When Mira Kim moved from South Korea to Sydney 20 years ago to study a postgraduate program, the professional translator had every reason to feel confident in her English language ability. She was understandably shocked when she received a ‘C’ for one of her first assignments.
Her experience is an example of what many international students go through when they arrive at Australian universities, the Associate Professor in Translation and Interpreting Studies in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences says.
“We admit students from non-English-speaking backgrounds to study at Australian universities, and there is a huge gap between the students’ expectations and the reality,” she says.
Associate Professor Kim recalls one international student who won many English speaking competitions in China and was suitably surprised after he arrived in Sydney to find that he couldn’t even order a meal at McDonald’s.“On top of the language barrier, the students also face a number of difficulties caused by cultural differences, social exclusion, financial issues and homesickness.
“International students are very valuable members of our learning community and I don’t think their English is poor,” Associate Professor Kim says. “But we do need to provide a safe and supportive environment so they can feel motivated to practise what they already know and can do.”
Associate Professor Kim is the brains behind UNSW’s Personalised English Language Enhancement (PELE) course, where students improve their communication skills through a unique model that allows them to build their skills in one communication area that they choose, such as speaking, writing, listening, reading or vocabulary.
“The students have to analyse where they feel they need to build their English communication and they choose an aspect they want to improve substantially,” she says. “For example, they can work on structure or problems with verb tenses.”
"PELE is not just a course that teaches students knowledge and skills, but it is an inspiring learning community where they learn how to learn, help each other learn better, and share what they have achieved in a fun environment,” she says.
PELE students continue to meet outside of class to practise their English in regular social clubs involving board games, singing, book and conversation clubs. Conversation club students practise common expressions used in daily life, such as how to describe symptoms to a doctor or how to play a sport.
“So many international students learned English at school without having direct contact with English speakers or living in English-speaking countries, so their vocabulary tends to be quite weak when it comes to daily conversation,” Associate Professor Kim says.
Many international students have chosen to come to Australia not only to obtain a degree but to experience the local culture, she says.
“Some students say to me, ‘I just want to learn the local culture, the local language. I just want to mingle with local people, but I can’t. And that’s why I want to improve my conversation skills rather than academic writing skills’,” she says.
Hundreds of international students – mainly from China but also from Ghana, Saudi Arabia, Portugal, Thailand, France, Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Sweden – have completed the one-term course in the last three years. The unique course is constantly evolving, with Associate Professor Kim using information from student surveys throughout the course to refine the program.
Associate Professor Kim says the students’ transformation at the end of the course is moving and inspiring.
“We have a learning festival at the end of each term and you can’t help but cry and laugh with them when you hear how hard their experience as international students has been, and the progress they’ve made through their own personal journey,” she says.
Spurred on by the success of the course, Associate Professor Kim is now developing PELE into a program of four courses instead of one.
“I’m just reminding students that they are beautiful human beings as they are, and their English is good enough to be admitted to this great university,” she says.
“However, if they feel the need to improve their English communication skills, they can do it in their own way.”