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September 2000, Vol. 3 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
The English Language & the NUS Foreign Student
Dr Laina Ho
Centre for English Language Communication

What do these words mean to you: edit, published, compassionate, deferred? These are simple words, as they are common academic vocabulary. And yet, it is amazing how foreign students 1 in NUS can give them new meanings and interpretations, resulting in misunderstanding, mortification, and misery. Teaching English and getting learners to achieve some competence is by no means an easy feat. But it looks as if understanding how adult foreign learners can misconstrue the English language now requires mental gymnastics by the NUS English tutor.

As an English tutor, I have encountered many situations—sometimes trying, sometimes entertaining—in my dealing with foreign students, not in the classroom, but in my administrative work with them because of their language difficulties. Take the words, edit and published. I require students to submit unedited, unpublished research papers for the writing module in my English course. For many foreign students, edit means texts that have been corrected by the editor of journals or periodicals; therefore, their research papers that have been read by their supervisors, or by their colleagues, friends, and relatives, are in their minds, not edited. Similarly, published is considered to be published in journals and books, and not in their Master’s dissertations. Consequently, when they misinterpret the meaning of these two words, they have unintentionally broken rules. And when rules are broken, students suffer repercussions and mortification.

Now I explain edit as ‘not read and corrected by anyone’, and published as ‘published in any journals, bulletin news, departmental circulars, reports, thesis proposals, or dissertations’. Nevertheless, English words still continue to have multiple meanings for foreign students, sometimes leading to confusion and unhappiness.

A more recent example is deferred, meaning delayed or postponed. Clear and simple though this word may be, when we tutors use the word in the context of assessment feedback, foreign students construe it as: “Delayed? Postponed? There must be something wrong with me and my English that I’m not allowed to join my pals?” Far too often and too hastily, foreign students can jump to the wrong conclusion thinking that English tutors are using some kind of subtle ploy to discriminate them.

Consequently, we have now learned never to assume that simple English vocabulary is self-explanatory. We have also learned that such problems are not necessarily due to cultural differences or perverse personalities, but probably the result of ‘convoluted’ meanings that the English language has for foreign students. So now in the English test we conduct to diagnose their English proficiency, we insert a footnote on the results list, explaining that deferred students are required to do the English course in the following semester because, though they are good at oral, they are weak in writing and need to do a special writing course.

Interacting with foreign students is not all gloom and doom. It has its fun moments too. Take the words, compassionate leave. We usually assume that this refers to leave associated with suffering, mainly emotional. So what do you do when a graduate student says to you that he was absent for his tutorials because he was away on compassionate leave, but here he is, looking as pleased as punch, and as far as I can see, not suffering from any mental anguish or physical ailment? The reason why he was absent, this student said, was that he had to be in the hospital that day because his wife was giving birth to his son! His reasoning was though he was not physically incapacitated, he was anxious for his wife in case there was an emergency. Therefore, anxiety constituted a kind of suffering and merited compassionate leave! I did not know whether to congratulate him or to tick him off. Later I checked the university rules for student attendance and found that there was no provision for paternity leave for students. But I let him off.

It is apparent that in managing foreign students, the English tutor has to adopt a new mindset (i.e. he/she has to simplify the English language in such a way that beginning learners of English can understand). Thus in using language in official and administrative matters, we should include footnotes, explanations, and so on to make the message as clear as possible. This may look puerile, but we would rather do this than to cause foreign students to misunderstand important instructions. Truly, these students have prescribed for us the message that communicating in the English language with foreign learners is never as simple as it seems, even for experts.


¹ By foreign students, I will assume any student who is from a non-English speaking educational background.

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Inside this issue
International Students in NUS
Foreign Students in the Faculty of Business Administration
Managing Foreign Students: The Science Approach
The English Language & the NUS Foreign Student