I’ve recently come to Sydney from Taiwan to pursue a PhD in Applied Linguistics under the supervision of Ingrid Piller and Kimie Takahashi. They’ve encouraged me to write up my experiences as a new international student in Sydney in a series of blogposts and so here is the first installment.

One of the main reasons why international students pursue higher education in an English-speaking country is to gain high levels of proficiency in English, but after a few weeks in Sydney I’m not so sure how it works. For one thing, most of the new people I meet seem to be from mainland China. Another student from Taiwan I met told me she is concerned about the slow improvement of her English. First and foremost, she had expected to acquire English quickly and easily, but she is not. “I don’t feel like my English is any better than it was before I came,” she confided. English in Taiwan is a foreign language and interactional opportunities can be fairly limited. However, she came all the way to Australia and surprisingly found herself being in classes where most of her peers are from Mainland China, and she speaks Chinese every day. Instead of English, she finds that she’s been learning various dialects of Chinese to build up friendships.

Furthermore, she finds it hard to make local Australian friends at school, despite the fact that she has a very lively, active, and easy-going personality. Interestingly, she is not the first person I’ve met here, telling me that they wish they had local Australian friends and could experience more of Australian culture. I found myself having the same wish.

Then she told me about another girl from Taiwan, who had been here for only 8 months and had already achieved the magical goal of sounding like a native! “How come?” I asked. The “miracle cure” turned out to be the fact that that girl had a native boyfriend. This anecdote inspired my interlocutor: it gave her romantic hope with the dual purpose of achieving English language proficiency and finding romance. I hope it works better for her than it did for the Japanese overseas students described in Ingrid’s and Kimie’s research here and here.

Travelling from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere and struggling with language constraints, I think the pursuit of language in a way reflects some basic needs of humans: being connected to people and place, and being recognized and supported holistically.


Piller, I., & Takahashi, K. (2006). A passion for English: desire and the language market. In A. Pavlenko (Ed.), Bilingual minds: Emotional experience, expression, and representation (pp. 59-83). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Piller, I., Takahashi, K., & Watanabe, Y. (2010). The Dark Side of TESOL: The hidden costs of the consumption of English. Cross-Cultural Studies, 20, 183-201.

Author Grace Chu-Lin Chang

Receiving a 2011 Endeavour PhD Postgraduate Award from the Australian Government to fund her research, Grace now holds a PhD degree in Linguistics from Macquarie University in Sydney. Building upon her experiences in student services as an English teacher, a student affairs coordinator, a translator and a researcher, Grace devotes herself to cross-cultural communication and social participation of transnationals.

More posts by Grace Chu-Lin Chang
  • Vera


    A warm welcome to Macquarie University and thanks for a very interesting first post!

    Indeed the pursuit of language reflects the basic needs of human relationships. However as one of the local people I spoke to about language learning and settlement in Australia aptly put it: language has become a barrier without needing to be. Like you I hope your friend is lucky enough to find that elusive miracle cure!

    I wish you all the best in your PhD journey and look forward to reading more on your experiences.


    • Grace


      Thank you so much for your warm welcome and encouragement!

      The saying is wise! Indeed language doesnt have to be a barrier if more understanding and recognition can be built up along with genuine relationships among people.

      Best wishes to your finishing up and a wonderful new page afterwards!

  • khan

    Hi Grace,

    Very interesting post indeed. Before I make any comment on your post, I would like to congratulate you for beginning your doctoral journey under the supervision of Professor Piller and Dr. Takahashi. They are such wonderful scholars and I am deeply impressed with their serious commitment to giving confidence and voice to students . Lucky you. Now about your post, I think it raises some key questions: Do people really improve their language competence by living in countries where TL is spoken as first language by the majority? To what extent could they go for acquiring competence in English? I read about surgery performed on young ones in Korea in order to enable them to speak English with native accent but not about making boyfriend/girlfriend for the sake on language improvement.

    I liked your summing up. Very powerful lines. Yes, the main rationale for developing language by human was cooperation( I am drawing on Habermas here)

    Wish you a very productive stay,


    • Grace

      Hi Khan,

      Thank you very much for your encouragement and comments!

      I remember I was shocked by my landlord’s wife on the first day arriving in Sydney, who speaks very limited English although she immigrated to Australia from Korea one or two decades ago. We communicated mostly by gestures and smiles. Moreover, I met a girl from China recently, who holds full scholarship for her excellence, and she was telling me her English is still very bad after having been in AU for seven years. She conducts medicine experiments at lab with other international students, none of whom are native speakers, and her supervisor is from Hong-Kong so they communicate in Chinese.

      As for the desire to acquire English proficiency, I think merely the fact one wishes to be someone else, whoever speaks English natively, is a considerably psychological depreciation to one’s own identity and self-esteem. English has made them belittle themselves.

      All the best to you too!


  • Grace, You may interested in this upcoming April 15 webinar: The ‘Genius of Australian Multiculturalism’?


  • Xiaoxiao Chen

    Thanks Grace, for this very interesting post. Ive also come across some immigants who have been living here for many years but cannot speak good English. It seems that they do fairly well here without the grasp of the English language. But they may also have problems due to their insufficient language skills that we dont know… Looking forward to reading more of your series.

  • Hi Grace,

    I have some experience on this issue from the other side of the fence. I was born in Sydney and I’ve been raised in Australia. I teach English language and I have also dated women who were Asian students at universities in Sydney. I have also lived in Korea and know what it’s like to live in a country where you don’t speak the native language.

    In both situations there’s a common link between visitors who hope to learn the language but can’t seem to find a way – they are reluctant to leave their cultural comfort zone. We all have an idealised version of ourselves in mind when we imagine our life in another country. However, when we live there, it’s often much easier to make friends with our countrymen than it is to create a new social circle or foreigners from nothing. It happens on a microlevel – should I go out with my new Chinese classmates, or should I join a university club or do some extracurricular activity by myself and try making friends with strangers?

  • Grace

    Hi Chris,
    Thank you very much for your comment!
    It would be very fascinating to know more about “cultural comfort zone.” Is it really they are reluctant to leave their comfort zone, after they chose to leave their mother country and pursuit study overseas? If so, why? If not, what possible factors are? : )

  • Royo

    Part one …..Unfortunately, it is true that some overseas students may have to encounter linguistic discrimination in their everyday lives and meet numerous obstacles to succeed in entering the local society. Do we think more language tuition should be offered to help students and new immigrants who come from non-English speaking background to integrate? Do we should appeal that Aussie people should reinforce their habit of tolerance, and keep an open mind toward overseas students and newcomers without racial bias? Or do we really need to be more self-critical to find out subjective factors rather than objective factors? I met some Asian students who got together to grumble about this country and local people and their peers, I think maybe they are suffering from culture shock, obviously.

  • Royo

    Part 2……But on the other hand, some of them in fact they may never regret not having studied English hard in their home countries and after arriving here. It is a tough task for most of them: have to overcome many difficulties to adapt themselves to a new environment and have to catch up with their studies. I hope the government, the local council and educational institutions can take care of foreign students well not only targeting a bigger education industry but also taking all possible steps to provide a positive learning environment without prejudice for them.

  • Pat

    I believe we can learn English everywhere in the world. We can use English in the daily life, learn from internet, news, cartoon, Youtube, make friends in Facebook etc. Anyway and Anytime.

  • 大家中国人和台湾人!If your English is terrible and you’d like to improve it, then you can join Australia China Youth Association (ACYA MQ). Our group was started by Australians learning Chinese at Macquarie. Look for the red banner in 0week.