Separating Academic Success & Language Success

The teacher’s room on the second floor of Wuxi Guanghua Private High School, where I spent a great deal of time working on lesson plans, talking with my Chinese academic colleagues, and helping students between their breaks, was where I truly learned how difficult language acquisition was for these extremely bright, talented, and motivated young students. Students routinely put in fourteen-hour days for four weeks in a row — endured hours-long weekend practice exams in preparation for the end of the year — and who were constantly judged, measured, and ranked in comparison to all others.

Most of my colleagues teaching English in Wuxi were not strong English speakers themselves. They taught English using Chinese — focused on rote memorization of vocabulary, reading based on practicing the test, and with little emphasis on speaking, listening, or creative writing. While some students did spend extra time improving their use of English, for most students it was a required subject, or something that they would simply refine later after the exams were done. There was a clear distinction between studying English for academic success and studying it for language success — which is the topic of this paper today.

Across the west, for those of us working in international student recruitment, college counseling, etc., we directly correlate students’ English language ability with his/her aptitude for academic success. If a student has difficulty with English, then it must mean that he/she is not a serious academic student, and therefore is far more of an admission risk or not worthy or our attention. And while this assumption often works — students that don’t have strong English language abilities may not be the best students, the assumption doesn’t hold always for all students. Students may not have been in the best environment to nurture their English, like my students in Wuxi, or they may have been forced to make difficult study decisions emphasizing academic success over language success.

So what to do about these students? How should we determine if they are worth a spot, worth the risk of admission or our attention? The key question should be, “Can we help this student?” Does each of our schools or institutions have the resources necessary to dramatically accelerate a students’ English language ability, so that they can pursue a high school diploma or college degree? The incoming student may have an extremely strong aptitude and interest for criminal justice, nursing, physics and engineering, or another academic subject. But only with adequate resources can students have a chance to truly thrive. This is the reason why universities, with robust English language programs and conditional admissions policies are so important — they offer the opportunity to their English language ability so that these students can live up to their full potential. For while academic success and language success can be independent of each other in students’ home countries — they absolutely must be linked for students to maximize their educational opportunity while enrolled in the US or other English-speaking countries.