Macquarie University
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Multilingual students at monolingual universities: Language ideological debates about international students in Australia

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posted on 2024-05-06, 01:31 authored by Agnes BodisAgnes Bodis


This thesis by publication explores the discursive construction of English language proficiency (ELP) and multilingualism in the context of Australian higher education. The shift to a marketized higher educational model has brought an increased number of international students to Australian universities, resulting in several tensions. Most prominent among these is the ‘English problem’, namely the widely discussed claim that international students’ ELP is too low to cope with their academic workloads and, after graduation, with the professional requirements of their work. Therefore, language ideological debates related to international students constitute a prominent site where interrelated conflicts about academic commodification and national identity play out.

The thesis approaches the research problem through a series of critical multimodal discourse analytic studies of mainstream and social media discussions of international students’ ELP, university ELP admission requirements, and interviews with, and observations of, English language teaching professionals. Specifically, two studies that comprise this PhD examine the representation of ELP and multilingualism in an episode of a television current affairs program intended to expose malpractice in international education at Australian universities. Another two studies investigate the discursive construction of ELP as an admission requirement for university study. One further sub-study explores language teachers’ understandings of ELP testing and requirements. The thesis is rounded out by a conceptual paper presenting a model for the integration into the university curriculum of language teaching and intercultural competence.

Overall, the study finds that ELP is highly simplified in both public discussions and institutional communication. Furthermore, ELP levels are attached to specific student cohorts as a permanent quality. The responsibility for low ELP and its negative consequences is consistently assigned to international students themselves. This casts international students in a perpetual deficit view, particularly as their multilingual skills are either erased altogether or, where they appear, depicted as devious.

The study shows that public discourse and institutional communication are interlinked. This points to the need to ensure more responsible and realistic representations of ELP both in public and institutional communication as well as shifting the focus from language as a deficit view to fostering inclusive practices for a greater appreciation of linguistic diversity.


Table of Contents

1. Introduction -- 2. The discursive (mis) representation of English language proficiency: International students in the Australian media -- 3. ‘Double deficit’ and exclusion: Mediated language ideologies and international students’ multilingualism -- 4. An objective measure? The construction of English language proficiency in Australian university admission requirements -- 5. Gatekeeping and business: English language proficiency as a university admission requirement in Australia -- 6. The impact of teacher cognition and classroom practices on IELTS test preparation courses in the Australian ELICOS sector -- 7. Integrating intercultural competence in course curricula in a tailored way -- 8. Conclusion -- References


Thesis by publication

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Doctor of Philosophy

Department, Centre or School

Department of Linguistics

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Ingrid Piller

Additional Supervisor 1

Philip Chappell


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265 pages