LUCAS MADDALENA with permission for varsity

“When I first came to the UK, it was like having to learn everything from scratch as an adult,” says Dennis, a postgraduate student. From navigating social settings where he couldn’t understand what people were laughing about, to adjusting to unfamiliar cultural references and slang, Dennis’ learning curve reflects the challenges that many international students face when adapting to a foreign country.

Naturally, the circumstances of international students differ widely, and not all non-native speakers grapple with the same issues. But the challenges of navigating a foreign linguistic environment proved a common refrain among the students we spoke to.

“Culture shock can come from unsaid subtext in tone and register”

Clara, a visiting student, recounts struggling to join casual conversations with lab partners because she felt self-conscious when speaking English. Cultural references easily get lost in translation: “Even if I had watched a movie they were talking about, I might not recognise its English title, since I watched the Chinese version,” she relates. These language barriers worsen international students’ susceptibility to feeling culturally alienated. “Not relating to experiences British people have had, nor being able to participate in debates such as accents or the schooling system, makes it more difficult to integrate into friend groups, which can get lonely at times,” explains Frieda, an EU national.

Even for those from English-speaking countries, culture shock can come from unsaid subtext in tone and register. The characteristically English art of the polite command, for example, might obscure meaning for those unused to the British style of communication. “One time a supervisor asked me if I wanted to read my essay aloud,” recounts Ayesha, a second-year. “It took me a second to figure out it wasn’t really a question.”

Many international students also feel the need to modify their speech around locals, despite already being conversant in English at home. “My accent changes slightly around British people, even the way I say my name,” says Ayesha. With African-Caribbean and Indian accents seen as the ‘least prestigious’ in the UK, it’s not hard to see why. Yet, the pressure to code-switch can be mentally and physically exhausting. By contrast, some non-native speakers, like Dennis, who learnt a more formal style of English for his studies, recount having to learn to speak informally so as to relate to others in social settings.

Language challenges impact academic work as well. “It’s difficult to follow classes when lecturers speak really fast,” relates Belinda, a postgraduate student. The extensive writing to be done in an exam setting multiplies in difficulty when one’s writing speed is already inherently limited. “If I wrote any faster, I’d have to stop to correct grammar mistakes, and it also takes time for me to search for vocabulary,” Belinda says.

Even with sound linguistic proficiency, unfamiliarity with underlying cultural subtleties can affect students’ engagement with material. “Law is all based on natural language, with a lot of hidden societal context,” says Dennis. “If you don’t understand that context, it’s very hard to understand how it evolved to today.”

Recognising these challenges, the University has made efforts to provide academic skills support targeted to international students. The Language Centre’s ADTIS (Academic Development and Training for International Students) scheme offers presessional and in-sessional courses to refine international students’ academic English skills. Programmes like writing workshops, one-to-one supervisions and conversation hours help students cultivate key linguistic competencies.

“For most students, their main motivation for joining an ADTIS course would be writing,” shares Dr Karen Ottewell, Director of ADTIS. Since students already enter with solid English proficiency, what’s most important is building academic literacy in a student’s specific discipline and acculturating students into English-language academic culture, especially for research students, who have to “hit the ground running” when their courses begin.

To provide social support, the SU’s International Student Campaign fosters community building for international students. “We organise social events where internationals can meet others with similar experiences,” explains Ana, a welfare rep at the ISC. When Cambridge gets more lonely outside term, it runs a “Buddy Scheme” and other meet-ups for international students staying over the break.


Mountain View

‘The costs are absurd’: International students on studying at Cambridge

Yet such support often goes under the radar: most students we spoke to weren’t aware of either ADTIS or the ISC. Additionally, a strong asymmetry in college-based support for international and home students was reflected in the most recent Big Cambridge Survey Report: While 72% of Home students feel supported by College teaching staff, that number fell to 62% among EU students and 48% among students from outside the EU. Ana stresses that more could be done by colleges to help internationals with the broader financial and logistical challenges they face.

Many of the students we spoke to identify with minority groups in Cambridge, whether in race, religion or culture. Wider questions of diversity and cultural exclusion underscore their concerns over language. One student felt that some students “don’t want to talk to people from developing countries,” while several have experienced being ignored by staff members and peers.

In the end, students simply lean upon those around them for support: Belinda credits her housemates for introducing her to cultural references and helping to proofread her writing, while Dennis found a sense of community by pursuing extracurricular activities. On the whole, most international students we spoke to were still appreciative of the largely welcoming environment at Cambridge. Adapting to life in a foreign culture might not be the easiest task, but for many international students, it’s still worth the while.

Student names have been changed.