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This chapter applies a language planning framework to examine the ways in which support is given to students from non-English speaking backgrounds in two health science faculties at an Australian university. As such, it constitutes an example of micro language planning, rather than dealing with the more common macro-level phenomena that characterises most language planning studies. Here, the framework of language planning is used to cover not only language – in the sense of broad communication – but other aspects of academic participation as well. The analysis identifies the types of institutional policies that have been, or are in the process of being formulated, the agents responsible for supporting students’ needs, and the targets of such support. The study is based upon data from interviews with participants involved in the language planning processes, digital recordings of two planning sessions, and other documents integral to these professional training contexts.

Baldauf (2004) has recently suggested that the exploration and development of micro language planning as a genre provides a propitious way to analyse and solve small scale language problems. Whereas most of the language policy and language planning undertaken to date has been of a macro nature, dealing with the macro-structural environment, typically at the national and super-national levels, micro language planning occurs in micro-structural environments such as particular sectors of economic or social activity (Kaplan and Baldauf 1997: 117; Baldauf 2006). More specifically, Baldauf (2004: 229) defines micro planning as referring ‘to cases where businesses, institutions, groups or individuals create what can be recognized as a language policy and plan to utilize and develop their language resources’. Accordingly, such planning occurs as a response to ‘their own needs, their own ‘language problems’, their own requirement for language management’ (Baldauf 2004: 29).

While the school domain in various countries has frequently been given attention as an important context for language planning, albeit one of the most complex (Spolsky 2007), universities have also been identified as important sites where the development of language policy and language planning is particularly pertinent. Kaplan and Baldauf (1997: 258–259) suggest that tertiary language, literacy and communication policies are needed by Australian universities to serve the needs of various kinds of students, including many secondary graduates, indigenous, mature age, deaf and blind, as well as overseas students or those from culturally and linguistically different backgrounds. They conclude, however, that Australian universities have been negligent in developing such planning. Clyne (2001) exemplifies the difficulties in developing and implementing a university-wide language policy at one university, and identified obstacles as including the changing of personnel at the highest central administrative level, competition between the central administrative level and the individual faculties, in addition to broader social and political trends.

In addition to Clyne’s attempt within the university setting, a few other instances of ‘top-down’ language planning and policy making covering a variety of issues have been observed in a small number of Australian universities during the 1990s (Clyne 2001: 214–215), at least partly due to the efforts of various linguists throughout the country. Nevertheless, some on-going policy making and planning has been inevitable at most, if not all, universities, in view of the growing numbers of students from non-English-speaking backgrounds, especially overseas students, enrolled as undergraduate or graduate students. Such policy or planning may be very formal or overt, as contained in language planning documents and pronouncements, or on the other hand, may be of a less formalised or more covert nature. Alternatively, the planning may stand somewhere between these two ends of the continuum and be planning that is reflected in informal statements of intent (cf. Baldauf 2004: 228).

This chapter consists of an analysis of micro-level language planning in relation to non-English-speaking background (NESB) students, generally, but not necessarily international students (see below), where the setting is two health science-related Faculties (Medicine and Pharmacy) at an Australian university (hereafter referred to as AU). The study constitutes an application of the principles of language policy and language planning to a micro situation but in fact deals with much more than just language (here intended to encompass communication in a broad sense). In this situation, the policy and planning concern, in addition to language issues, the academic and clinical skills which are necessary for tertiary students to participate effectively within their academic community. While it is unusual for language planning studies to encompass non-language issues, the framework is an effective one for investigating these areas which, in any case, are intimately interrelated. Although the language planning approach has been used in relation to a multitude of language-related issues in the past (cf. Kaplan and Baldauf 1997; Spolsky 2007), its application to the planning at university level of support for students’ language and academic skills constitutes a new approach (cf. Marriott 2006). Amongst other things, it allows us to see the kinds of institutional policies in place at various levels and also the kinds of processes involved in the formation of such policies. Furthermore, since the majority of studies that deal with academic discourse socialisation typically focus upon the student (cf. Duff, this volume), application of the language planning framework enables us to examine other major participants in these contexts.


Although there are major differences in the multilingual and multicultural background characteristics of the students across the two faculties, the growth of newly-arrived international students is a new phenomenon in both faculties and given the expectation of the continuation of this trend, language planning activity is currently being accelerated in both faculties. For the purpose of enrolment at the university, students are categorised as either local or international, but from the perspective of home language or cultural background, this categorisation is unsatisfactory, given the variety of backgrounds found among local students themselves (cf. Yoshimitsu 2004; Wakimoto, this volume). However, the majority of international students are from non-English-speaking backgrounds (NESB), even though a few may have English-speaking home backgrounds, and they have resided in Australia for 10 years or less.

The investigation aims to identify some of the micro planning processes that are being undertaken at the faculty level, including policy decisions and their implementation, in relation to students’ language and academic skills. The few studies undertaken to date on micro language planning have largely been evaluative examples of policy and planning, rather than studies that focus upon the planning process, including the development of micro policies or their implementation (Baldauf 2004: 233). Athough Clyne’s (2001) study represents an exception to the claim, my study also aims to contribute to the development of the genre of micro language planning. The specific purpose of the study, therefore, is to examine the type of language planning that occurs in relation to the support for overseas students in the two university faculties, and, at the same time, to consider the nature of the language planning process.

Until approximately three or four years ago, the Medical Faculty1 at AU was characterised by a very high proportion of local students, the large majority – but not all – having English-speaking home backgrounds, but since that time, a growing number of international students from non-English-speaking home backgrounds have entered the degree course. Many of these international students belong to one of three main (plus several smaller) cohorts of overseas students who are sponsored by their own governments (or other organisations). Another cohort of students is currently at AU for two to three years while a new medical faculty is being established in their home country. In contrast, the Pharmacy Faculty has for a considerable time had a majority of students of non-Anglo backgrounds, with a 2004 survey of fourth-year students in one course revealing that 55% of them were not born in Australia and that 53% spoke a language other than English at home. However, here too, the number of international students has increased dramatically over the past couple of years, with most of them having come to AU as individual students. As with medicine, most of the international students are concentrated in one particular course, and total approximately 25% of the 2005 intake. The two faculty sites of medicine and pharmacy thus provide an important opportunity to observe the development and implementation of language policy and planning at the outset of growth in international students.

As is commonly the case with Australian medical training, the educational settings themselves involve not only the main university site, but include an amalgam of other clinical (hospital) sites where students undertake further training in their later years. Pharmacy students are sent out on placements to pharmacies during their third and fourth years, and upon graduation they will undergo a pre-registration year that is run by the Pharmacy Board. Finally they need to take an examination at the end of that year to become registered. The overseas students may take this pharmacy internship in Australia or else return to their own country for this purpose. As result, students require advanced levels of English communicative competence (in its broadest sense) in their specific fields not only for their degree study but also for their following internship or preregistration year and final examinations.


Kaplan and Baldauf (1997) and Baldauf (2004) inform this study through their exploratory considerations of the notion – possibly a new genre, as suggested by Baldauf (2004: 227) – of micro language policy and planning. In the limited number of micro language planning studies to date, models designed for macro language policy and planning have been frequently applied. Among the diverse number of macro language planning models or frameworks in existence, I will draw upon Cooper’s (1989: 98) basic accounting scheme for the study of language planning, shown in Table 1. In brief, as Table 1 depicts, the eight components of Cooper’s framework cover (1) What actors (2) attempt to include what behaviours (3) of which people (4) for what ends (5) under what conditions (6) by what means (7) through what decision-making process, and (8) with what effect?

In addition to macro and micro level language policy and planning, the concept of meso planning is also in current use, referring to some level between macro and micro. Given the lack of clarity between these boundaries, I will apply the concept of micro planning for this current study.


1. What actors (e.g. formal elites, influentials, counterelites, non-elite policy implementers)

2. attempt to influence what behaviours

A. structural (linguistic) properties of planned behaviour (e.g. homogeneity, similarity)

B. purposes/functions for which planned behaviour is to be used

C. desired level of adoption (awareness, evaluation, proficiency, usage)

3. of which people

A. type of target (e.g. individuals v. organisations, primary v. intermediary)

B. opportunity of target to learn planned behaviour

C. incentives of target to learn/used planned behaviour

D. incentives of target to reject planned behaviour

4. for what ends

A. overt (language related behaviours)

B. latent (non-language related behaviours, the satisfaction of interests)

5. under what conditions

A. situational (events, transient conditions)

B. structural

1. political

2. economic

3. social/demographic/ecological

C. cultural

1. regime norms

2. cultural norms

3. socialisation of authorities

D. environmental (influences from outside the system)

E. informational (data required for a good decision)

6. by what means (e.g. authority, force, promotion, persuasion)

7. through what decision making process (decision rules)

8. with what effect.

Table 1: Cooper’s (1989) language planning framework


The data used in this study come from interviews undertaken by myself in 2005 with two administrative personnel (including one senior faculty manager), two teachers (including one senior departmental head), and five language advisors and support staff, one of whom also provided some written comments to my general questions. It is customary for language advisors to have an ESL or linguistics background and in this sample, one of them had also previously studied five years of a medical course. In addition, I digitally recorded two planning meetings held between academic staff and a language advisor. University course documents from the internet and other materials resources provided by a language advisor were also collected. I had intended to include a sample of international and local students in my study, as well as more teaching staff, but insufficient time and difficulties in recruiting volunteers limited the sample obtained in 2005.

In order to provide anonymity to the informants of this study, generalisations will sometimes be used and particular individuals will not be identified. The interviews took the format of semi-structured to open interviews, where some of the topics of discussion were advanced by the interviewer. In my role as interviewer, I was aware of the delicate and confidential nature of some of the content of the interviews, including what was said, and I perceived that there was also the omission of other content. The interviewees, as employees of the university, are important stakeholders, not only in various planning activities but also in their implementation. Their want or need to have their own work seen in a positive light may have also influenced some of the discourse of the interviews (cf. Block 1995). My participation in this project as an outsider has reinforced my understanding of the difficulty of fieldwork, especially when undertaken on a cross-sectional basis as here, and with only very partial knowledge of many aspects of the whole social situation. In addition, the amount of data to date has been inadequate to allow a comprehensive analysis of the context. In order to verify the draft, I invited three informants to read it and have tried to incorporate their comments or suggestions where possible.



The medical faculty at AU offers numerous degree courses, but one main course in particular is the predominant object of considerable explicit language policy and language planning, even though NESB international students are not restricted to this course. The content and teaching approach of this particular degree course was re-planned in recent years and accordingly, reference to the ‘new curricula’ is a common theme in the discourse of all the faculty staff – managerial, teaching/clinical, and administrative and language advisors. Students undertake their first two years on the university’s campus, followed by a further three years at clinical sites which are teaching hospitals.

A number of types of micro level policy making and planning implementation are evident in the medical faculty. Firstly, one senior faculty executive seems to have assumed the overall responsibility for the expansion and management of international students in the course. In turn, various faculty committees assume responsibility for certain aspects of policy formulation and implementation and, ultimately, report to this senior executive. As a part of its broader student support subcommittee, the faculty has formalised its support for international students through the establishment in 2003 of an International Student Support Service (ISSS). This service is described on the faculty’s webpage as follows:

Extract 1

The aim of the support service is to assist international students in making the transition to study and life in Australia and in dealing with the ongoing academic and cultural demands placed on them as they progress through their degrees. The service, then, has two main aims: that is, to provide English language, learning and cultural support, as well as pastoral care and ongoing orientation for international students.

The recruitment of international students has been developed in recent years to parallel the recruitment of local students in that, apart from an academic score (such as an International Baccalaureate) an interview schedule has been devised which is implemented by AU staff in the overseas students’ main countries of origin and for which an oral discourse component is designed to reflect local cultural content. Such a policy is operable because relationships have been developed with appropriate institutions in specific countries where the recruitment takes place. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the successful cohorts of students also receive scholarships (which also cover university fees) from their respective governments or from other organisations to study at AU.

Another policy developed by the faculty was the implementation of a three-month transition program for international scholarship cohorts, commencing in 2000. While one of its functions is to provide a transition to medical education in Australia taught through the medium of English, the annual program which commences in early October was also planned to accommodate those students from overseas countries where the academic calendar does not correspond with the Australian one. Although an academic staff member officially coordinates the program under the direction of a faculty committee, the part-time support staff who was appointed to assist in the program and to teach one of the three subjects within it appears to manage a lot of the administrative tasks as well as provide pastoral care to these students during the remainder of the year as well.

One of the early policies developed by the faculty to support the international students while in the medical course was the appointment of expert language staff (advisors) whose primary responsibility was to provide support to these students. With the enrolment of approximately 46 international students in 2000, mainly made up of one cohort of students holding scholarships, one advisor was engaged by the faculty on a part-time basis, increasing to full-time in the following year as the numbers of international students increased. With the establishment of ISSS in 2003, this advisor assumed the role of co-ordinator of the support service. The faculty’s website reports that the co-ordinator has been extensively involved in the collaboration and consultation with academic and administrative staff on teaching and support initiatives as well as on issues relating to international and local students. Such work ‘includes active participation in several curriculum implementation committees and collaboration with academic staff on the development of teaching programs and support materials for the Year 1 and Year 2 cohorts’.

A further two academic support staff were appointed in 2003, at first on a part-time basis. Continuing annual growth in two of the international student cohorts, in particular, reaching about 130 (in the new intake) in 2005 (equalling about one-third of the total first year intake), have seen advisor staff numbers increase to four (three full-time and one part-time), with two situated at the main campus and another two staff at the clinical sites. One of these four advisors also provides support to students in other health sciences area, apart from those in the main medical course. Interestingly, the Faculty of Medicine had not previously drawn upon the university’s language and academic skills unit up until this period of growth in international students, having felt no need for such services for their predominantly local students. In other words, the appointment of advisors was a direct policy decision and is one which is central to the strategy of providing support for the new groups of international students. Furthermore, contrary to most of the rest of the university, the faculty employs a specially designated label for these staff, International Student Advisor (ISA), which describes their function in relation to this particular category of students. (In contrast, in other faculties throughout the university, ‘international student advisor’ is the title for staff holding administrative positions and who manage administrative matters concerning the international students.)

One ISA explained his/her role as follows:

Extract 2

... in a traditional (X language and academic skills X) role, it’s strictly academic support, and um, ah – it can be one-to-one consultations, on particular academic topics, or there may be general courses that are running, study skills, and quite often, we like to work with staff within the faculties on particular discipline-specific programs, and they can run as either adjunct programs, that’s outside the curriculum time, but using the content to address language and academic skills, or it actually may become a part of the curriculum, so we may go in and do some guest lectures, so we may do some tutorials as part of the curriculum, so, the med positions were a bit different, in that it was meant to encompass not only the language and academic support, but to also have a more... I suppose caretaker’s probably too strong a word – pastoral sounds a little bit too, um, ministerial (both laugh).

... basically, we would be the first port of call if they had any issues, and we can... refer them on to counselling, or to financial support, or to ah, um, visa experts.

... It’s not just language, it’s sort of a much more of an over-arching role keeping track, and because there’s smaller numbers of students, it was possible to do this, so I would have individual interviews with each student at the beginning of the year, and keep track, and so...

So it’s very different. In the other faculties, ah, with the numbers involved, it’s simply not possible to have that kind of close contact.

... It’s starting to get to be a bit of a stretch now ((laughs)), but yes, we definitely have more of a ah – relationship, I suppose, with the students, ah, over a period of time.

As the above extract indicates, an expanded role was attached to the role of the ISAs in the medical faculty in contrast with the role given to language and academic skills advisors in most other areas of the university. This informant confirmed that the expanded role of the advisor was due to the original faculty planning, advancing two reasons for design of this expansive role in her on-going narrative:

Extract 3

Int:   and who planned that originally? Do you know?

X:    That was originally the faculty. And I think the way that the roles have developed even further, and I think that there’s probably two reasons for that, one is that internal ethos of the Faculty itself, because initially, the program was just for medical students, and a lot of doctors involved that were teaching, and as part of that, they’re of course interested in the whole person, so they take a very active interest in the welfare of their students, it’s quite different from other faculties ((laughs)) ... but (they’re) quite prepared to, to put resources back into the students, so... it’s partly that at the management level there was a strong commitment to um, international um, student welfare, but also, it was also (gratuitous), in terms of history, in that the time I started, the faculty was moving into a new curriculum, and so as a result of that, there have been a number of, I suppose, planning and curriculum committees, um, that I’ve been involved in, so... we’ve been able to take a much more – um, systemic approach to things...

For this informant, the low student-advisor ratio in medicine is a very positive design feature and arose as a result of the faculty’s planning and funding. Further mention was made of a recent faculty initiative to provide funding to the ISSS co-ordinator to hire some individual ‘content’ tutors for certain students who were categorised as being ‘at-risk’ of failing a component of their course due to language problems or other causes. As with various other planning in the faculty, this scheme is not targeted only at international NESB students but covers both local and international, ESB and NESB students (even though the scheme is funded through international student fees). This initiative provides an important example of the growing trend to plan complementary support; these ‘content’ tutors were employed to complement the work undertaken by the ISAs on language and approaches to study and the like. Similarly, a new pilot program will commence next year in which a clinician has been hired to work with the ISAs on a joint teaching program. These examples thus reveal the dynamic nature of the planning processes in this context.

The placement of ISAs in the faculty and the broad role accorded to them is viewed from a slightly different perspective by another informant who suggested that much importance was placed upon the provision of support for international students since poor performance could lead to the withdrawal of the students’ scholarship which, in turn, would result in the loss of fees for the faculty. Economic and political motivations may thus also constitute other important factors behind the faculty’s support policy, though interestingly, support schemes do not seem to have been developed as extensively in other faculties, despite a similar growing reliance upon external income in the light of decreasing federal funding.

The co-ordinator of ISSS is responsible to the above-mentioned senior faculty manager who appears to maintain an on-going active interest in the problems of students and the support provided to them, amongst many other issues. In turn, the other advisors are coordinated by this senior advisor, in line with the managerial reporting system currently in place within the university. In contrast with some other faculties, these expert advisors participate in some of the main committees of the medical faculty and thus have ongoing involvement in certain policy-making and planning of curricula and related academic/clinical matters, and accordingly, are also involved in the dissemination networks. For instance, as a member of the curriculum committees, one ISA has had involvement in assessment-related issues. He/she has had input on policy and also reviews the examination papers for Years one and two before students sit the examinations in order to assess any potential language or cultural issues that might affect international and local NESB students unfairly. It is likely that this practice will extend to latter years as the roles of the ISAs in the clinical years increase. In addition, the ISA analyses the results and looks for trends in how international students perform on certain questions. In turn, this information is referred back to those who are involved in designing the assessment. Other involvement of the ISAs in the faculty includes their participation in the Faculty Planning Retreats and the individual year level planning days where they may be asked to comment upon language and cultural issues for students. This level of involvement and cooperation with faculty staff on issues affecting international students through committees and other practices of the faculty is rare for the language and academic skills advisors in other faculties of the university. Although this depth of participation does not yet characterise the work of the of the ISAs in the clinical sites, it must be acknowledged that elaborate support planning has been undertaken for students’ earlier years.

While the positioning of ISAs within the faculty was clearly a result of faculty level planning, the actual development of policy in relation to how the ISAs support students is an important topic for further inquiry on the basis of more in-depth data. It appears that considerable discussion and planning about the support roles of the ISAs occurs at the various committees in which the ISAs participate, and sometimes new unplanned practices may emerge in various situations which are then taken back to committees for further discussion and formalisation. It was suggested by an informant that the formulation of policy may be preceded by a developmental stage which constitutes a response to new and often not previously foreseen events and issues. Given that support to international students in the clinical areas is relatively new, some interim policy may arise in response to a specific situation which subsequently is reviewed and formalised later.


Reliance upon a language advisor in its provision of meeting the needs of international and other NESB students is also a main policy at the pharmacy faculty. Although the position of a parttime individual expert advisor has been in place for some time, a new replacement advisor was appointed in 2003, at a time which corresponded with a sizeable increase in enrolments from international students. Commencing on the basis of one day a week, this advisor has since increased to two to three days per week, depending upon the time of the year, and some involvement in academic planning committees is also starting to occur. The formal description of this appointment included the ‘ability to identify students’ language and learning needs and develop appropriate programs and course materials’, to have a ‘rapport with students and sensitivity to needs of different groups, particularly international and NESB students’ and the ‘capacity to liaise with faculty staff in the development of appropriate programs’. The policy here, therefore, was broader in that the support role was for all students with language and learning needs.

Recently, a series of new policies have been designed as a means of developing the communicative competence of the linguistically and culturally diverse pharmacy students in that faculty. In 2005, after discussions at the faculty level, a special Health Sciences Screening Test was administered to all first year students in two courses, with the purpose of early identifying students who might experience communication difficulties. The results of this process were planned to provide feedback to individual students as well as inform the faculty’s language support programme, principally run by the language advisor. Third- and fourth-year students also receive communication skills assessments as a part of their work experience placements. Raising staff’s awareness of communications skills teaching and assessment issues, and strategies for identifying students with communication problems are also being incorporated into professional development programs for the teaching staff. A major faculty project on communication skills mapping is also bringing to the fore the centrality of communication in the curricula, and a drive to promote innovative teaching methods that integrate the teaching of communications skills with course content delivery is being promoted by the language advisor and others.


Here I wish to consider three issues, two of which relate to the basic components of the language planning framework introduced above, and the other which concerns the nature of the language planning process itself.


In an interview, the departmental head in pharmacy emphasised the centrality of the role of the language advisor in helping students with their communication problems, as seen in Extract 4.

Extract 4

... we continue to, like, in my department, I continue to reinforce to staff the importance of all of us being vigilant, even if we’re in a prac class, with students, on a one-on-one basis, and if it’s obvious that they have some communication difficulties, to just have a quiet chat to the student about the need to try to do something about that. In other words, you know, we can’t force the student to go and see X, but, you know, we can certainly strongly encourage the student to seek assistance...

... Not only myself, but other people, other staff in this department, you know, you might come across a student who, as part of a requirement in a subject is doing an oral presentation, it may be up in the prac lab, upstairs, it becomes obvious that there is some language problem, and so most of the staff in this department would be well aware of the need to identify that student and have a chat to them and encourage them to see X, I usually say to the student after the discussion, that please think about going to see X, would you like me to make contact with X on your behalf, coz I can’t really do that, for privacy reasons, unless I’ve got their approval, and some of them do, I’ve actually sat here and sent an email to X, saying I’d be grateful if you’d have a chat to Mary, or whatever the name of the student is, he or she is with me at the moment, and I’d be grateful if you would catch up with them, so, yes, so that’s usually the way it’s done.

The evidence here suggests that the principal overt departmental as well as individual policy is to have the language advisor provide support to students experiencing communication problems. Whether and how this teacher or others adjust their teaching behaviours in the academic contact situations could not be ascertained from the single interview. What is evident in Extract 4 above is a policy where maximum responsibility for supporting overseas students lies with the language advisor, and not with the academic/clinical staff who teach the students. The justification mentioned by this particular informant was that the requisite expertise for assisting students was possessed by such specialists, as seen in Extract 5.

Extract 5

Int:   Um, do you sort of have any input with X, about what [he/she] should be doing, overall, to help the students, or – ?

Y:    Um, no, because I take the view that um, I’m not – I’m not an expert in language and communication, so one of the things that I say to students is, you know, when I’ve had this gentle chat with them, is, you know, please go and see X, he/she can assess you and see what sort of assistance he/she thinks you need...

The language advisors for medicine who were located on the university campus did not report on themselves being positioned in such a manner by the teaching staff. In fact, one contrasted her current role with how she was positioned when in another faculty in earlier years.

Extract 6

... when I was at XXX, often it was seen as the role, send them to X, and (X he/she X) will fix them up.

When describing certain difficulties in developing contacts with teaching/clinical staff at the hospitals, one advisor actually mentioned wanting to have staff refer students to him/her, since in these contexts the presence and visibility of the advisors remains low at the clinical sites (in comparison with the campus situation). One advisor explained the reason for advisors not being well-known at the clinical sites involved at least four main factors: the role of the ISA was only extended to the hospital sites in 2004 and thus constituted a relatively new position; the diversity of locations; the very large number of teaching staff; and the part-time nature of one of the ISA appointments. In these situations, it is thought to be more likely that senior staff such as the Clinical Deans, the Clinical supervisors and the year level convenors/rotation co-ordinators would refer students to the advisors rather than to receive referrals from other staff.

The view expressed in extracts 4 and 5 above seems to imply a separation between communication and the content of that communication, in this case, the disciplinary content of the students’ courses. It is possible that the perceptions by teaching staff concerning their lack of expertise in language or communicative matters may be somewhat accurate, but whether this justification is sufficient to mitigate their responsibilities to novice learners without adjustments of their own teaching styles (or other aspects of their teaching behaviour) deserves consideration. The important recognition by Neustupný (2004) and others of the complexity of academic contact situations and the necessity for the various participants to make adjustments in their interaction with each other seems to be largely unrecognised. Other chapters here, including those by Yoshimitsu (this volume), Imafuku (this volume), and Nemoto (this volume) make reference to the necessity for participants in social interactive contexts, including the classroom, to make necessary adjustments in the face of the multiple communicative and cultural norms possessed by participants in the various communities of practice in which they participate.

The separation of disciplinary content and communication, as presented above, however, is not consistent with the discourse of the language advisors themselves. In fact, the language advisors frequently commented on the strategies they employed to familiarise themselves with the students’ study content in order to provide support to the latter. For example, a language advisor working at a clinical site stated:

Extract 7

... I’m not a content lecturer, I can’t be a content lecturer in medicine... so we’re looking at ways of supporting the language and learning issues of students, running ongoing weekly tutorials, for (weak) students, I’ve called them a (broad) umbrella, of communication skills, and OSCE (Objective Structured Clinical Examinations) practice, so we’re practicing interviewing patients, simulating patients – well, each other as simulated patients, sometimes we go in a ward and practice interviewing patients, practice examination skills, perhaps of the neck and upper chest area, (the leg), usually things that are easy to examine in a classroom, looking at sensitive communication, like talking about sexual history, taking, an alcohol history, dealing with an overly talkative patient.

The complex connection between communication and content is further revealed:

Extract 8

... sometimes I’ll help them individually too, by going with them onto a ward, and giving feedback on their, interviewing skills, sometimes that also entails a level of clinical knowledge, medical knowledge, which I don’t have– I can give a certain amount of feedback, and I tend to gain that knowledge as I work with the students, and if they’re seeing a patient where I know quite a bit about that kind of case, because I’ve actually been in those lectures, I can be quite helpful.

The above example in extracts 7 and 8 reveal some of the ways in which the ISA through his/her own participation with, or for, the students in the clinical situations develop sufficient skills in order to be able to provide meaningful training to students, when required.

The difficulties facing language advisors who need to develop their own support program emerged; how to establish and build up contact with teachers and how to identify the students’ needs were not easily accomplished for some of them when they first started in their appointments, as reported by the following medical ISA:

Extract 9

I think the things that I’ve found really useful... is where we’re able to develop – what I find hardest is that I’m – took me a long time with the (XXX), to find out who I should be talking to... where do I start, it wasn’t clear to me, who I could talk to, or finding out what the students were doing and things, some things were just, not that easy to gain, I think the thing that when you’re able to develop a bit of a communication with the staff, it makes what you do with the students much more effective, if I – the more that we’re able to get feedback from the staff on what they’re finding. so, it’s partly the people in the Faculty letting us know what difficulties or challenges they’re having in relation to all students, but in particular, to international students, so we can be more responsive, I suppose, to the needs, rather than trying to guess what the needs are, and then sometimes meeting them or not meeting them, depending.

Over time, however, it seems that the ISAs do become successful in establishing links with staff and as a result, faculty staff may refer students to them and also consult them on language-related matters.

An advisor reported on the difficulty of designing and implementing a support plan at the clinical sites, at least partly because many of the clinicians involved in teaching or training the students were unfamiliar with the role that the advisor played or even of the person’s existence, as shown in the following extract:

Extract 10

At this stage, it’s really just breaking the ground to it, getting people to I think, touching base with tutors, informing tutors, and making sure that we connect okay with the clinical sites... there’s actually a lot of clinical tutors (who) did not even know we existed, I could be quite blunt and say I am sure there are a lot out there who would not even know we exist still, and if they did know we existed, they wouldn’t have a clue what we did...

In continuation of this theme in Extract 10, the same advisor wished for ‘more credibility associated with our work’. Partly as a means of fulfilling an informative purpose, several advisors have prepared research or conference papers which describe certain aspects of their work. In earlier years, it appears that administrative staff, including senior academic managers at the clinical sites performed a pastoral role in terms of managing students’ problems and counselling them. In recent times, the power relations between the various participants in the clinical sites, especially between the established clinicians and the newcomer language advisors, may be relevant in how the various relationships are negotiated but this issue was outside the scope of the present study.

In both faculties, language advisors reported on a growing number of collaborative arrangements where they might be called upon to advise teaching staff on how to better manage the international students in their classes or where teaching staff may have some input into the design of support programs run by the advisors, or even instances where both teaching staff/clinicians and language advisors run design and implement special training programs.


In the medical faculty, the official overt policy is that the language advisors are appointed to provide support to the international students across the faculty. In reality, however, it seems that they are expected mostly – but not exclusively – to assist students in one particular course. Moreover, it appears to be the NESB international scholarship holders who receive the most attention, and no doubt this policy is economically motivated, as mentioned above. The policy is also exemplified by the special pre-course bridging program for two main groups of international scholarship holders; there was also a faculty plan to offer a similar but shorter bridging program to another scholarship cohort in 2004, but the plan was not implemented due to difficulties in coordinating students’ arrival on the program. In 2005, however, a bridging program was provided to this other group.

Although the official policy of the faculty is to focus support on its international students, such a position varies with the policy throughout the rest of the university where the language advisors, who are mostly appointed to a central university unit and positioned in a faculty context, are employed to provide language and academic skills support to any student – international or local and irrespective of the home background (NESB or ESB) – typically through the form of short courses and workshops, individual sessions or small group works (as described in the unit’s website). In practice, the ISAs interact with all students in the medical faculty who either come to them individually or who are referred to them, or who attend any training session they might organise. The language advisors reported as follows:

Extract 11

Int:   You only see the international students, is that right?

Y:    No, no actually we’re able – we see all students, but we – I mean, because my title’s like international student advisor um, I think what we see all students, but we probably focus more of our energy on international students, but, for example, if any student wants to make an appointment, like I see – we see quite a lot of, um, Australian students from non-English-speaking backgrounds...

In estimating the proportion of students he/she supports, this advisor estimated that about 5% are Australian students, 20–25% (from) are local students of non-English speaking background and the remainder, internationals students.

The target of the language advisors’ support was also described by another informant:

Extract 12

It’s a dedicated role for international students, in particular to look after a group of MARA scholarship students, and then also to support other international students, and then that can get extended to also including local students who’d like some help, or are referred for help.

In current times, the provision of support for international students is sometimes regarded negatively by certain university personnel who employ the justification of ‘equality’. As one of the informants claimed:

Extract 13

On a less positive note, those tutors who are very anti-international student seem to view the presence of the international student advisor as confirming their view that international students need extra help or someone who is creating an unfair playing field in favour of international fee paying students.

The attitude reported above reveals a disregard by such university personnel of the wide variety of students’ backgrounds (with similarities as well as dissimilarities) – in terms of their background disciplinary knowledge, learning styles, and communicative competence in a second/foreign language.


The existence of multiple levels of policy development and planning seems to emerge from this study. In other words, in the context examined here, language planning seems to be a reiterative process. Designation of expert language advisors at the faculty unit level covers the personnel component of a language planning policy, but at this level there is no commensurate design of the content of the policy or means of implementation, apart from the broad specification of providing ‘English language, learning and cultural support, as well as pastoral care and ongoing orientation for international students’, as described above. Consequently, the task of the design of the policy support content as well as its implementation plan becomes the responsibility of these language advisors. The planning process undertaken by the language advisors involves the typical language planning process – identification of problems, the devising of a plan, and implementation of the plan. This planning process can be undertaken by an individual advisor, by a group of advisors, or by advisors in conjunction with a faculty committee and/or university staff. However, because the advisors are not necessarily familiar with the content of the students’ course or actually involved in them, and because they are not usually disciplinary/clinical specialists, the identification of students’ problems and the design of appropriate courses of action are not easy tasks for these staff.

The central issue of problem identification in the language planning process, corresponding to noting in the language management framework (cf. Neustupný 2004) is the focus of other ongoing research (Marriott 2004, 2006). How problems are identified and by whom, and how these are communicated between participants (such as students, teachers, language advisors, course planners, administrative staff) are important aspects of the planning process.


The principal aim of this paper has been to explore a situation of micro language policy and planning within a university context. Much of the research to date on overseas students’ participation in new academic communities of practice has focused upon the student participants themselves, but there is a need to examine participants other than the students, not the least being teachers, who, in the case of this medical faculty are frequently part-time or sessional clinicians and who are not readily accessible for research interviews. Nevertheless, the ways in which such teachers accommodate or adjust their teaching practices to classes of overseas students, or more commonly, to mixed classes, is an important topic for empirical enquiry (cf. Imafuku, this volume).

The first stage of my analysis has highlighted the role of the expert language advisors almost by accident, since this group of participants made themselves available for interview, although I could only learn about a small portion of their extensive roles. The complexity of the social role and obligations of these advisors both towards their employing body and to the students themselves was perceived during the research process. What the study has revealed is the important role performed by these staff, in addition to the difficulties faced by them in supporting students in specialised health science disciplines, especially in the setting of the clinical sites. The evolving nature of their roles within the faculties and increasing integration of language and academic skills support into the main curricula, even if in different ways across different locations, is identifiable. In this way then, the language planning that has been taking place seems to be evolving and changing in response to various situational factors.


1     The term ‘faculty’ is used here in a generic sense because in this case study, various managerial, academic and administrative matters are handled by several major administrative units within the umbrella of the faculty.


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Cite this chapter as: Marriott, H. 2007. ‘Micro language planning for the support of international students in health science faculties’. In Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning, edited by Marriott, H; Moore, T; Spence-Brown, R. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 6.1 to 6.17.

© Copyright 2007 Helen Marriott
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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning

   by Helen Marriott, Tim Moore and Robyn Spence-Brown