Complexities in the role of English in international students’ experiences in multilingual Hong Kong

“Simply stating English as the medium of instruction in the name of internationalisation leaves much room for disagreement and inconsistency”

Research over the past decade has unveiled the complexities of language issues both inside and outside the classroom. However, relatively few studies consider the experiences of students in non-Anglophone settings. My research fills this gap by examining the role of English in the multilingual context of Hong Kong.

Using interview data gathered from 24 full-time international students with little or no proficiency in Chinese, my research traces their experiences of using English in Hong Kong higher education. In particular, my work focuses on the ‘language ideologies’ of international students, especially what participants think should be the role of English in the university. The results offer food for thought.

Over half the participants viewed English not only as the instructional medium, but also a means of social inclusion (or exclusion). These participants believed that an international university ought to use English in both formal instruction and other university contexts.

As a result, these participants expressed disappointment at how certain local students were unwilling to approach them for group work because of their reluctance to use English instead of Cantonese. Even when they were part of a group where someone was willing to mediate, Cantonese-to-English translations were often abbreviated and incomplete. After switching to English momentarily when interacting with the international student, the others would switch back to Cantonese during other interactions. The sense of exclusion would remain.

Some aspects of English usage were more contested. There were varying opinions on which type of English.

Some articulated ‘native’ accents as the ideal standard to which all should strive, but other participants adopted a broader view: “Everyone here speaks a different accent. So you can’t really expect others to speak like a native speaker. It’s just normal to have different accents.”

A few participants even reported how they regularly changed their accent depending on the situation.

This study points to the bigger question – how can universities regulate the use of English? Evidently, simply stating English as the medium of instruction in the name of internationalisation leaves much room for disagreement and inconsistency.

My research does not advocate the blanket usage of a singular form of English. Rather, it encourages reflection on ways to foster a learning environment that is inclusive and provides equal learning opportunities regardless of one’s place of origin. Which sites of interaction outside the classroom need to be defined by university policy? Must all conform to a particular version of English? Can these changes be implemented top-down, or should they begin bottom-up?

The even bigger question that remains unresolved is the place of English in a multicultural, international university.

There are situations where the local language is necessarily used alongside English. I am sure many on university campuses will have had casual conversations with non-academic university staff who do not speak English.

A more radical suggestion is that linguistic pluralism should be the norm in ‘international education’, as opposed to the monopoly of English. Finding the way for English as the medium of instruction is a work in progress. Understanding the dynamics and layers of English usage at universities is just the beginning.

Further reading

Sung, C. C. M. (2022). English only or more?: Language ideologies of international students in an EMI university in multilingual Hong Kong.Current Issues in Language Planning, 23(3), 275-295.

Sung, C. C. M. (2020). English as a lingua franca in the international university: Language experiences and perceptions among international students in multilingual Hong Kong.Language, Culture and Curriculum, 33(3), 258-273.

About the author: Dr. Matthew Sung is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at City University of Hong Kong. He holds a doctoral degree from Lancaster University, UK. He previously taught at the University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University. His current research focuses on the role of language in students’ experiences in international higher education.