Sink-or-swim for international students

For international students, it's sink or swim (Image source:

For international students, it’s sink or swim (Image source:

It is one of the basic findings of decades of research in bilingual education that language submersion is not a productive way to educate minority students. ‘Language submersion’ refers to a situation where students are made to study exclusively through the medium of a language that they have not yet fully mastered; i.e. they are learning a new language AND curriculum content at the same time; usually in the presence of peers who are native speakers of the language of instruction and in the absence of any structured language learning support.

It is beyond doubt that this type of education produces poor results, both in regards to language outcomes and in regards to content learning. In Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, Colin Baker (2006, p. 219) lists the negative consequences of submersion education:

Listening to a new language demands high concentration. It is tiring, with a constant pressure to think about the form of the language and less time to think about curriculum content. A child has to take in information from different curriculum areas and learn a language at the same time. Stress, lack of self-confidence, ‘opting-out’, disaffection and alienation may occur.

Indeed, in a famous court case, Lau vs. Nichols, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that submersion education constituted a violation of civil rights:

[…] there is no equality of treatment merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers, and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.

Research that has demonstrated the negative consequences of submersion education has mostly been conducted at the primary and, to a lesser degree, the secondary level (see Baker 2006, Ch. 10 for an overview). The relative absence of research at the tertiary level is probably due to the fact that most attention has been devoted to students who do not speak the language of instruction at all. However, in higher education a certain proficiency level in the language of instruction is typically an admission requirement. Even so, it is reasonable to assume that students who meet the language-related admission requirements but do so at a relatively low level of proficiency will still be disadvantaged by the combined weight of having to improve their linguistic proficiency and having to learn complex academic content at the same time.

A recent study of the academic progress of pharmacy students in a four-year degree at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, demonstrates exactly that (Green 2014). The study analysed the performance data of 297 students entering the program in three consecutive years and examined whether performance in the program could be predicted on the basis of student variables such as English language proficiency, ethnicity and residency status. 265 of these graduated in the end; 28 had to repeat a year; and 105 failed at least one paper at some point during their studies.

It is an admission requirement into the program where the study took place to sit an English diagnostic test. Those who fail may still enter the program but will be required to pass a remedial English paper in the first year. The number of students who were admitted despite failing the English diagnostic test was 48 and these were coded as having ‘weak English.’ The number of students who should be considered English language learners was probably higher but the study did not use further measures of English language proficiency. The data were coded for ethnicity, though (94 students were European/Maori; 186 Asian; and 17 ‘other’), and one might assume that the ‘non-local ethnicity’ students (Asian and ‘other’) included some more language learners even if their English might have been good enough to pass the diagnostic test.

The strongest predictor of success in the program (graduating within four years; not having to repeat a year; not failing a paper) was, unsurprisingly, academic performance on entry. The predictors of low performance (not graduating; having to repeat a year; failing one or more papers) were more complex, and included “having weak English, being of non-local ethnicities, being male, and having lower grades at entry” (Green 2014, p. 5).

In his discussion, the author (who is not a language but a health researcher) sums up the language problem as follows and, implicitly, provides a perfect description of language submersion in higher education:

Within our own university, the students reported on in this study that are identified as having lower English proficiency in the [admission] screening test are enrolled in a remedial programme that they are required to pass. All students are then re-screened in the second year of our programme, but none of those identified in the first year excel, and 77 % of them fail a subsequent screening test in second year, and are then directed to further remedial help and further rescreening. That the students who are initially identified in the first year continue to have academic difficulties, even at the end of the programme, in spite of having to seek remedial help, and being further re-tested suggests two possibilities. The first is that the remedial help is ineffective, but the second, and in my opinion more likely, possibility, is that students who start with weaker English will be improving their English skills over time during the course, but are unable to make up enough ground. (Green 2014, p. 8)

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about bilingual education. What is surprising is that – despite decades of research that show the detrimental effects of submersion education – submersion education in higher education has, paradoxically, come to be widely perceived as the IDEAL method of English language learning and higher education. This supposedly ideal method is, of course, not called ‘submersion education’ but ‘international education’ or ‘global education,’ and includes international students coming to study in English-dominant countries and the proliferation of programs with English as medium-of-instruction around the world.

As Green’s research demonstrates, the price for this misguided belief in the sink-or-swim method is, inter alia, paid in academic performance. References

Baker, C. (2006). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. 4th ed. Bristol, Multilingual Matters.
Green, J. (2014). The effect of English proficiency and ethnicity on academic performance and progress Advances in Health Sciences Education DOI: 10.1007/s10459-014-9523-7

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Grace

    Thank you, Ingrid, for this spot-on post!

    This submersion idea indeed has been embedded in the advertisement of international higher education, and has successfully lured many overseas students. However, when they step on the journey of overseas study, English language proficiency becomes no one’s business but themselves. They are supposed to have “magical” improvement through the time they stay in the host country; however, few students have this “natural” transformation. Furthermore, unfortunately, they are blamed for not having this big leap in their language proficiency. The focus is misplaced. The question really should be “what has been provided to them”.

    The pre-entry English proficiency test was only to show that the student has the potential to finish the program. However, now the English proficiency test is used to exempt university from offering students the support they need to develop their academic literacy. For instance, students are expected to acquire academic writing through usually, if there is any, very general instructions. The idea of submersion is widely favored because it works as a convenient, legitimate excuse for not making sufficient learning resources available to international students.

    • Thanks, Ingrid and Grace! I’ve seen exactly the same case in Thailand. Having realised that the internationalization of higher education is a great source of income (‘if the West can do it, so can we, and we can do it cheaper’), universities there are offering an increasing number of English MoI. It seems that they have also adopted the idea that, as Grace insightfully points out above, once admitted, students should look after themselves; they are left alone on their own devices to improving not only their academic skills and performance but also English proficiency. In particular international postgrad students from non-English speaking background enrolled in ‘international’ two-year masters’ program have a hard time. Having done their undergrad degree in their own country, they have to learn the unfamiliar, western-based education system quickly in a language which they need to improve at the same time. As postgrads, they are expected to start swimming upon entry into the system, without much help. And if they fail to do so, it’s seen as their own fault.

      Btw, I’m now transcribing an interview with a Burmese ex-international student who graduated with an MA in ELT from a university in Bangkok, and one of the most striking comments so far is “Now I need to go to a Western country, to get the right accent, you know, like American. Then I will get respect when I apply for a teaching job”. Even if international students manage to swim across the exploitative system to the end, language submersion seems to set off the permanent sense of ‘lack’ in their language skills and linguistic identity.

  • Paul Desailly

    I just wonder how many ‘experts’ in higher education had supported as a given the submersion idea in higher education and what were the catalysts bringing about the awareness and the subsequent improvement? I mean, the court case in America was 40 years ago. How long has this been goin’ on?
    X is an unknown quantity and a ‘spurt’ is a drip under pressure!
    What we really need is a good spurt along initiated by some good sports

  • Paul Desailly

    ‘You’ve hit the nail on the head’ Kimi,
    as we used to say when Britannia waived the rules,
    or in a more up to date Yankee expression,
    ‘you’ve nailed it’ :

    It’a all about filthy lucre. ‘Elementary my dear witless’, I hear.

    I’m loath to admit that I too succumbed to money’s thrall while teaching English, French and Esperanto in the Peoples Republic of China over a long period. Once I was established there, seeking a pay rise and flitting around the job market between state and private based universities, I realized that certain native speakers of English are preferred. No one among my Oriental employers seemed bothered or aware, though I murdered the accent, that I was mimicking famous American actors of a bygone era; it certainly made a difference however to my salary. Ironically, when I first took to TESL abroad it proved useful to take off Lord Olivier (1907-1989)

  • Virat Divyakirti

    Hi Kimie, you resonate some of my insights on the issue. What you describe is a case of Oslo syndrome – a psychopathological condition. Fact of the matter is that each individual is so small within the macro frame that resignation is often the only pragmatic option. The situation is a little graver for countries that were formerly colonized and they are also afflicted by Stockholm and Helsinki syndromes. I articulate this here:


    The last point that Dr. Piller made was really nailed it! International or global education value is needed to be applied in home-country education system, at the very least, the knowledge of genre. Based on my very own experience, I could barely manage to pass a unit during my first year due to my lack knowledge of the genre required by the unit conveyor. In addition, home-county institutions have to make sure that the English that they teach to their students is the English that is widely spoken, in a sense that the writings and the oral language being produced by the students are acceptable in other part of the globe. I guess this problem of genre may contribute to the reason of failing, in addition to the low level of language proficiency.

  • Rąwąn Alħąlwąni

    Hello Professor Piller,

    This is my first time I get across the term “submersion education” and it is true that it has negative impacts on student in some way. However, when we want to look at the time that the student have to spend on learning the language first before starting school or university, it can take much more time that a student can fall behind his or her peers according to his or her age. Otherwise, student can directly link the knowledge of ESL classes to the other classes which allow the student immediate practice of the language almost every day in every class. Yes the student has to do much work to connect and learn, but I believe that this kind of education can not be as harmful as it sounds to be if it happened in early stages like in elementary school.

    As for adults, when we look at the proficiency tests and examine their reliability and validity with what the students actually need to do well in their disciplines, we can find that there is a gap between what they study, need to know, and what they are tested for as noted above by professor Piller. The gap can simply be obvious if foreign adult students were taking ESP classes for business purposes and they have to take an IELTS exam to be admitted into university as an example. So if the proficiency test can be redesign so international students can avoid dealing with the remedial courses stage, the negative impacts of submersion education might be helpfully reduced.

    Best regards,
    Rawan Alhalwani from APPL941.

  • 44277660

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking article as it is what I, as an international student, thought about when attending very first lectures at Macquarie university. Although there are not many studies about the negative consequences of submersion education in higher level, it is acknowledged by students who do not speak the language of instruction that they are put at a disadvantaged position as they have to learn academic content and listen to the language itself at the same time. Listening to a new language attentively for at least two hours is so tiring. While native students just need to pay, let’s say, about 70% of their attention to the lecture to understand the curriculum content, undoubtedly international students need to devote more than that. However, I do not have the feeling of “opting-out”. I just think that we need to try harder so that we will not fall behind.