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In my opinion

Why do East-Asian international students often stay silent in class?

These students are using what I call a “silent strategy” to build reputation, but this can backfire, leading to negative interpretations.


The number of international students continues to climb at Canadian universities. In 2018, Canada recorded 435,415 international students enrolled at all postsecondary education levels, an 18-percent jump from the previous year. The University of British Columbia, where I study, has 16,000 international students, comprising 26 percent of undergraduates and 36 percent of graduate students. East-Asian students (i.e., students from China, Japan and South Korea) make up approximately 42 percent of the population of international students in Canada.

However, the increasing number of international students only shows the surface of internationalization. East-Asian international students are facing obstacles in establishing intercultural contacts in classrooms.

“I’ve never been the person who would actively participate in class, and I never enjoyed group discussions and projects” said Yuki from Japan (respondents’ names were changed to protect their privacy). Throughout my own experiences with teaching as a graduate teaching assistant at UBC, I have observed that East-Asian international students are more likely to remain silent in class and play the role of a listener in group discussions. Using first-hand interviews, I try to explain this enigmatic phenomenon: what do East-Asian international students think about their silence-in-class behaviour, and how is it formed?

The language barrier

The English-language barrier is mentioned as an obstacle by many East-Asian students. Yeon from Korea said, “I find it quite difficult to catch up with professors.” Aiya from Japan considered language problems as the most significant challenge she faced. Yan, a graduate student from China, found it hard to follow what domestic students were saying, because “their speaking speed is very fast … they have a different style for speaking.”

All these East-Asian students began learning English since primary school or even kindergarten. But, the English education they took before is too “text-based,” they say. That is why Yan said she has “good grammar in writing” but finds it difficult to understand conversations with domestic students and their “broken sentences or phrases.”

The “silent strategy”

Because of this language barrier, I conclude that East-Asian international students apply a “silent strategy.” Rather than passive engagement in class, they are actually reconstructing their identities in a new cultural environment. Yuki speaks very fluent English, because she spent four years in the U.S. during her childhood and has lived in Vancouver for several years. But still, she always remains silent in class: “I’m international and I may not pronounce things correctly. And I feel like people would judge me based on that.” Li has low confidence to speak without prior planning: “Even if I can understand what they are saying, I prepare for what I can contribute to the group discussion … but when I’m prepared to speak, the topic has already switched.”

Such behaviour corresponds to face-saving strategies, which are commonly practiced in East-Asian culture. “Face” is entitled Liǎn in Chinese, which stands for a good moral reputation. The loss of face can cause damage to an individual’s reputation and function within the community. To save face, East-Asian international students prefer to stay quiet to avoid the risk of making mistakes and being judged, or leaving a negative impression on other students and professors. And they are trying to earn reputation and acknowledgment by giving well-planned talks.

“The relationship between professor and the student is egalitarian in Canada, unlike in Korea, where it is strictly hierarchical,” said Yeri. To show respect to professors, they still hold the classroom culture of their home country by fully listening and acting silently in class.

Stereotypes and discrimination

This “silent strategy,” however, has been stereotyped as a lack of aptitude for academics and teamwork. I heard from domestic students, and even my colleagues, complaining that UBC accepts too many unqualified East-Asian international students. Such discrimination and stereotypes hold them back from socializing with domestic students and further enhances their silent-in-class behaviour.

Jiang was exposed to an unpleasant experience when domestic students indicated their unwillingness to work with her in group projects. “They didn’t want me to do that part of the work because I am Chinese and that’s the reason that I’m not capable of it.” Yeri brought up the phrase “Asian invasion,” which she saw on Reddit. People use this phrase to describe the increasing number of Asian students in UBC. Noticing that some domestic students see the Asian group as a threat, Yeri felt even more cautious about socializing with domestic students. She tried even harder to “save face” – by remaining silent, of course. (All of this was before the recent emergence of COVID-19, which raises its own set of issues.)

This leads to a vicious circle: applying a “silent strategy” to build reputation leads to a negative misinterpretation, which creates stereotypes and discrimination, making the international students even more cautious, reinforcing the “silent strategy” to build reputation.

However, we can easily break this cycle in two ways. First, domestic students should question their “negative misinterpretation,” which would suppress stereotypes and discrimination. On the other hand, East-Asian students can also help to break this cycle by stepping out of their comfort zone. I suggest they recognize the problem of cultural portability or translation. The same idea in one culture does not mean the same thing elsewhere. So why not try to participate in class and see what happens?

Xueqing Zhang is a second-year graduate student in sociology at the University of British Columbia.

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  1. Stuart Chambers / March 11, 2020 at 09:51

    The language barrier is also causing East Asian students to fail, and I see this on exams and in essays. Universities seek out international students, but many are not tested properly for academic English skills. The results are unnecessary failures. Then these students are replaced by another group of East Asian students, and the cycle continues. The universities know this occurs, but the money talks.

  2. ZarrugB / March 13, 2020 at 13:12

    Dear Xueqing and readers of the article,
    I was an international student and I did not speak any in English when I came to Canada. However, since my arrival I made every effort and with a concussion decision to learn English and be an active learner; my English was not good but it did not stop me from taking part in group discussion, do presentations, work with a team. It was hard but I did not just complain. I want to speak and be like a native speaker. This behavior is a choice, no one forced me.
    There are simple rules one must follow: 1) stop hanging around your people and culture while you are on campus; 2) stop speaking your own language on campus and in public; 3) learn and befriend some native speakers on and off campus. These are very simple rules to demystify your issue. You are learning in Canada and you may stay in Canada, English (or French) is the official language, not Chinese, Korean or Japanese.

    Let’s not blame our problems on the University (UBC, domestic students), society or others; let’s be responsible and accountable for our own learning.

    I am sorry, I do not subscribe to your argument. I have done it; my wife has done it and she comes form East-Asia.

    Trust me, it works.

    Good luck.

    Thanks for writing the article.

  3. Stuart Chambers / March 13, 2020 at 17:40

    Sorry ZarrugB, but you did not come to Canada with grade 4-5 English, and in one semester, accelerate to university-level English. It takes a bit longer than that.

  4. Shabana Ali / March 18, 2020 at 11:50

    That’s correct, even the students from Pakistan and India are also feeling same thing. In this regard, teachers could play their best role by encouraging them and not to discriminate them on the basis of language.

  5. Stuart Chambers / March 19, 2020 at 07:44

    Shabana, professors can “discriminate” on the basis of language for written assignments. If language skills are poor, international students can fail exams, essays, and entire courses because their English language skills are so weak. I have seen this in every class over a decade. It’s a sad reality that universities need to address.