Adjustment experiences of non-indigenous students studying a second language in a different country: a case study of Chinese non-indigenous Thai learners at Mahasarakham University, Thailand
Worldwide, there are many students studying in foreign language environments but, to date, not a great deal of literature examining how well they cope. This study explores the adjustment experiences of Chinese undergraduate students who were non-indigenous Thai language learners at Mahasarakham University (MSU), Thailand.
The adjustment experience is a significant hurdle for international students to overcome, and while some issues are quickly dealt with, others can have influences for a longer period of time. This study covered short and long term adjustment issues affecting students socially and academically. The majority of the issues investigated are relevant to the general consideration of adjustment experiences of students from southern China studying anywhere in Thailand, given the low variability in cultural issues. The implications of a wider range of applicable cultural background issues beyond individualism/collectivism, and the points on teaching and learning styles, apply more widely to international study.
The Chinese students’ adjustment experiences were explored with triangulation of multiple methods, data sources and viewpoints. Six students, three Thai lecturers, and three Thai administrators underwent in-depth interviewing, and 22 fourth-year Chinese students completed a questionnaire. Six participants’ narrative stories were obtained through interviews and reflective journals.
Existing theory would have predicted that the students would adjust easily, as they were moving to another collectivist culture, similar to their own; however, the study revealed that the students still faced adjustment problems. Three specific groups of issues were reported by the participants: the freedom and flexibility of the lecturers, the punctuality of the lecturers, and the learning approaches employed. Students referred to the freedom and flexibility of the teaching approaches at MSU while stating that the lecturers in Guangxi University of Nationalities (GXUN) taught students by following a textbook only. All students in this study referred to the late arrival of the lecturers in MSU at times, while it was usual for those in GXUN to be on time. There was a general perception that there were various differences in the learning approaches (e.g. more opportunity to create their own work). These coincided with a study by Dunn (2006), which claimed that the greater the differences between the two educational systems, the more academic adjustment problems international students tend to face.
This study proposes that the differences experienced in academic culture may be a result of the looseness of Thai culture. Hofstede (1980) stated that people in a loose culture have fewer rules and more flexible normative standards. In the current study both the flexibility and lack of punctuality of the Thai lecturers may therefore result from the looser culture producing less regimented teaching styles.
The study’s results suggest that though China and Thailand are both collectivist societies there are still significant differences in “culture” to be overcome by the sojourners. In the academic setting, tightness/looseness is proposed as an additional cultural factor which requires adjustment and as one that influences teaching and learning styles significantly. Therefore, “culture” alone does not have the overriding influence on this experience, but rather that intercultural education should be considered as a process, reflecting the students’ relationships with their learning environments and teachers.
Although the students did face difficulties, they reported a positive overall experience and adjusted with the help of friends and family, who gave them advice on educational problems and support when they needed it. Sussman (2000) indicated that positive experiences of this type were less frequently reported and these findings therefore demonstrate a significant contribution to cross-cultural transition studies.