes together. These findings support the conclusion that the higher the level of English language proficiency, the lower the levels of cultural stress, academic difficulties, and negative emotions among international students.

Language proficiency may have a profound effect on an individual’s ability to learn and develop, due to its key role in the transmission of information and regulation of cognitive processes (Binder & Smith, 2013). When focusing on language proficiency, the communicative purpose of language is of primary importance (Baker, 2001). This is because the ability to communicate effectively is vital in the measurement of a person’s capability to perform socially and academically (Young, Sercombe, Sachdev, Naeb, & Schartner, 2013). As a result, language fluency is a major determinant of successful integration and lessened trauma in a new culture (Andrade, 2006). Language proficiency is a key factor in the process of acculturation.

International students process a lot of new information upon their arrival in a new country. The acculturation process demands that they interpret new experiences through their own subjective and preexisting knowledge and perceptions. Because of the subjectivity of these interpretations, language difficulties affect students in different ways as they continue to build their own personal meanings and make sense of the acculturation process (Sawir, 2005). Although a review of current literature conducted by Smith and Khawanja (2011) revealed language as the biggest obstacle to acculturation for international students,little research on their lived experience has to date been conducted (Yoon & Portman, 2004).

English is now globalized and as international students from non-English speaking countries enter the western world, where speaking English is the norm, they are faced with the challenge of learning a new language as a prerequisite to succesful acculturation and further thriving. Where “English stands at the very center of the global language system” (Held, 1999, p. 346), their ability to communicate in English is a centrally important skill.

Challenges Facing Non-Native English Speakers

Research by Robertson, Line, Jones, & Thomas (2000), concluded that the difficulties and challenges faced by international students are far-reaching. Another study also found that most international students from a non-English speaking background did not meet the expectations of the Australian academic system. The study also found that they struggled with class participation and writing assignments despite many hours spent reading and revising (Bretag, Horrocks, & Smith, 2002).

Most international students suffer from a lack of self-confidence (Jackson, Ray, & Bybell, 2013), which is a key aspect of learning a new language because constant communication as well as social integration with local students boosts one’s proficiency in the new language (Yoon & Portman, 2004). Confidence in speaking a second language occurs when one is not ashamed to communicate while making mistakes (Clément & Bourhis, 1996). This is consistent with the findings of another study that found international students with a significantly higher level of English expertise and communication efficacy face minimal perceived humiliation and anxiety and are less self-conscious about their accents or ethnic backgrounds (Barratt, 1994).

Non-English Speaking Students in Australia

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of student visas issued in the year 2009-2010 alone was 270,499. In 2010, there were 617,000 oversees students enrolled in courses across all Australian educational sectors (ABS, 2012). A recent study on the economics of international studentship titled “The Economic Implication of Fewer International Higher Education Students in Australia,” revealed that the international education sector contributed $12.6 Billion to the Australian economy in the financial year 2007-2008 (Koshy & Phillimore, 2013). Therefore it is important to acknowledge these students as a critical part of the Australian economy and population by conducting relevant research to assess the needs gap and their overall wellbeing.

Considering the ‘Wellbeing’ of Non-Native Speakers

It is especially difficult to come up with a clear-cut definition of wellbeing; because of the subjectivity involved in its dynamics. According to the Oxford dictionary, wellbeing is defined as a state of good or satisfactory condition of existence characterized by health, happiness, and prosperity. For the purposes of this study, I will focus on the aspect of psychological well-being, which the World Health Organization (WHO) uses synonymously with mental health. This is ‘a state in which an individual realizes his /her own potential and abilities, can cope with normal stressors of life and is able to make a contribution to his/her community’(WHO, 2014).

Wellbeing is mostly thought of as an intricate process that gives people a sense of how their lives are progressing and a generalized self-perception based on the individual’s sense of participating in and enriching from life (Spenser, 2014). It is viewed from a relative perspective due to individual differences in interpreting physical, psychological, mental, emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, relational, habitat, communal, intercultural, economic, and environmental events (Spenser, 2014). For the purpose of this research, the definition by Diener is the most relevant. He describes wellbeing as the extent to which people are able to experience positive emotions and feelings of happiness (Diener, 2000).

There are more challenges for international students as far as adjusting to a new curriculum or academic expectations than other native students (Leong, 2001). This may lead to rising levels of psychological distress (Yeh & Inose, 2003). Their personal concerns range from academic difficulties, financial difficulties, language barriers and racial discrimination (Mori, 2000) to a loss of social support and mental distress comprised of depression, homesickness, alienation, and loneliness (Leong,2001). If not addressed in time these concerns may affect a student’s ability to socialize and perform academically. This in turn affects their psychological and physical health and increases their level of dissatisfaction with the host country, which creates a vicious cycle of stress and anguish (Wan, Chapman, & Biggs, 1992).

Language Difficulties and Academic Achievement

Academically, international students experience problems with writing, comprehension and reading due to limited language skills (Poyrazli, 2003). International students may also experience more anxiety related to understanding academic and grammatical jargon and the overall process of adjustment to the Australian classroom climate (Lin & Yi, 1997). A study conducted by Poyrazli, Arbona, Nora, McPherson, and Pisecco (2002), also showed that the challenges of adjusting to a different educational system can result in students receiving lower grades than they have previously achieved. This then leads to a loss of academic self-efficacy, which in turn lowers their general adjustment.

Sawir reported that in Australia, skills such as autonomous learning, critical thinking, confidence in communication and problem solving are very valuable and cannot be overlooked in an academic setting (Sawir, 2005). Students who come from other cultures may not want to question or challenge a teacher because they think it might be considered rude; however, Australian academics prefer self-reflective students who can challenge any preexisting information and literature though their own critical thinking.

Lacking this crucial information means that some international students may be seen as academically docile. While most international students get the opportunity to travel overseas for further studies because they are high achieving students in the home countries, their inability to sustain their academic record may impede on their general confidence level and performance. This gives rise to feelings of self-defeat and failure (Rienties, Beausaert, Grohnert, Niemantsverdriet, & Kommers, 2012)

Language Difficulties and Social Interaction

Students’ inability to communicate effectively in the host culture complicates their ability to socialize and integrate with local students (Wright & Schartner, 2013). Various studies including one by Young et al show that English proficiency influences social interaction and adjustment and that international students who have higher confidence in communicating in English adjust more quickly and make friends easily, thus mitigating the concern of loneliness and homesickness (Hayes & Lin, 1994; Sampasivam & Clément, 2014; Wright & Schartner, 2013; Young et al., 2013).

Hayes and Lin found that most international students have a desire to build friendships with locals but that domestic students do not respond openly and this expectation often does not eventuate forcing them to form friendships with students from their own regions who they can communicate freely with (Glass, Gómez, & Urzua, 2014; Hayes & Lin, 1994). However, when local students engaged with international students who could communicate effectively in English, they found it easier to interact with them and to form social groups and friendships. This is consistent with the study by Mak et al which revealed that the lesser the language barrier between international students and English speaking students, the more the possibility of building interpersonal relationships across cultures (Mak, Brown, & Wadey, 2013).

In Australia for example-where this study was conducted, even though there is a recorded increase in the number of international students, interaction with domestic students remains exceptionally low with language barriers being cited as the prime reason (Mak et al., 2013). International students who are able to make friends with domestic students experience an increased identification with the host culture and better academic results, social interactions, and general adaptation. This is consistent with other studies which show that the inability to converse in the host country’s language leads to miscommunication, isolation, and solitude (Young & Schartner, 2014; Young et al., 2013).

Language Difficulties and Social Support

A study conducted by Hayes and Lin links lack of social support to increasing levels of psychological distress among international students (Hayes & Lin, 1994). This is because students have been uprooted from their existing social networks in their home countries (Davis & Garrod, 2013). Davis and Garrod also argued it is not easy for international students to build a new social network in a new culture that they do not fully understand. According to their study, this is because many international students interpret their lack of friends to mean that they have been rejected by the entire culture in which they have arrived. Over time, these feelings lead to social isolation and low self-esteem. Their study showed that perceived English fluency and perceived social support levels positively contribute to international students' psychological wellbeing and positively influence their acculturation process (Davis and Garrod, 2013).

Language Difficulties and Cultural Stress

A study by Ward et al., found a strong relationship between cultural stress and connectedness to the host country. If a student feels a firm sense of belonging in the new country, their levels of cultural stress and shock are reduced significantly. If a student’s culture is strikingly different to the host culture in terms of religion, lifestyle, food and communication, the level of cultural shock and stress is multiplied manifold and vice versa (Ryder, Alden, Paulhus, & Dere, 2013; Ward et al., 2001).


All five students chosen for the study were international students with English as a second language, aged between 21 and 30 years and living in Australia for less than two years. Two of the participants were women and the other three were men, from the following countries: Colombia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Mongolia, and China. To protect the identity of the study participants, I have referred to them by pseudonyms only. I conducted participant-driven semi-structured interviews with a focus on wellbeing and the experience of studying in Australia. These interviews were conducted face to face over a 40-minute period.

Data Analysis

Each transcript was analyzed individually and thematically. The participants’ worldviews were made sense of by developing an interpretive relationship with the transcripts (Smith & Osborne, 2003; Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009). As the analysis developed, we began to look for patterns in the codes, called themes. By dividing text into meaning units/ themes, we were able to identify commonalities, differences, and contradictions across all the participants describing the same or different phenomena. We transcribed and coded the interviews in considerable detail in an attempt to make sense of every individual’s experience. A final analysis of the participants’ experiences was then constructed into a detailed analysis of themes by formulating a matrix to show the comparison with the responses of other students to aid in formulating a negative case analysis in the analysis chapter.

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