[BCM212] Focus Group – Hearing from the Other Side of the Conversation

The domestic students’ perspective on the issue of language barriers for internation students and for themselves.

This research has definitely been anything but a smooth ride.

As you could see from my plan and proposal, I initially intended to run a focus group with 6-8 Vietnamese undergrads at UOW, to clarify and explore insights found in the survey. But oh boy did things go out of control…

I sent out around five emails and private messaged another ten people, hoping to recruit at least half of them to the focus group. Yet I had to cancel it, since only one-third of them could participate, and even so, we could not settle for a meeting to run the session.

I thought that part of the plan was left out for good, and as much as I hated it, I was determined to move on over the cancellation and catch up with the rest of my schedule. However, out of some impulse earlier, I had written a back-up plan in case plan A went awry. It was a list of questions exploring the issue from the perspective of domestic students, and fortunately, in one of my BCM212 tutorials, there was just enough time to run a quick 20-minute focus group with the participation of about 10 tute-mates, the majority of which are domestic students.

bcm212 featured pic 3
(artwork by me)

It was truly eye-opening. I’d been stuck for so long in thinking about language barriers for us international students only, I’d completely forgotten that it affects domestic students as well. Some key findings are as followed:

  1. Although my tute-mates often initiate conversations with international students (at least half of them have one or more international student(s) in their other classes, and one of them is a student leader at one of the uni accomodations), they can sometimes “feel bad” if they have to ask the students to repeat what they said or if they can’t understand the accents. Also, the fear of accidentally offending someone with just a supposedly common gestures – a handshake or looking straigh in the eyes – also makes them hesitate to initiate communication.
  2. A student said – and was agreed with by others (they nodded and smiled) – that he rarely corrected international students in his groups since he was afraid that he might come across as “mean” to them.
  3. When talking to non-native speakers, most of them find the accents the most challenging element. Also,
  4. A finding in the survey – how often an international student speaks up is due to personality and preferences rather than confidence in language competence – was further supported by the answers in the focus group. A student had a Chinese classmate who is completely quiet but she also had another who is flamboyant. A student pointed out that “the fear of making mistakes” as a “part of language acquisition as adults” might also hinder the students from contributing to discussions.
  5. Some creative solutions to help international students feel less anxious were put forward, including using compliments as an icebreaker, “asking the students about their culture” when meeting for the first time, and slowing down the speed of speech to assist the students in understanding them.

Overall, it was such a pleasant and enjoyable focus group session. There aren’t enough words to thank my tutor Renee for her help with such a last-minute plan, and my lovely tute-mates for their insightful contributions.

I’m polishing the interview schedule, and will meet up with a Vietnamese Ph.D. student in Education who is also an English teacher in Vietnam to find out more about the reasons behind language barriers and incompetence, as well as suggestions for the students’ improvement. Stay tuned!


Author: Minh-Anh Mia Do

book-smart and sugar-addicted || the written word & all things linguistics || email: dmad920@uowmail.edu.au

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