Hidden Communication Challenges

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Why is it challenging for international students to adapt to new learning environments? How can faculty promptly determine whether international students comprehend class content? Is it ever appropriate to use informal, idiomatic language when teaching international students?

Conestoga Context

According to International at Conestoga…

  • There are currently over 4,000 full-time international students registered at Conestoga.
  • 64.42% of these students are male; 35.58% are female.
  • 72.98% are from India. Students from China represent the next highest proportion at 4.84%.
  • A year ago, 2,493 international students registered at Conestoga, meaning that we have experienced an increase of 60.75% over the past year.
  • 1,352 new international students started this semester (Winter 2018).
  • It is estimated that 80% or more of our international students hope to remain in Canada after their studies.

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

As the number of international students increases at many postsecondary institutions across Canada, the need to “internationalize” has become a trending subject in recent publications and educational dialogue. Internationalization can be defined as “any systematic, sustained effort aimed at making higher education responsive to the requirements and challenges related to the globalization of societies, economy and labor markets” (Van der Wende, as cited in Niehaus & Williams, 2015, p. 60).

Naturally, there are many educational rewards that can be attributed to student diversity; however, the increasingly heterogeneous reality of postsecondary classrooms has also presented new challenges for stakeholders, including faculty. Two examples of challenges that faculty at Conestoga have recently experienced include

  • Difficulty “reading” students in the classroom to verify their level of engagement, comfort, and comprehension.
  • Difficulty knowing when or whether it is appropriate to use figurative language and idiomatic expressions while teaching.

These examples represent two of the less-obvious, or “hidden”, communication challenges that are especially difficult during the early stages of study when relationships are still forming, students are still adjusting to their new academic and social environments, and acculturative stress is heightened.

Acculturative Stress Theory

Lueck and Wilson (as cited in Tiwari, Gopal Singh & Hasan, 2017) explain that acculturative stress occurs during the process of adjusting to a different culture, characterized by a deficiency in mental health and well-being. Microaggressions can intensify the level of acculturative stress that international students experience; for example, “covert forms of inhospitality, cultural intolerance, and unfairness” and “being perceived as unintelligent because of speech characteristics and language proficiency” are just some of the experiences that can raise acculturative stress (Houshmand, Spanierman & Tafarodi, 2014, p. 377).

Furthermore, the work of Maxwell (as cited in Brydon & Liddell, 2012) reveals that international students “[find] it difficult to approach academic staff due to feelings of shyness and often feel more concerned with teacher input than with their own learning outcomes” (p.999). This sense of shyness, in turn, can cause students to withhold questions and requests for support, thereby leaving it up to faculty to create ongoing, guided opportunities for students to communicate their needs and demonstrate their comprehension. It is especially helpful for these opportunities to occur in class, as anecdotal records indicate that new international students are less likely to interact with learning management systems (such as e-Conestoga) or pursue other support services. Ultimately, they rely on their professors to guide their learning.

Conceptual Fluency Theory

As faculty endeavor to support international students, the need to communicate clearly (through speaking, writing, and listening) is essential. Communication can become strained, however, if factors such as conceptual fluency are not taken into account. Danesi (2016) describes conceptual fluency as a “recurrent type of classroom error” that involves gaps in the recognition and interpretation of language (p. 145). He explains that students tend to “think” in their first language as they speak their second language. This guides their choice of words and other structures in the formation of sentences and utterances, which may obscure the intended meaning of their messages (Danesi, 2016). He also asserts that “the control of figurative language is crucial if true second language proficiency is to be achieved by classroom learners” (Danesi, 2016, p. 145).

With this, the proposal of conceptual fluency theory is for educators to incorporate metaphors, idioms, and informal expressions into the language of teaching, but to do so in way that is controlled and appropriately supported. For example, when a professor says, “The bottom line is profit,” she may follow this statement with the explanation, “In this context, the bottom line refers to someone’s or something’s principal objective.” This explanation could be even be illustrated on a slide or whiteboard and then added to a list of vocationally-relevant idioms and expressions.

Suggestions and Innovations

Be honest with students about the type of cues and behaviours that you expect/prefer to see while teaching. For example, notetaking, following along in the text, and making gestures to indicate agreement/comprehension/confusion are all potentially helpful.

Check-in with students by pausing regularly to ask concrete questions during a lesson or lecture. To encourage participation, you can even provide a list of relevant questions or prompts from which students can choose.

Be conscientious when using idiomatic expressions. Use this language moderately take time to explain expressions that are useful to students. Language that does not relate to the course curriculum is better left unused.

Remember to write expressions down and, wherever possible, refer to visual aids so that students can conceptualize their meanings. Encourage students to document idiomatic language so that they have a record of useful expressions.

Promote opportunities for students to engage in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities at Conestoga and in their communities. These activities can build confidence, improve language, strengthen relationships, and reduce acculturative stress. Direct students to Conestoga’s Co-Curricular Portal (‘CCP’ – accessible via MyConestoga) to review upcoming activities.


Brydon, K. & Liddell, M. (2012). Supporting International Students Undertaking Australian University Studies. Social Work Education, 31(8), 995-1011.

Danesi, M. (2016). Conceptual Fluency in Second Language Teaching: An Overview of Problems, Issues, Research Findings, and Pedagogy. International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature, 5(1), 145-153.

Houshmand, S., Spanierman, L. B., & Tafarodi, R. W. (2014). Excluded and avoided: Racial microaggressions targeting Asian international students in Canada. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 20(3), 377-388. doi:10.1037/a0035404

Niehaus, E. & Williams, L. (2015). Faculty Transformation in Curriculum Transformation: The Role of Faculty Development in Campus Internationalization. Innovative Higher Education, 41, 59-74.

Tiwari, R., Singh, B. G., & Hasan, B. (2017). Acculturative stress and coping strategies of foreign students: A systematic review. Indian Journal Of Health & Wellbeing, 8(7), 683-687.


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