The adaptation of Chinese engineering students to academic language tasks at the University of Calgary




Zhu, Liping

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Adaptation to Canadian graduate studies from a Chinese background is both culturally and linguistically challenging. This study reported how the traditional and contemporary methods of instruction used in teaching English as a second language in some Chinese universities prepared students adequately to study at a Canadian university in order to see what initial difficulties and coping strategies that students had. Twenty-four Chinese graduate students and six Canadian professors in the five engineering departments at the University of Calgary were randomly and proportionately selected for the study. In the first stage twenty students who had been in Canada for some time were interviewed using an interview guide about (1) their language preparation in China; (2) their initial language difficulties in their study; and (3) their compensatory strategies used to overcome the difficulties in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Six Canadian professors were then interviewed about Chinese students' actual English abilities in the four aspects of the language arts. Both sets of the interview data were subject to content analysis to perceive the emerging themes in the students' and professors' opinions. In the second stage, case studies of four newly-arrived Chinese students in engineering were done over a four month period to record monthly their adaptation process to academic language tasks in listening, speaking, reading, and writing through interviews and classroom observations. Meanwhile, students kept a weekly journal based on the findings of the first stage of the data analysis. The results indicated that prior preparation in reading skills was good, listening was mediocre, and speaking and writing were poor due to the massively used traditional methods of instruction which focused on grammar, exercises on sentence patterns, and reading in general English. Students had difficulty in understanding conversations among native speakers and professors with a strong accent, in making contribution to classroom discussion and in-depth conversations, and in expressing succinctly and linearly their research ideas and opinions in writing. They coped very well by excessive reading, strenuous preparation procedures, help from experts in English in their disciplines, and conscientious effort to improve their listening, speaking, and writing. The findings support the position that teaching English in the content area and study skills using simulations better prepare students for their communicative functional competency in their real educational life in Canada.



Second language acquisition, English language, Study and teaching, Chinese speakers