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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning




This chapter presents a qualitative case study which examines Japanese students’ learning behaviour at an Australian university, with a particular focus on how an international student planned and then adjusted her study program and, while doing so, how she developed her involvement and competence in academic contact situations.

The study employed a process-oriented approach and its analytical framework is grounded on the language management model (Neustupný 1985; Jernudd and Neustupný 1987) and the theory of academic contact situations (Neustupný 2004). Through the close observation of a student’s academic participation processes over an extended period, this study illustrates how micro-level study management was carried out and also describes specific features of academic contact situations. The study also draws on the notion of community of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991) to analyse how a newcomer became part of a community and was gradually moving toward fuller participation in the Australian academic community. The data was gathered through a student questionnaire followed by a semi-structured interview, collection of the student’s study journals and follow-up interviews with the student. By focusing on the student’s study management behaviour, this study aims to depict an international student’s intercultural academic participation processes.


Australia has been experiencing a rapid and continuous growth of international student enrolments, and figures confirm that the student numbers in the higher education sector increased by 488% between 1994 and 2006, from 35,290 to 172,297 (AEI 2007). It was acknowledged that this increase has contributed significantly to Australia’s economy through students’ payment of tuition fees and expenditure on goods and services over the period of their stay (AEI 2005 survey report). It is also noted that Australia is a popular destination for Japanese international students, and Japan was ranked seventh (with a total number of enrolment, 17,804) in Australia’s Top 10 Source Countries from 2002 to 2006 (AEI Market Indicator Data 2006). The growth in student numbers and its positive impact on the Australian economy are closely monitored at both governmental and institutional levels. However, the indicators of overall success or failure, in other words, satisfaction or dissatisfaction of these students with regard to their educational experience, are not. Much of the international student’s academic life in Australia remains unclear.

To date, I have become familiar with a number of Japanese international students in the undergraduate course at the university where I teach. They have shared with me their perspectives and experiences of their new academic life in Australia. University study is quite challenging for those who have been brought up in the Australian education system, so needless to say, it is even more so for those who were educated elsewhere. Frequently, these students seem determined to cope with difficult situations and force themselves to struggle on, often with little institutional support. Even if such support was available to them, their limited competence in L2 (to seek assistance) is sometimes a hindrance to their receiving such support.

Undertaking a degree course at an overseas university requires a long term commitment from the students and their families. In the case of Australia, it is a common practice for Japanese international students to enrol in an Australian high school (usually from Year 10 to 12) in order to meet the university entry requirements; otherwise they often undertake a university Foundation studies course, an English course, or both, which may take six months to two years (Yoshimitsu 2004). Therefore, it is natural for them to feel that they could not possibly fail in the university course, after going through the lengthy preparation to be admitted, not to mention the high expectations from their parents. It is an interest in these students that led me to undertake this micro-level study of academic contact.

Marriott’s empirical studies on micro-level study management of Japanese international students at an Australian university (Marriott 1999, 2000; Marriott and Miyazaki 2000; Marriott and Tse 2001) triggered a number of case studies (for example, Marriott 2003; Gilbert 2004; Allen 2004; Yasuda 2004). These studies examined students’ participation behaviour in a new academic community, primarily focusing on their writing activities and highlighted how little teachers and researchers knew about these students’ actual writing processes and the nature of the difficulties involved in acquiring new knowledge and skills in L2, usually in a limited time frame. Drawing on the study experiences of the Japanese exchange students (a sub-group of Japanese international students) at the same university, Nemoto (2005, this volume) examines how these students developed their participation in the host academic context throughout their one-academic year study and demonstrated both complete and incomplete participation cases and outlined the factors contributing to differential participation.

From the academic discourse socialisation perspective, Duff (this volume) views learning as developing the capability to participate in new discourse communities as a result of social interaction and cognitive experience, also involving the development of one’s voice, identity, and agency in a new language/culture. She argues that language professionals need to better understand the actual discursive practices and requirements of various fields (and activities) and the experiences of participants who are being socialised through course-related activities. In the current climate where contact between varying academic systems is increasingly intensified, Neustupný (2004) argues for more empirical studies focusing on how participants in the academic contact situations in fact deviate (from the base norm), note and evaluate the deviations and how they adjust the deviations in the process of learning. Similarly, Marriott (2004) argues that in order to extend the boundaries of the research on academic contact undertaken to date, more detailed investigations into the processes and outcomes of academic interaction in naturally occurring situations, not just the written texts that students produce, are needed.


The objectives of this study are to understand how Japanese international students (newcomers to Australian academic culture) participate in it and how their interaction with peers and teachers facilitates or constrains the processes of such participation. In order to achieve these objectives, I conducted an in-depth case study which examined how an international student planned her study program at an Australian university, (hereafter referred to as AU), and how she managed in the subsequent academic contact situations, which eventually led her to move towards completion of an undergraduate degree in Arts (i.e. humanities).

Planning a study program in a new academic community is an important part of the study management process for Japanese international students. It is not an easy task for newcomers to the community, and this process needs to be examined carefully. What subject students take, on what grounds or for what purposes, and how they accomplish the program or why they make changes to the program, are all crucial aspects for understanding their study management behaviours. It is not surprising that some international students change their discipline or major after experiencing some difficulties. These students are often said to be unprepared for study demands, and their insufficient academic literacy development in L2 inevitably leads them to struggle in learning. Based on her study of a Japanese student’s acquisition of academic literacy in a second language, a US academic in ESL, Spack (1997) draws our attention to an emerging situation where many or even most international students end up majoring in quantitatively based disciplines and in some cases, this may have less to do with their interests and more to do with their inadequate preparation for social science/humanity courses before they enter college and the kind of support subsequently offered to them in these courses. Much more detail is needed before forming a stereotypical image of international students. For a start, we need to know how these students actually plan their study programs and how they behave in the planned program. This study presents a case study of one of the Japanese international students at AU.


The study employed a process-oriented approach and the data analysis and interpretation of findings were made from two perspectives: one focuses on the learner’s study management processes in academic contact, and the other focuses on the learner’s increasing participation in the Australian academic community. The former perspective is grounded on the language management model (Neustupný 1985; Jernudd and Neustupný 1987) and the theory of academic contact situations (Neustupný 2004) and the latter draws on the notion of ‘community of practice’ in the social practice theory of learning (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998).

In the study of academic contact situations (that is, intercultural academic situations), Neustupný (2004) argues that researchers should place a focus on ‘what happens in the process of contact’ rather than on ‘the result of the contact process’, and that it is essential to enquire into how the problems in academic interaction are noted, evaluated and how adjustment is subsequently sought by the participants. This approach closely monitors the learner’s deviations from what is accepted as the base norm, and was initially developed in the language management model (Neustupný 1985; Jernudd and Neustupný 1987) in the context of Japanese and English contact situations. The central notion of this approach is that a typical contact situation is packed with communication problems and attempts are constantly made for their removal and that their frequency and pattern are quite different from the problems which occur in native situations (Neustupný 1985: 44). The language management model process consists of five stages: i) deviations from norms occur, ii) such deviations are noted, iii) noted deviations are evaluated, iv) adjustment (‘correction’ of problems) is planned, and v) the adjustment is implemented (Neustupný 2004: 23). In academic contact situations, the norm usually applied is the norm of the base system, where the base system is determined by the language employed (Neustupný 2004: 16). But Neustupný argues that such situations where multiple norms interact also present contact situation norms and we need more understanding of what is expected from academics in various types of contact situations. From the contact theory perspective, this study examines how one Japanese international student planned her study at the university, and how she made adjustments to the actual learning situations.

Lave and Wenger (1991: 29) view learning as situated activity, which has as its central defining characteristic a process called legitimate peripheral participation, that is, a process by which newcomers become part of a community of practice and gradually move toward full participation in the sociocultural practices of a community. In their usage, peripherality is a positive term and peripherality, when it is enabled, suggests an opening, a way of gaining access to sources for understanding through growing involvement (Lave and Wenger 1991: 37). Lave and Wenger argue that participation in the lived-in world (engagement in social practice) is the fundamental process by which we learn and so become a more confident member of the community. The term ‘community’ is used to imply ‘participation’ in an activity system about which participants share understandings concerning what they are doing and what that means in their lives and for their community. Hence, a community of practice is a set of relations among person (agent), activity, and world, over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991: 98). Wenger (1998: 7–8) also maintains that the concept of ‘community of practice’ is not unfamiliar to us since learning (i.e., ‘community of practice’) is an integral part of our everyday lives. He provides us with very systematic ways of talking about this familiar experience of learning in positive ways. Drawing on Lave and Wenger’s notion of ‘community of practice’ as a useful conceptual tool, this study presents an example of how learning in practice takes (or does not take) place in the case of a newcomer (Japanese international student), and how she became part of a community of practice and gradually moved toward full participation in the Australian academic community.


The case study reported here focuses on the experiences of one of the 10 Japanese international students who participated in my earlier study, which focused on the diversity in the Japanese students’ educational backgrounds and their Australian experiences at AU (Yoshimitsu 2004). The primary participant of this study, Akiko (a pseudonym), completed her secondary education entirely in Japan. Since her father was an English teacher and had some contacts in Melbourne, she had a few short home-stay experiences during her school days. Akiko undertook a brief tertiary study experience at a Japanese women’s college (four-year course), where she majored in English literature. She left the college soon after entering because she found that the learning environment was not what she had expected. Aiming to study at AU, she came to Australia in 2000 and spent some time in Sydney studying English at an international language school, then came to Melbourne to complete a six-month Foundation studies course prior to her entry to a university in 2001. She fulfilled the university’s English proficiency requirement by achieving an overall score of 6.5 in the IELTS test (her individual scores in each area being: reading 5, writing 6, speaking 7, and listening 7). She was enrolled in a BA degree majoring in Linguistics and has since completed her course. It was the beginning of her first-year when she started to participate in my study.

The key data source for this study was Akiko’s study journals and three semi-structured interviews with her. Also, a number of informal conversations with her during this time allowed me to observe many facets of her learning processes. In order to address the study questions, a particular focus was placed on the student’s early stage of learning. Although the initial request by the researcher was to keep a study journal over one semester, Akiko kept it over an extended period of time, covering a two-year period. The entry frequency varies from year to year and the most entries were made during the first semester of her first year, but in total she made 39 entries. The interviews with the student were conducted at the transitional stage of her study (first-year), then during the intermediate stage (second-year), and, after she completed her study. A journal study was adopted in order to examine the learner’s own reflections of her learning processes. In this study, Akiko was asked to record the details of class experiences, including her level of understanding, preparation for the class, difficulties experienced, possible reasons for the difficulties and measures taken in relation to the difficulties experienced. In addition to these, she was asked to enter comments on any aspects of her own study experiences. Her journals allowed me to grasp how Akiko perceived her learning, how she evaluated her participation in classes and what adjustments she made to improve her participation.


The findings from this case study will be presented below by highlighting the features which emerged as distinctive behaviours of the Japanese international student. Akiko’s implicit thoughts about her learning which are reflected in her study journals and the interview will be produced in a narrative form.


It has been observed at AU that Japanese home-background students, both domestic and international students, often choose Japan- or Asia-related subjects conducted in English by native speakers of English (Yoshimitsu 2004). Integrating one’s background knowledge and previous study experience in L1 into L2 study is a legitimate strategy. Akiko, too, followed this pattern and took two such subjects in semester one of her first year. She had intended to make Japanese studies her major, hoping to study Japan and Asia from an Australian perspective. She also enrolled in a subject related to the use of English which was designed for international students (and was recommended for these students to deepen their insights into English language use) as well as a psychology subject, an area of study she found very interesting during her Foundation studies.

In the second semester, however, Akiko discontinued both the Japan- and Asia-related subjects, and took a subject from linguistics and another from drama and theatre studies instead. Thus, Akiko made a significant adjustment in her study program during her first year and consequently changed her intended major, Japanese studies, to linguistics. (The process of this adjustment will be discussed in a later section.) A number of factors seem to have contributed to this major amendment in her enrolment. With regard to the management of study difficulties by Japanese students at AU, I have observed that the international students were often incapable of negotiating their noted and negatively evaluated problems with the target community, other than by simply avoiding the problematic situations (withdrawal from the subject), accepting the consequences (underachievement in the subject), or applying temporary strategies (getting their essays edited). Such short-term management strategies, however, do not solve the fundamental problems and the participants frequently continue to face problems in developing their interactive competence in the academic contact situations. How Akiko interpreted her learning situations at AU and how she acted upon them characterised her successful study management.


After attending a couple of lectures, Akiko noted that university study was quite different from what she expected from the Foundation studies, which she undertook for six months prior to entering university, as noted above. Akiko found that the university lecturers (of two Japan- and Asia-related subjects in particular) presented the content in a ‘sophisticated’ way and it sounded very ‘abstract’ and ‘academic’ to her (these words appeared frequently in her journal during her transitional period). Akiko could not follow their speaking speed and therefore missed most of the content. The following extract from her journal reflects her anxiety in week one:

Since it was the first lecture in the semester, only administrative matters such as subject outline and assessment items were dealt with. It wasn’t a content-heavy lecture, but even so, the lecturer’s talking was hard to comprehend. Was it due to my comprehension problem or the way the lecturer talked? I hope I will soon get used to this lecturer’s way of talking. I expected more Asian background students in this Asian studies subject, but surprisingly the majority were non-Asian students. (Journal entry, Lecture Week 1, semester 1, year 1: 27/2/01)

Akiko’s experience in the first week came as a shock to her since she thought she was ready for university study. She was exposed to a new academic community with a majority of non-Asian students, which was contrary to her expectations. She soon enough realised that the Foundation studies were designed for international students and the participants, both learners and teachers, behaved within that framework; accordingly she felt comfortable in that situation. One of the university subjects which Akiko took was also designed for international students and with this subject, she also felt comfortable in participating. She noted:

This subject is for the international students, so I was able to follow the content and the speed without problems today. I felt more relaxed in the class than others. But I found the content very academic. I need to read the textbook carefully to grasp the key concepts such as ‘discourse’ and ‘genre’, which I am not familiar with. (Journal entry, Seminar Week 1, semester 1, year 1: 7/3/01)

The two contrasting situations which Akiko experienced suggest that the norms that emerged from the Foundation studies course and the subject she described above were what Neustupný (2004: 23) categorises as ‘contact situation norms’ (inter-cultural situation norm) and these are neither ‘base norms’ (Australian academic norms) nor ‘native norms’ (Japanese academic norms in Akiko’s case). It can be said that Akiko was familiar with contact situation norms and was able to behave comfortably with them; however she was unprepared for the exposure to the Australian academic norms and therefore faced considerable challenges.

Akiko gradually began to notice that Japan- and Asia-related subjects were more demanding than the other two subjects; the Asian subject was the hardest of all. As history was her strong area during high school studies, she hoped this would help with her Asian subject, but it was much harder than she expected with its in-depth content and the large amount of reading required for each week. Akiko immediately asked her parents to send her history textbooks in Japanese (L1) so that she could refer to these whilst reading her English (L2) materials. Akiko’s strategy of reading in L1 to cope with L2 study is often observed among the Japanese students. Akiko commented on this strategy, saying that she found reading in L1 was not necessarily helpful for L2 study, because L2 study applied analytical approaches focusing on a particular time of history in a context rather than focusing on the superficial historical events over a long period of time, an approach often found in her L1 textbooks.

After experiencing difficulties in comprehending the lecture content, Akiko consulted with a tutor, seeking his advice. Duff (this volume) points out that the social interactions that take place in academia (such as negotiating office hour visits or assignments with lecturers or clarifying the learning content with tutors) vary from context to context (and culture to culture) to some extent, and socialisation into these forms of discourse related to academia is crucial as well. In this regard, Akiko seemed to have approached her tutor without hesitation and managed it comfortably. She tried the study methods suggested by the tutor, such as listening to audio-recorded lectures for revision and making summary notes of the textbook before the lectures, but she continued to experience difficulties in understanding the lectures:

Today’s lecture was about the introduction of Buddhism. The content was too abstract for me and I only managed to pick up few points vaguely. Even though I prepared for the lecture by reading the textbook thoroughly, it was almost impossible for me to understand its content. I am in an absolutely desperate state. My friend, Sunny, comforted me saying that he would study with me and I shouldn’t worry so much. But I am really, really worried about my situation. (Journal entry, Lecture Week 7, semester 1, year 1: 10/4/01)

In order to follow the lectures, Akiko needed to heavily rely on visual presentations, yet she found the outlines presented by the overhead projector were always too brief. Moreover, lacking essential vocabulary on the topic, she was unable to take adequate notes whilst listening to the lecture:

The words I picked up during the lecture were simple ones which I was familiar with. These were not necessarily essential to understand the lecture content. I scribbled some notes during the lecture, but when I read them again at home, they didn’t make sense. The lecturer emphasised the important parts, but I didn’t know the vocabulary, so I couldn’t write them down. I wished the lecturer had put them on OHP. (Interview, semester 1, year 1: 3/4/01)

Eventually, she borrowed her friends’ lecture notes and sought assistance from the previous students who took the subject. Aiming to gain fuller participation and improve her learning and socialisation into the new academic discourse, Akiko had to go through a very exhausting process to manage the continuing difficulties in the lecture situation. Akiko’s struggle with learning leads us to the central concern about learning for newcomers in the ‘community of practice’ (Lave and Wenger 1991: 122–123): what opportunities exist for knowing in practice – is the process of knowing transparent for newcomers? What is meant to be learned or should be learnable? In such situations where the comprehensible information was minimal, little learning seems to have taken place.


Unlike the other three subjects Akiko studied in her first semester, the majority of Japanese studies class members was of Japanese background, and according to Akiko, such a situation seems to have created a competitive Japanese community. Competitiveness in the classroom serves either a positive or negative role in individual learning. For example, Bailey (1983) points out that classroom learners make overt comparisons of themselves with other learners and that these comparisons often result in emotive responses to the language learning experience. Akiko noticed competitiveness among the Japanese members in their behaviours, such as comparing each other’s essay marks and commenting on other student’s oral English competence displayed during class discussions and presentations. Since neither her essay marks nor English fluency were high in this class, she felt very uncomfortable with such competitiveness found in this community.

During the interview, Akiko said that she was not afraid of speaking in English in the class discussion (it should be noted that whereas the average IELTS test score required for the university entry is 6.5, her scores for aural and oral were both 7.0). But Akiko felt very humiliated when she made English mistakes in front of more competent English speakers from among her Japanese peers. These more competent students were returnee students or had some previous study experience in English-speaking countries. In the interview, Akiko described her feeling when she failed to perform adequately in the classroom:

I started to talk without organizing my thoughts properly, because I was so eager to join the discussion. But stating an appropriate opinion wasn’t easy, so I was soon stuck for words and panicked. Then I ended up forgetting what I was going to say. I felt ashamed of myself and regretted having started to talk. (Interview, semester 1 year 1: 3/4/01)

Morita (2004: 585) identified that a common identity described by L2 Japanese students in a Canadian university classroom was being less competent than others, which was based on the difficulties they were experiencing in the classroom, but at the same time, such an identity was constructed based on their sense of how others might perceive them. In Akiko’s case, other class members were mostly Japanese students, and in such a situation, her concern of others’ perceptions toward her seems to have grown more strongly than in other classroom situations.

Based on her study on competitiveness in classroom, Bailey (1983) presented a model to examine how the learner’s self-image in comparison with other L2 learners, either a successful or unsuccessful self-image, can either impair or enhance their learning. From Bailey’s view, in the case of the former, learners may reduce or abandon learning efforts and in the case of the latter, learners increase their efforts in order to compare more favourably with other learners, and as a result, learning is enhanced. From this view, Akiko might have been in the former case, and this might have had a negative effect on her willingness in maintaining membership in the community.

According to the ‘community of practice’ notion, learning implies becoming a different person by becoming able to be involved in new activities, to perform new tasks and functions, and to master new understandings (Lave and Wenger 1991: 53). Akiko was in a situation where she could not avoid behaving according to Japanese norms and also being evaluated by her Japanese peers according to such norms. Because they came from the same culture and society of Japan, for Akiko, it was predictable how other Japanese students might behave or construct their thinking and reasons behind them. Since Akiko’s main purpose of studying in Australia was to socialise into a new academic community by acquiring Australian academic norms rather than demonstrating or maintaining Japanese norms, she gradually moved away from the Japanese community at AU. Adjustment in her study program had thus become an inevitable process for Akiko. The fact that Akiko consciously avoided associating with Japanese students for the next two semesters suggests her determination to pursue her primary goal.


Participating in class discussions is another focal area which challenged Akiko’s study management. From the ‘community of practice’ perspective, participation is a way of learning by both absorbing and being absorbed in the ‘culture of practice’ and an extended period of legitimate peripherality provides learners with opportunities to make the culture of practice theirs (Lave and Wenger 1991: 95). However, various obstacles exist for newcomers to become fuller participants, as demonstrated in Nemoto (2005, this volume). He argues that newcomers could not necessarily gain access to desirable resources and increase their involvement in the host academic settings simply because they physically belonged to the host community. Akiko’s struggles in the lectures (illustrated above) demonstrated a similar situation. Contrary to this, however, her experience in tutorials was different. The following four excerpts from her study journal illustrate how Akiko gradually increased her involvement in the tutorial discussions by changing her participation form, from a silent participation to a voiced participation, and changing relations to the members by increasing her connections with them.

Regarding the week one tutorial, she reflects:

As the tutor talked too fast, I could hardly catch up with him. Listening problems let me down again! But I shouldn’t be scared of asking questions to the tutor. I shouldn’t hesitate to speak out. After the class the tutor told me that I should tell him when he spoke too fast. He seems approachable. I’ve got somewhat a gloomy impression from this tutorial group. It seems difficult to make friends with them. But I really need friends in this class, so I should approach them. (Journal entry, Tutorial Week 1, semester 1, year 1: 27/2/01)

Despite the negative situation she encountered in the first week, Akiko remained focused on her goal to be involved in the discourse community and in order to do so, she was aware of the need to develop networks with other community members. In week two, however, she noted another problem:

I had trouble following the students’ talks too. I noticed some speak differently and I am not used to the way they talk. It’s good that the tutor summarised their opinions afterwards. I hope I’ll soon get used to them. Perhaps I should become friends with some of them? (Journal entry, Tutorial Week 2, semester 1, year 1: 6/3/01)

Akiko’s participation problems were caused not only by her comprehension of the English by English native speakers but also by the wide variation in the type of English spoken by classroom members in a multi-cultural classroom situation, where contact norms exist. The tutor evidently played an important role in such situations for students to readjust to the base norm.

In week three, Akiko reflects upon her own participation:

My participation in the class discussions was very minimal. When I joined the discussions, my remarks were very general and these only touched the surface of the issues. I want to develop a meaningful discussion but it seems beyond my ability. Now I realise that I’ve never thought about the structure of Japanese society theoretically. But I shouldn’t worry about what I talk so much; rather joining the discussion is a matter of importance for me at this stage. Everyone seems very eager to find out about Japan, so I need to be prepared for their questions. Improvement of my English is crucial, but how? I’ve started to converse with some of the tutorial members and I am happy about this. (Journal entry, Tutorial Week 3, semester 1, year 1: 13/3/01)

The above excerpt shows that Akiko’s initial tension in the tutorial situation started to ease when she began to share her knowledge on Japan with her classroom members. Also she found out that the tutor had once studied in the same city in Japan where Akiko came from and since then, she felt much easier to approach this teacher. Even a relatively trivial matter such as this seemed to have a positive effect on her attitude toward the study. She tried to cover the things that she missed during lectures by consulting with the tutor more frequently. The more connections Akiko established with the tutorial members, the less tensions she felt in expressing herself in the class, and this led her to move onto the next stage where her involvement in the tutorial discussion became more self-initiated:

I got very nervous when I gave my view on the directions of Japan’s future in front of the English native speakers, but I thought it was important to state my view as Japanese. I fully realised my lack of vocabulary in the area. Forming my own thinking about the given topic is a big challenge for me. In order to manage that, I need to read widely and increase vocabulary. I should express my opinion more often from now on. But I need to remember that discussion is not just chatting about something. (Journal entry, Tutorial Week 5, semester 1, year 1: 27/3/01)

Akiko’s developmental process of tutorial participation was characterised by her problem identification and her negative evaluation of the noted problems to comply with the target norms, which are crucial processes of language management (Neustupný 1985; Jernudd and Neustupný 1987). While trying out some management strategies, she gradually established a situation where she could contribute in the community as a Japanese participant. Her retrospective analysis of her own participation above demonstrates that Akiko is gradually moving toward fuller participation in tutorial discussions.


In place of two subjects from the areas of Asian and Japanese studies, Akiko decided to take one subject from drama and theatre studies and one from linguistics in semester two, as mentioned above. Akiko’s close friend from the Foundation studies, Katharine, a Hong Kong student, introduced her to drama and theatre studies. Katharine had been studying drama since semester one and as she was a more experienced member of the Drama class community, she often talked to Akiko about the interesting aspects of the study. Since Akiko was trained in traditional Japanese dance and liked to express herself through body movement, she decided to take this subject in semester two. Akiko reflects on the first lecture:

Today we learned about how we could improve our voice by relaxing our body. In order to experience this, we lay down on the floor and rolled around etc. It was a new method of learning and I felt a little uneasy about such activities. But I think I’ll soon get used to them. I shouldn’t be shy when I experience the effects of my body movement on my voice. I notice that everyone in the class seems to have a beautiful voice. I wonder I’ll get to that stage one day by relaxing my body. (Journal entry, Lecture Week 1, semester 2, year 1: 21/7/01)

Drama study was a new discipline for her and different from the content-based subjects she previously studied. For the first time since the beginning of semester one, she assessed her level of understanding of the lectures as ‘completely understood’ in her journal. Akiko stated that she felt comfortable to be in this new community where she changed her view on English from ‘a language to study’ to ‘a means of communication’. She talked about the changed role of English in her academic life as follows:

With this new study, I gradually built up confidence in myself. I began to realise that if I could express myself in L1, then I should be able to try the same in L2. Now I think of English as a means of communication - as a means of expressing myself, instead of thinking it as a language to learn. The important thing for me is to have a strong will of wanting express myself. (Informal talk, semester 2, year 1, 2001)

Akiko seemed to be able to position herself favourably in the new learning situation in semester two. She had her close friend Katharine (an international student from Hong Kong) as a classmate and soon she met Jane, an Australian student, in the drama class. Jane was studying in the Japanese program and approached Akiko to talk in Japanese. Their mutually-beneficial relationship in language support developed into a close friendship. Moreover, shortly afterwards Jane suggested that Akiko move into her house where she lived with her family. Akiko valued the arrangement both academically and socially. Lave and Wenger (1991) maintain that interaction with more experienced members in the community enhances newcomers to move towards fuller participation. Akiko’s interaction with Katherine and Jane seemed to have facilitated her process of gaining expertise required by the Australian academic discourse community more effectively than before.

Akiko also found Linguistics (another new subject in semester two) very enjoyable and after the first week, she decided to select Linguistics as her major. The following excerpt illustrates what led her to this decision:

I guess it’ll become harder from now on, but so far, so good! I enjoy the subject. The tutor is very kind. I am going to make linguistics as my major. Australian students don’t seem to know the difference between noun and adjective. They said ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’ were adjectives without a shade of hesitation. I said these were nouns, but I thought momentarily I was wrong. I shouldn’t be afraid of stating my opinion or making mistakes. (Journal entry, Tutorial Week 1, semester 2, year 1: 21/7/01)

The most rewarding outcome from these two subjects was that for the first time, Akiko achieved excellent results, receiving a high distinction for Drama study and a distinction for Linguistics. ‘Being treated as one of the students rather than as an international student’, she gradually gained confidence to participate in the Australian academic community.


Employing the language management model and the notion of community of practice as frameworks, this chapter has presented some of the facets of academic participation processes (i.e., processes of developing contact competence) of a Japanese international student at AU. The way that the newcomers select subjects in the host academic community is one of the crucial aspects for understanding their study management behaviour. An in-depth analysis of Akiko’s case has demonstrated how a Japanese international student initially planned a study program and why she made significant adjustments to it, and while doing so, how she developed her involvement and competence in the academic contact situations.

Akiko joined AU thinking that she was ready to be exposed to Australian academic norms. But she soon realised she was not, and discovered that the Foundation studies (preparation course for university study) were far different to real-world university studies. Akiko’s reflections on her own learning in her early stage study journals illustrated her continuous negative evaluation of her own participation in the university studies. The difficulties she faced predominantly resulted from her inability to comprehend the L2 study content. Her determination to develop her participation in the community was observed in her subsequent adjustment strategies. Her implementation of a number of strategies, however, did not seem to work for her as she expected. Furthermore, Akiko experienced uncomfortable learning situations in the classroom community with a majority of Japanese students where Japanese norms were predominantly in practice. The competitiveness which emerged from such a situation seemed to have had a negative effect on Akiko’s learning, and this eventually persuaded her to move away from this situation and the Japanese community in general at AU. It is interesting to note that during her transitional stage of university learning (i.e., during the first semester of her first year), Akiko experienced three types of classroom communities in terms of its members’ backgrounds and its expected norms: a domestic-student-dominant classroom with base norms (Australian norms), an international-student-dominant with contact situation norms (inter-cultural norms), and a Japanese student-dominant classroom community with native norms (Japanese norms). She found the domestic-student-dominant classroom was the most challenging situation, and whereas she found the international-student-dominant classroom comfortable, the Japanese-student-dominant classroom was rather uncomfortable from the perspective of her own participation.

Based on her study experience in semester one, Akiko made a major change in her study program for semester two. She decided to replace two main subjects in semester one with two new areas of studies, and consequently she changed her major area of study. This adjustment had a significant impact on her subsequent participation in the academic community. She admitted that the two new subjects gave her a renewed enthusiasm and enjoyment for her studies, allowed her to better express herself in L2, and allowed her to gain and maintain confidence in herself. Akiko’s first high distinction and a distinction obtained from the two new subjects triggered a positive learning experience for the next two years to complete her academic participation at AU. Despite hindrances, Akiko was driven by her clear study goals while monitoring her involvement in the host community and making positive adjustments to unfavourable situations she encountered. Increasing interaction with her peers in the host discourse community clearly contributed to her academic development.

Akiko’s case has provided many useful insights into our understanding of how Japanese international students behave in selecting subjects and why they might be unsuccessful in accomplishing their initial study program, and thus, it has indicated that they should plan their study program carefully so as not to waste their time and energy before finding their ultimate direction. The study demonstrated that one vital factor which made Akiko adjust her study program was whether or not she could find the access toward gaining fuller membership to the community (Lave and Wenger 1991), in other words, whether or not she could behave in the learning situation as a confident learner. Akiko’s case makes us wonder whether or not newcomers to an Australian academic community from Japan are capable of selecting appropriate subjects based on their L2 competence. The study suggests that Akiko might have relied on her L1 background knowledge and her familiarity with the L1 community when initially planning her study program. The outcomes, however, seemed to have been contrary to her expectations. Appropriate advice from lecturers regarding the study demands or advising her to change her study program at an early stage may have saved her much time and energy.

In this study, I have depicted the academic participation processes of one Japanese international student based on the learner’s own reflections on her study management process, and her own thoughts and feelings toward the inter cultural academic situations which she experienced at AU. Future studies, therefore, could explore the teacher’s experiences of teaching students like Akiko.


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Cite this chapter as: Yoshimitsu, K. 2007. ‘Intercultural academic participation processes: The case of a Japanese international student at an Australian university’. In Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning, edited by Marriott, H; Moore, T; Spence-Brown, R. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 8.1 to 8.15.

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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning

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