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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning




Within the area of language policy, relatively little has been written about the design and implementation of language policy in schools serving multilingual populations. Few schools develop formal language policies, however as this chapter shows, a range of school policies and practices can be seen to shape student’s language use while at school. Focusing on the linguistic situation Chinese international students find themselves in at one Melbourne high school with large numbers of international students, this chapter explores how official school policies, unofficial practices and friendship group composition combine to shape students’ use of Mandarin and English at school. It finds that these (sometimes well-planned, sometimes ad hoc) policies and practices have evolved out of the school’s broad aims on entering the international student market, but that they often interact in unexpected ways to bring about language practices quite different to those they sort to promote. The chapter closes by reflecting on the positive role first language use can play in international student education.

To date relatively little has been written about the experiences of international students studying in Australian high schools. The majority of international students in Australia are studying in the higher education sector (164,000 in 2005 as against 25,500 in secondary education, AEI 2006a) so it is unsurprising that research on international student education in Australia has so far focused overwhelmingly on the sector (e.g. Deumert et al. 2005; Nemoto, this volume; Wakimoto, this volume; Yoshimitsu, this volume). Many of the findings from this research are transferable to the secondary sector, however differences in student maturity, autonomy and number of contact hours means that international students studying in the secondary sector experience a very different institutional environment than those in the higher education sector. This chapter provides a case study of international students’ language use at one Melbourne high school – Ferndale Secondary College1 – where Chinese international students make up approximately one-third of students at VCE level (Years 11 and 12). Drawing on interviews with staff and students and intensive ethnographic observation over the 2004 and 2005 school years, it explores how official school policies and unofficial practices shape students’ use of Mandarin and English at school, and how these (sometimes well-planned, sometimes ad hoc) policies and practices have themselves evolved out of the school’s broad aims on entering the international student market. On a practical level, the chapter documents the situation at one school as a reference for others and in order to outline the cumulative effect of a number of small measures on language practice and international student (academic and social) well-being. On a more theoretical level, the chapter also adds to our understanding of how official school policies, unofficial norms and the composition of students’ own friendship groups work together to shape linguistics practices in multi-ethnic schools.2


While Australian private schools have for many years accepted occasional enrolments from international students, it is only in the last 15 years that a number of Australian (government and private) schools have begun to market themselves heavily to international students (Leung 2006). While the rise has not been as dramatic as in the higher education sector, the international student numbers in the secondary sector have seen strong growth in recent years, more than doubling from 12,780 in 1994 to 27,820 in 2004 (AEI 2005). In line with flattening demand in the tertiary sector, international student numbers in secondary schools decreased by 10% between 2004 and 2006 to 24,717 students. As with the higher education sector, most international school students elect to study in either New South Wales (31%) or Victoria (29%), though Queensland has been steadily increasing its market share and took 18% of all students in 2005 (AEI 2006a).

Australian schools accept international students from all nations; however China is indubitably the most important source country, providing 39% of students in 2006 (AEI 2006b). Table 1 provides an overview of the numbers of school and higher education students sent by the overall top 10 source countries for international students studying in Australia. As we see, school students overwhelmingly come from Asian or South East Asian nations, reflecting the areas in which Australian schools have been marketed most heavily. While many of these countries are also important source countries for international students in higher education, Table 1 shows a dramatic rise in the number of Indians studying at a tertiary level compared to the secondary level, while the reverse effect occurs for South Korea. We also see that in general terms the higher education sector is less dependent on these top ten nations for students.

Table 1 International students in Australian education, 2006 (based on AEI 2006b)

While international students may enrol in Australian schools in any year level, the vast majority elect to undertake Years 10, 11 and 12 in Australia. This is in line with the high value placed on gaining an English-language high school diploma3 and the fact that around half of all international secondary students use their study in Australian high schools as a stepping stone to tertiary education in Australia (Leung 2006). In Victoria at least, it is also partly an artefact of government regulations that require students under the age of 15 to live at boarding schools or with close relatives during their time in Australia. Those over 15, by contrast, may take up the most popular options of living with family friends or with a homestay family selected for them by their school.

In deciding to accept international students, schools must weigh up a number of costs and benefits. Obviously, international students bring in extra revenue and can help boost enrolments for schools struggling to attract enough students to offer a wide variety of subjects in the senior high school years. With prudent administration, most schools succeed in running their international student programs at a profit, however the cost of marketing and providing support services (such as an international student coordinator based at the school and translating reports into the students’ home languages) means that the surplus is not necessarily high. Government schools in particular must manage their finances carefully when entering the international student market, as fees are set by the state government, rather than the school itself. Thus government schools in Victoria must charge a flat fee of between $8,000 and $11,500 per annum (dependent on year level), regardless of the costs of delivering their program. The international student market is much more lucrative for private schools, as they are free to set their own fees and many prestigious schools charge in excess of $20,000 per annum (Leung 2006).

As well as financial considerations, schools must also consider the likely effects on their teaching and learning cultures when taking on international students. As Love and Arkoudis (2004) note, even teachers with wide experience of international student education still often struggle to make Australian courses accessible to international students and report that they must invest a great deal of extra time and effort in order to bring international students up to a standard where they can perform well in Year 12 exams. This effort not only involves teachers adjusting their own teaching style to take into account language difficulties faced by international students, but also developing strategies to deal with gaps in students’ background knowledge and their lack of familiarity with Australian modes of assessment. While enrolling international students thus generally creates more work for teaching staff, the payoff for the school is that international students often achieve strong results in their high school diploma and are stereotyped as committed learners who are particularly good at maths and science subjects (Love and Arkoudis 2004). As one principal remarked in a recent newspaper article (Leung 2006), enrolling international students can thus help create a more academic culture within less academic schools and encourage a spirit of healthy competition between international students and talented local students who might otherwise have been tempted to put little effort into their work and under-perform academically. When international student perform well in their high school diploma results or gain entrance to prestigious tertiary courses, their performances can also be used to market the school to the local community, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that many under-performing government schools thus see accepting international students as an integral part of the school’s overall strategy for attracting and retaining academically strong local students.

The different, and often multifaceted, reasons schools have for entering the international student market profoundly shapes the ways in which they respond to international students once they arrive. While schools with low international student numbers or prestigious reputations overseas often see it as incumbent on the international students to adapt to the teaching style and mores of the school, those with a greater investment in the international student market are likely to try and adapt their school to better serve the needs of international students, and thus increase their own marketability as a provider of international student education (cf. Edwards and Tudball 2002, White 2004, Leung 2006). Additionally, those who see accepting international students as a way of changing their own school culture and performance are likely to monitor the integration and academic progress of international students more closely than those whose motivation for accepting international students is more clearly financial. In order to better illustrate how motives shape institutional policy and practice, the following section presents a case study of the situation ‘on the ground’ at Ferndale Secondary College.


Ferndale Secondary College is a highly multiethnic school in Melbourne where over 90% of students speak a language other than English (LOTE) at home. According to the 2004 enrolment census, students at Ferndale speak over 25 different home languages. Vietnamese (spoken by 27% of students), Khmer (14%) Cantonese (8%) and Mandarin (5%) and other Chinese languages (18% when taken together) are the main languages of the school community, reflecting the fact that a clear majority of students come from Asian backgrounds. Since the school is located in one of Melbourne’s major immigrant reception suburbs, it follows that many of its students come from families with quite low socio-economic status in Australia. Importantly however, many of these families have strong aspirations for success (and many parents in fact held professional positions in their country of origin but have been unable to continue their professional work in Australia because of language or other difficulties) and see achieving at school as a clear pathway to a better future for their children. Ferndale is thus a school with a strong academic orientation which has developed a reputation over the years for getting the best out of students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly those with limited English skills on entering the school.

Despite these successes, Ferndale has experienced a rapid decline in student numbers in recent years. While student numbers hovered around 700 students for most of the 1990s, by 1999 the school had less than 500 students and numbers furthered decreased to just 273 in 2004. According to an independent review commissioned by the school, the aging population and growing popularity of private secondary education in the schools’ catchment area have partially contributed to student drop-off, however the main cause has been the stigma brought about by (essentially unfounded) tabloid media coverage in 1997 linking the school with the heroin problem on the suburb’s main street. In a political climate where small schools are frequently closed or merged, Ferndale has had to fight hard to boost (or at least stabilise) enrolments and entering the international student market has formed a cornerstone of the school’s survival strategy.

Ferndale has achieved some success in attracting international students: in 2004 they comprised around one-third of the VCE cohort, with the vast majority of students (around 90%) coming from Mainland China. Accepting international students does not of course solve long-term problems of decline, but helps make the school more viable in two main ways. The increase in student numbers allows the school to offer a wider variety of subjects (and particularly higher level maths and sciences) at VCE level, helping to minimise the number of local students who transfer to other schools because of limited choice in VCE subjects at Ferndale. Secondly, since international students often perform quite well in VCE, their results also help lift the school’s averages, and can be used to market the school in the local community. Ferndale is strongly committed to investing back into its international student program in the hope of realising the long-term goals of increasing local and international student enrolments and, as a result, the program runs at a small loss most years. This lack of interest in profiting from international student enrolments is somewhat unusual among Australian schools, however there is indirect profit insofar as the school uses monies from fees to finance teachers for very small VCE classes (many year 12 subjects in 2005 had less than 10 students enrolled), to the benefit of both local and international students.

Because international students play such a crucial role in the school’s long-term survival strategy, teachers at Ferndale are particularly keen to ensure that their international students do well (thus enhancing their chances of recruiting more international and local students) and have put a great deal of thought into how best to educate these students. As we shall see in the following sections however, the result of this careful planning is not necessarily one coherent policy towards international student education, but rather a number of distinct but interrelated measures. As school policy and practice have arisen somewhat organically, we shall see that in attempting to mitigate different problems some measures end up contradicting each other. Teachers at the school are not generally aware of these inherent contradictions, so part of the role of this analysis is to shed light on the way school language policies and practices work together and help schools better understand the likely consequences (and barriers to success) when implementing new language policies.


A primary concern of Ferndale teachers is how best to assist Chinese international students to improve their English during their time in Australia. Knowing that parents frequently spend in excess of $25,000 per annum to finance their children’s education in Australia, many teachers feel a strong personal obligation to make sure parents get ‘value for money’ by ensuring their children learn and practice as much English as possible. As long-term teachers of a heavily English as a Second Language (ESL) school population, they are also acutely aware of the need for students to have a reasonable grasp of English in order to succeed in VCE. The drive to improve international students’ English is thus directly linked to the school’s local and international marketing strategies, and the hope that the English skills of its international graduates, as well as their final year 12 results, will act as an advertisement for the school.

While teachers are in agreement about the desirability of international students using English as much as possible while in Australia, there is disagreement within the school about the best way to achieve this end. The international student manager (who is responsible for marketing the program overseas and also providing pastoral care for students once in Australia) is a well-known advocate for banning students from speaking Chinese languages while at school, however other teachers have opposed this move on both moral and practical grounds. These teachers have argued that banning Chinese languages works against the schools’ efforts to portray itself as multicultural and tolerant of differences, and begs the questions of whether Chinese international students should be subject to different rules to local students, or whether all languages other than English should be banned from classrooms, hallways and the playground. A large number of Ferndale’s staff (many of whom themselves come from non English-speaking backgrounds) also object to banning any language on principle and have lobbied heavily against such measures in staff meetings.

The school’s response to these competing positions has been to forge an unusual compromise: an English only policy that does not, in fact, preclude the use of other languages. Officially, all of Ferndale’s classrooms are English only spaces; though this has never been taken to limit the use of classroom interpreters for students who have recently migrated and still qualify for funding for a language aide (Ferndale employs approximately four full time equivalent language aides covering Arabic, various Chinese languages, Khmer and Vietnamese). The policy is used by some teachers, however, to ensure that all classroom discussions between students occur in English. Still other staff report that they disagree with this edict and continue to allow students to use whatever language they are most comfortable in as long as they continue to work productively and present a final product in English. Outside the classroom, Ferndale has deliberately shied away from making any statements about language use in the halls or playground. Instead, individual teachers are welcome to try and cajole students into speaking English if they hear Chinese international students speaking Chinese languages, but unlike true breeches of school rules they cannot hand out punishment to students caught speaking other languages. As such, teachers’ requests for students to ‘speak English please’ largely fall on deaf ears. The status of the plea as part of the ‘background noise’ of the school is further reinforced by the manner in which it is almost always delivered – as part of a more general rebuke (particularly ‘don’t be so loud – and speak English’) by teachers who are quite clearly resigned to being ignored. In this way, being asked to speak English often effectively becomes the punishment for some other (generally very minor) rule infringement that has caught the teacher’s attention, rather than a request asked of students who are otherwise minding their own business.


While the school strives to encourage Chinese international students to speak English, a number of features of the schools’ organisation unintentionally support students’ continued use of Mandarin. The first feature concerns the degree to which the school structurally segregates international students from their local student peers, and thus fosters the development of internationalinternational friendship groups, where Mandarin or other Chinese languages are the natural languages of choice. Since Ferndale has its own ELICOS Centre, where international students generally study for between one to three school terms4 before entering mainstream classes, international students commencing at the school meet and study intensively with other international students for several months before having classes with their local student peers. As Miller (2003) remarks, such centres often result in ESL students forming (where possible first language based) peer groups with each other and being content to retain these peer groups once they move into mainstream classes (cf. Olsen 1997, Daoud 2003 for US perspectives on this issue). This should not be read as a disendorsement of ESL reception classes – both Miller and myself see them as playing a very important role in preparing students for mainstream education – however it is important that educators are aware of the impact of such classes on social network formation and attempt to foster relations between new arrivals and more established students (presuming at least that our goal is an integrated school community).

At Ferndale the boundary between international and local students is further strengthened by the fact that they tend to cluster in different subjects. Most notably, local students who are not themselves recent migrants by definition do not take ESL or First Language Mandarin, two subjects taken by virtually every international student. International students also cluster in maths subjects and accounting and are conspicuously absent from humanities subjects and the school’s vocational education program. While it would be a gross over-simplification to say that local and international students never have classes together, on average international students have more classes with each other than they do with local students. This, in turn, helps strengthen friendships between international students as they share a range of common classroom experiences – with their associated in jokes and concerns about understanding and completing coursework – that they do not share with the majority of local students. Structural segregation is further strengthened by the fact that many subject teachers run compulsory after-school or lunchtime revision classes for international students, which local students enrolled in these subjects are not required to attend. Such classes are certainly valuable in terms of allowing teachers to go over course content and discuss the conventions of Australian academic discourse and assessment in a way they cannot do in regular VCE classes (Love and Arkoudis 2004; see Duff, this volume, for more on discourse socialisation issues), however they again add to the feeling that international students are different to local students.

Despite concerns about students speaking Mandarin in the halls it is important to note that Mandarin has a much higher status than other migrant languages in the school community. Most notably, it is the only LOTE taught across all year levels in the school (French is also offered in years 7 and 8), and is offered at beginner, background speaker and native(like) levels. The literature on minority language education consistently stresses the legitimating effect that teaching a language can have; showing as it does that this language is seen to be something worth knowing (cf. Fishman 1991, Skutnabb-Kangas 2000, Freeland and Patrick 2004). The fact that Ferndale offers Mandarin, but does not offer Vietnamese, Khmer or other major languages of the school community thus – intentionally or not – singles out Mandarin as more important or useful than other LOTEs. It also places the school in an awkward position vis-à-vis Chinese international students’ use of Mandarin in the halls, as it would seem very strange to ban students from speaking a language in the halls that many of them learn in the classroom.

While official school activities are conducted almost universally in English, Mandarin has made a small in-road in that the international student coordinator now conducts separate (parallel) year level assemblies in Mandarin for years 11 and 12. These 10 minute meetings were initially instigated as efficiency measures – as they allow content to be tailored to the international students and transmitted much more quickly than in English – but they also serve to legitimise Mandarin as a language of official school communication. A similar effect occurs when the international student coordinator – an English-Mandarin-Cantonese trilingual – conducts welfare interviews with students and their families in Cantonese or Mandarin. Although Ms. Chung is a firm advocate for banning students from speaking Chinese languages at school, her willingness to engage with students in Chinese languages when they are facing real difficulties highlights the tensions and ambivalence in the school’s approach to language policy and Chinese international students and sends the message that while the school might prefer international students to speak English while at school, it acknowledges that sometimes the need to express oneself quickly, freely and clearly overrides the need to practise English.


Walking into the VCE study centre at lunch, one is immediately struck by the fact that the left-hand side of the space is occupied almost entirely by Chinese international students speaking Mandarin. This part of the VCE centre is clearly the centre of Chinese social circles in the school, and while students tend to sit in small (generally gender-segregated) groups at individual tables, there is much talk and exchange between groups, and a strong sense that everyone is ultimately part of the same crowd. Many Chinese students in the VCE centre spend much of the lunch break half-heartedly doing homework, but with all the chatter and distractions they seem to get little done and those seeking serious study time withdraw to the library instead. A large number of boys from this crowd regularly play basketball together in fine weather, however importantly they do not play with the local students, but commandeer their own court and play against each other using Mandarin as the main language of communication.

We have already explored some of the structural factors that support Mandarin-based friendship groups among Chinese international students, however it is worth considering what reasons students themselves give to explain why Chinese and local students tend not to mix socially. Most local students see the divide as being primarily an issue of English competence: either that Chinese international students do not know enough English to participate in local students’ conversations or friendship networks or simply that they are ‘just more confident with their own language’ (as one local student put it) and thus prefer to form Mandarin-speaking friendship groups. Chinese international students themselves however tend to assign more importance to a feeling of ‘being in the same boat’, when explaining why they generally befriend each other rather than local students. As John succinctly put it, Chinese international students befriend each other because ‘we [sic] situation is similar’, in reference to a range of issues, extending from language difficulties, to the experience of living away from family and friends, and cultural and economic differences from local students.

From the local student perspective, Mark also highlights the role of perceived cultural differences leading to students tip-toeing around each other and establishing cordial, but somewhat distant relations:

Extract 1

Mark: surprisingly I’d say [the internationals are] in their own group, well not actually surprisingly because, ah here we’ve maintained our own culture if you like, its sort of like ethics – not ethnic but ethics groups – we have different morals and different ways of communicating. Like here if we go out to get lunch we’ll bring our lunch which is sort of like wrapped up, whereas these guys [the international students] will fight like vultures to get into that microwave to heat up their rice. So they hang out in their own group and we hang back and we watch them and we don’t want to offend them by jumping in and taking the microwave and we have to be careful because these are these groups we don’t exactly understand them so it’s slightly like having xenophobia.

Thus it seems that even though the majority of students at the school are from an Asian background (and many are in fact ethnically Chinese) there is still a strong feeling of cultural difference between Chinese international students and local students, grounded in different mores, interaction norms and ultimately different ways of balancing the influences of Asian and Australian cultures.

Clearly then, there are a number of factors encouraging Chinese students to establish Mandarin-speaking peer groups. However, it is worth questioning the school’s taken-for-granted assumption that such groups ultimately harm English acquisition and academic performance. The present study most certainly does not have the data to conclusively prove or disprove this assumption, however it can provide some counter-examples of ways in which Mandarin-speaking peer groups serve international students well. Most importantly, they provide a valuable peer support network for adolescents who are after all encountering a fairly stressful and challenging situation. Considering loneliness, social isolation and homesickness are common problems faced by international students (Love and Arkoudis 2004, Arkoudis and Love 2005, Kijima 2005), first language peer groups not only give international students a sense of belonging to a group, but allow them to discuss problems they might be having with others in a similar situation, and without the added difficulty of a language barrier. In this way, Mandarin-speaking groups seem to serve a valuable function in supporting international student mental health; which might in turn have positive benefits on their education performance although it is of course very difficult to quantify the precise nature of these benefits.

Mandarin-based groups can also be important resources for helping students understand their schoolwork. Goldstein (2003) outlines in detail how recently-arrived Chinese migrants to Canada use Mandarin as a resource throughout a maths summer school; using the language to discuss and explain their understanding of concepts, ask each other the meaning of unfamiliar English words and as a group advise one student on the best way to formulate a complaint in English to his teacher about the grading of his work (see also Liang 2006). Similar conversations were regularly in evidence among Ferndale’s Chinese international students, with frequent code-switching between English and Mandarin a hallmark of their discussions while doing homework together. Several local students who spoke some Mandarin also reported that Chinese international students occasionally asked them questions about schoolwork in Mandarin. This suggests that it is not only within the international student social network that Mandarin can facilitate learning, however as Mei-Yee reports, such questions were often the site of linguistic brokerage:

Extract 2

Mei-Yee: yeah they [Chinese international students] like to come and ask questions [in Mandarin] and yeah I don’t speak it but I understand it and I help them but when they speak Chinese I’ll speak English back.

Mandarin-based peer groups provide valuable support for learning, but it cannot be denied that they do limit students’ opportunities to practice English, and particularly to build their conversational fluency. Various writers on ESL education have commented on the predicament many ESL students find themselves in: if they choose to seek out English-based peer groups at school they not only risk rejection from fluent English speakers who may be reluctant to accommodate the needs of an ESL speaker, but they also risk rejection by their fellow immigrants who may see them as ‘thinking they’re too good for us’. As such, attempting to have more contact with native speakers can see students cut off from the support and acceptance of their first language group with only a shaky chance that similar support will be offered by native speakers (cf. Olsen 1997, Goldstein 2003, Daoud 2003,Miller 2003). As a group, Ferndale’s Chinese international student cohort seem to be caught in this conundrum (although it is rarely explicitly articulated), however in each year level there are generally one or two students who take their chances and attempt to join English-based peer groups. These students do appear to experience at least some rejection from their Chinese peers, but often receive substantial academic rewards for their efforts – with the dux of the school in 2003 and 2004 fitting this profile. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to examine the precise nature of this causality,5 and indeed the personal costs such students might pay in achieving academic success, however it is interesting to note the different options available to Ferndale students in this area and to consider how one might best balance the benefits from both Mandarin and English-based peer groups.


Ferndale’s international students face a myriad of challenges during their time in Australia which cannot be addressed through broad-sweeping institutional language policies such as banning Mandarin outside the classroom. Although most teachers subscribe to the ideology that Chinese international students would be better off speaking English more often, they also seem aware of at least some of the psychological and educational benefits that can come from using the first language with friends and thus the school does not fight the use of Mandarin in social settings too heavily. Indeed, as this chapter has shown, at times the school actively supports Mandarin, such as through offering it as an official school subject and using it as a medium of communication with Chinese international students and their families. Above all this study has demonstrated that numerous structural and social factors encourage the development of Mandarin-based peer groups within the school. Ultimately, it is these elements of the school – which have not previously been thought of as relevant to the situation at hand – that must change if Chinese internationals are to consistently form integrated peer groups with local students.


1     The name of the school, its students and staff have been changed to protect participant anonymity.

2     Louisa Willoughby was a postgraduate student at Monash University at the time of writing this chapter. She would like to acknowledge the support of a Monash University Postgraduate Publication Award for financial support while completing this chapter.

3     Each state in Australia has a different name for the certificate one gains on completing Year 12, so for ease of reference the umbrella term high school diploma will be used instead. Regardless of the name, Australian high school diplomas run over the final two years of school, necessitating that international students enroll in at least Year 11 and Year 12 in order to graduate with an Australian diploma.

4     Victorian terms run for approximately ten weeks.

5     Particularly what level of English proficiency and relevant cultural knowledge they brought to the school, and whether that left them better placed than the average Chinese international student to form English-based peer groups.


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Cite this chapter as: Willoughby, L. 2007. ‘“Don’t be so loud – and speak English”: School language policies towards Chinese international students’. In Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning, edited by Marriott, H; Moore, T; Spence-Brown, R. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 7.1 to 7.12.

© Copyright 2007 Louisa Willoughby
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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning

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