Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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The Experiences of International Students Learning English at Chinese Universities: A Case Study from the Perspective of Yin and Yang

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posted on 2023-06-04, 22:45 authored by Liwei Liu

As China’s power and influence grow on the international stage, increasing numbers of international students choose to pursue their tertiary education at Chinese universities. Some of them also aspire to learn English, the global lingua franca, while taking degree programmes in China. However, there is little research into the phenomenon of international students learning English in a non-English speaking environment in an Asian country like China. This study used qualitative case study methodology to investigate how international students from Southeast Asia experienced learning English during their tertiary study in China. Three universities in two Chinese cities were chosen as subunits of the wider phenomenon of learning English in China. Four international students from Southeast Asian countries from each university were selected as participants. Data were collected through semi-structured interviews and classroom observations, then interpreted within the context of university documents and government policies and regulations. The layers of tensions which were revealed in the thematic data analysis were further analysed through the framework of Yin and Yang theory, which was chosen for its cultural and philosophical fit with this study of Asian international students in the context of China. The findings suggest that learning English in a rapidly changing national and global environment was an unsettling experience for the participants. Contradictory ideologies associated with learning English and Chinese appeared to compete for the participants’ attention and affect the indexical values of these two languages. In response, some participants shifted their focus away from learning English as they began to prioritise learning Chinese and taking Chinese medium courses. Nevertheless, they planned to resume English studies in the future. Participants did not appear to view the Chinese dominant macro-environment as an optimal context for learning English. Although many participants spoke highly about affordances of the campus micro-environment, they appeared largely to ignore the campus facilities and resources available to support independent learning. Most participants considered that they did not have equitable opportunities for learning College English in comparison to local students. The limited College English courses available rarely matched their levels of English proficiency. Since English classes were often instructed through the medium of Chinese, most participants struggled to understand their lecturers. This challenging College English learning environment was exacerbated by teacher-dominant and book-centred pedagogy, which conflicted with participants’ strong desire for opportunities to engage in classroom interaction. While some institutional structures were intended to support participants with their English learning, not all Chinese universities were able or willing to implement them. These environmental characteristics combined to reduce the participants’ chances to learn and use English meaningfully. This study has implications for managing and teaching international students in Chinese tertiary education. It raises the question of whether it would benefit the learning of international students when Chinese universities privilege international students and treat them differently from local Chinese students. International students appear to want more social interaction and equitable opportunities for a quality education. This suggests that policymakers at Chinese universities may need to implement convergent management of Chinese and international students. Moreover, Chinese universities could revise the College English curriculum to accommodate international students’ proficiency levels and differentiated educational and professional aspirations. Finally, to meet the expectations of international students as well as current pedagogical practices, College English lecturers may need to develop their pedagogical knowledge and English competence to effectively teach international students without a shared first language in class. This study suggests that such endeavours could allow inclusive and engaging English language learning experiences for international students, contribute to the quality of Chinese tertiary education and attract more international students to study in China.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Linguistics; English Language Teaching

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Socio-Economic Outcome code

160102 Higher education; 160301 Assessment, development and evaluation of curriculum

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

3 Applied research

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Alternative Language


Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Education


Gleeson, Margaret; Tait, Carolyn