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The things you need to know before studying abroad

Popularity 7Viewed 3807 times 2014-6-23 09:29 |System category:Others| studying overseas

The things you need to know before studying abroad


This article is written for Chinese students who want to further their education in English-speaking countries.


There are quite a few stereotypes in China surrounding receiving education in an English-speaking country, such as Australia. With the popularity of studying overseas, more and more Chinese international students suffer from those misleading stereotypes. Based on my limited experience, I would like to write down what I consider as worthwhile to know before we actually step on a foreign land and start chasing after our dreams.


Among all the stereotypes, the biggest one is regarding to acquiring English. It seems to be natural to believe that we will pick up English once we have lived in an English-speaking country for some time. In fact, before coming to Australia, I seriously believed that my English would make progress by leaps and bounds almost automatically. Besides, a dozen of students I had taught English were fully convinced that they would able to ace all the English proficiency tests after several years abroad.


Nonetheless, that isn’t quite the fact. Undoubtedly, the authentic language environment is conducive to language improvement. However, that only stands when you are exposed to the target language and apply that language in communication all the time while in fact, a large number of overseas Chinese students stick to their own Chinese communities and speak Mandarin. Therefore, no wonder why their English is still poor after a long time abroad. Because the course I studied in this university, I interviewed some Chinese international students for some of my assignments. Honestly, I was a bit shocked by the level of their English. Even though they had studied in a local language school and had been in Australia for more than a year, they still struggled to express themselves even when they were asked to talk about familiar topics. I had issues with English as well. A week after I came to Australia, I realized that my English was simply not good enough. For instance, there were so many kitchen utensils or vegetables I could not put a name to. Other than that, I was not able to concentrate on a long conversation, either. On top of that, I basically had to start everything from scratch with regard to learning the academic writing skills.


Thus, to start with, you really want to make sure that you spare no efforts to hone your language skills no matter when you are in or out of China as long as you want to make it. Certainly, there are justifiable reasons. First and foremost, comparatively high level of English is essential to the success of your studying abroad. In Australia, they employ continuous assessment to evaluate students’ performance. To be more specific, not like in most Chinese universities, you can kick back and relax most of the term and only need to prepare for the final exam. In Australia, you generally will be required to do assignments like presentations or papers throughout the term and still have to sit mid-term quiz and final exam. The mind-boggling amount of assignments is already stressful enough. The inability to use English properly to do assignments is only adding insult to injury. In the end, some students simply flip out then give up altogether and wind up coming back to China without finishing the degree. Alternatively, students fail subjects and struggle all the way to get the degree.


Secondly, a strong foundation of English is necessary for you to stand up against unfair treatment in a foreign country. Even though it does not happen very often, it is not as scarce as you might think. As I wrote in one of my previous blogs, I was once overcharged by a bus driver. Judging from his rude manner, I deep down believed he thought there was nothing I could do about that as I might not speak the language very well and even if I did, I would choose to suck it up because in our culture, we tend to avoid confronting with other people especially when we are in a foreign country. Another example would be my experience of booking an air ticket with Australian Students Travel Agency. They made a mistake about the baggage allowance on my air ticket after all of my detailed explanation about the number of check-in luggage I was entitled to. On the air ticket, it read 2 pieces while in fact it should be 3. Unfortunately, it took them a month to fix this seemingly simple mistake. During the whole time, I had stopped in their office twice and had texted and called them a few times. In the end, I even called Fair Trading (an Australian organization which protects the rights of customers and tenants) to complain about this as I was so sick of waiting. To be honest, they might not want to avoid the responsibility of this mistake. But, it was always better to be proactive as in this case they would be the ones in the passive situation and had to take actions to fix the problem. Of course, it is also likely for international students to be treated unfairly by their lecturers. In some cases, students felt like they did what was required by the lecturer for an assignment, but, ended up getting a low score. Under that circumstance, you really have to go to the lecturer and get some explanations. Trust me, when the aforementioned situations happen, you will wish you could shoot your questions like a native.


Thirdly, a good command of English is the key which opens the door to the wonderland of exotic culture. It is acknowledged that experiencing the culture in the host country is an exceptionally important part for international students. That is mainly because the exposure to different cultures cultivates us into people with international mindset. The more we understand about a different culture, the fewer stereotypes we hold concerning that culture and consequently, the more facts we know, the less likely we are going to be manipulated by the media. Gradually, we become independent and critical thinkers. But, you will never truly understand a culture if you don’t speak its language.


Thus, it is crystal clear that the better your English is, the more you can gain from studying overseas. However, there is another thing you have to bear in mind in terms of learning English: do not pin all your hope on overseas language schools. From my point of view, most of them don’t quite worth their salt. A case in point will be that English grammar is seldom touched upon by teachers in those institutes. While I was doing a teaching practicum in Wollongong college, it came to my attention that most of the English teachers here were either completely unable to explain grammar or exceedingly inept at teaching grammar (This is totally understandable as we don’t really learn the grammar of our first languages). You may ask “Is grammar that important?” The answer is “no” if you only need English for daily communication as grammatical errors generally are ignored as long as they don’t affect the conversation in speaking. Also, grammar is not significant if you start learning English almost as early as a native. However, for international students who have to write academic papers regularly, “yes” grammar is nearly overarching. I was once asked to proofread a Chinese international student’s paper on which in the end I had to give up as the essay had neither logic nor any form of grammar. The shocking part was actually he had studied in a language school for a year before yielding that unreadable piece of work. Of course, the language school should be held accountable in his case, not entirely, though because he obviously should have worked harder on learning English. Moreover, quite a few of my classmates with experience of studying English in language schools complained that their teachers only underlined the grammar mistakes or inappropriate use of vocabularies while failed to explain why and how to correct the mistakes. As a result, students were not able to learn from their mistakes. Admittedly, there are some other reasons why native English speakers may not be the best English teachers. For example, they don’t know your first language and your culture which according to research both exert enormous influence on the learning of English as second language. But, one thing is for sure: they are definitely the best language models.


What I am trying to say here is not how bad overseas language schools are but to warn you not to put all of your eggs in one basket. That is to say the language center abroad is not a panacea to treat the conundrum of your English. Simply put, when it comes to learning a foreign language, you yourself have to leave no stone unturned. Having lessons in language centers is only one of the stones.


Aside from the language stereotype, another one is working part-time. It seems that Chinese international students are expected to work part-time when they study full-time abroad. Honestly, I admire those who can strike a balance between studying and working. Plus, I am hands down about students, who have financial burden, working part-time. Besides, it is absolutely all right to work during summer or winter vacation. But, to those who are unable to keep the balance and meanwhile who have no financial issues, you seriously need to ask yourself “Do I really need a temporary job?” The answer I am afraid is “not”. Even just in this single university, I have heard so many stories about Chinese international students who had one or more than one part-time job, ended up failing several subjects. In the end, it cost them far more than they earned from their jobs. I know working part-time abroad, to a great extent, is associated with proving one’s ability and experiencing local culture. Nonetheless, washing dishes or mopping the floor or being a cashier is not going to be considered as proof of you being very capable since many a student can do those jobs. What’s more, this type of working experience is not going to polish your resume unless you want to have that kind of job as your future career. Furthermore, the shallow communication between a cashier and a customer cannot be regarded as real cultural experience.


If you really want to find a part-time job, there are a few things you need to know. First of all, make sure you know your priorities. To international students, studying should always come first. Secondly, choose part-time jobs wisely. Specifically, you’d better choose a part-time job which can help you with your future career or facilitate you to build up your network of people. In other words, other than getting money, your part-time job should get you somewhere. Doubtless, it is not without difficulty to find this kind of job. However, it is not impossible. For instance, one of my Chinese friends here got an internship position in BHP (a famous Australian company) after he had tried a year and had sent many emails to that enterprise.

I will stop it right here and let you experience the rest part and figure out what the other important things are. Neither is studying abroad going to turn your life into a heaven nor a hell. It is a journey which starts with typical spring view; which gradually leads us into an endless dessert and which ends with at the destination we have been looking for all the way. When we just start this journey, we tend to be full of hope about what is to come. Next, when struggle to adapt to the new education system and new culture, we get lonely and get lost. At last, once we make it, we realize it is worthwhile no matter how many tears we have to shed.                                           

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)





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Reply Report Gayle 2017-2-20 06:11
"Undoubtedly, the authentic language environment is conducive to language improvement. However, that only stands when you are exposed to the target language and apply that language in communication all the time while in fact, a large number of overseas Chinese students stick to their own Chinese communities and speak Mandarin. Therefore, no wonder why their English is still poor after a long time abroad."

This is a very important point that cannot be stressed enough.  If you go to a country where another language is spoken, learning that language is greatly slowed down if you have people around you who speak your native language.  You will learn the the new language rapidly if, every time you want to communicate something, you HAVE to do it in the target language.  If you can switch back to your native language every time you just want to talk to another human being, you will never start thinking in the target language.  So this is a very important point.
Reply Report Min1989 2017-2-20 09:17
Gayle: "Undoubtedly, the authentic language environment is conducive to language improvement. However, that only stands when you are exposed to the targ ...
Exactly! But even though many Chinese students realise this, not many of them strive for this. They still stick to their Chinese groups and not wanting to speak English at all. Some Chinese international students once confessed to me that they felt like their speaking wasn't even as good as when they were preparing for the IELTS test before studying abroad.

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