The contextual knowledge of language and culture in education: Exploring the American university experiences of Chinese graduate students

Ying Wang

Abstract

The purpose of this study was to explore a group of Chinese graduate students' challenges in academic learning and daily communication with native English speakers. Using a case study strategy, the researcher interviewed five Chinese graduate students in the Fall 2001 and Spring 2002, interviewed four professors, conducted two group interviews, and particularly observed one participant the first day he arrived in the United States until finishing up this study. Even though they obtained high TOEFL scores, the study finds that this group of Chinese graduate students has difficulties in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The explanations for their difficulties include the influences of the first language, academic major differences, cultural differences, limited language learning environment, orientation of grammar and reading method in China, translation process in language production, motivation, and age. These factors contribute to the paradox of their years of learning English at their home country and difficulties integrating into an American social and academic life. The study discussed the students' language difficulties, the influences of the first language, cultural differences, communicative competence, learning environment, affective factors such as motivation and age, and students' coping strategies. Discussions also include implications for both the students' home country and for American universities in the field of second language teaching and learning. In the American classroom, there is a need to address professional development, and to prepare teachers, instructors, and professors in understanding the uniqueness of culture. In China, teaching reading, writing, listening, and speaking needs to be simultaneous. Effort should be made to create an environment that requires English usage and to adopt imported textbooks. The study also discusses future research directions.