Communication anxiety in class is a common phenomenon for all students, including domestic and international students. Many factors can lead to communication anxiety for international students. Here are three scenarios.
I have been trying very hard to prepare myself for class everyday. But I felt so nervous when it was my turn to present my ideas. I was too nervous to speak clearly, and I even stuttered when I got anxious. Now I feel so stupid. I am not sure how my professors and peers would think about me.
— Ming Chen, Department of Geography
I felt so conscious about my English accent. I started to learn English when I was in third grade, but my speaking is my weakness. I have a strong accent, and I am worried that my American peers would not know what I was talking about. I sometimes do not know how to express natively like Americans. I felt like speaking Chinglish.
— JunJin Wang, Department of Chemistry
When I was with my classmates who are also from my home country, I did not know which language I should use. I felt I should speak English, but as all of us are from the same country, am I allowed to use my native language in class? I felt weird speaking either language.
— Melissa Kim, Department of Sociology
- Do these scenarios resonate with your own experience in class?
- Where does the students’ anxiety come from?
- What might be some other sources of anxiety for international graduate students?
Communication anxiety is also related to identity issues. In many cases, your anxiety is linked to your concerns about your English accent, your “nativeness” or “non-nativeness” in English expression. In your home culture, you may have some sense of pride or entitlement about using the language of your home culture, but in a foreign country with a mixture of contexts, people may or may not identify with your home culture identity. For some people, coming to a new country is about having a brief, new experience as a part of their larger identity with their home culture; for others, the new country can be a way of starting a new and better life, and they have no desire to be closely associated with a “home” culture which to them carries many troubling memories. Either of those kinds of people, and others, could feel to you like your compatriots, but you may witness them responding differently to the stress of a new lifestyle and culture. All these concerns, theirs and yours, are legitimate and common among international students, and are something that must be respected and valued for what it is rather than concerning oneself with who is living abroad “the right way”. However, when there are obstacles to your English language development and the clarity of your communication, you should be aware of the issues. Acknowledging those concerns is the first step you should take to empower yourself, and then you should transform your “inferior English learner” identity into a professional multilingual and multicultural identity for yourself. It is a process you alone have the most control over, but it is not a journey one must make alone. Balancing your needs with those of your “home” (wherever you find that to be), your professional and academic development, and your immediate community is the challenging and rewarding substance of your newly forged identity as a person, a person of the present and the past, but also of the future.
Remember that you are speaking a second language in this country. How many people can speak a new language fluently and even pursue a degree through that language? You should be proud of yourself that you can speak two or more languages proficiently and are knowledgeable in different cultures. You are free to speak a language at your discretion for different communicative purposes. Therefore, instead of worrying about your accent and the nativeness of your English, you should pay more attention to the intelligibility and clarity of your English. The decision on which language to use should also be based upon the context: whom you are talking to, what you are talking about, and what your purpose is. Being multilingual and multicultural means you can be more strategic in your language use for your communication goals. All in all, language should not be used as a tool to divide people but unite people all around the world.