The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

3. Being aware of language and cultural references

3.1. Language issues for students

English language is an important factor when international students choose to study in the UK. A good command of English is a highly valued skill for many professionals across the world, and achieving language fluency is a goal for international students. Although institutions set certain language standards as entry requirement, the monitoring of these standards tends to be subcontracted to language units within the institutions.

One issue faced by many international students is the sudden realisation when they arrive in the UK that despite their language qualifications they still find it difficult to understand what others say and others find it difficult to understand them. This is usually often unexpected and can be very disheartening. As a result many international students become very self-conscious which can lead them to avoid speaking with others and to isolation.

Often international students, particularly those new to the UK, are more fluent in written than in spoken English. They may not be prepared for specialised jargon, and initially being taught and tested in English can be unexpectedly difficult. A further issue is that students may feel inhibited to ask for clarification which can affect their performance.

Schmitt (2005) reports that the vocabulary considered sufficiently large for native English speakers is 40,000 words whilst for non-native English speakers entering university it is 10,000 words. Schmitt et al. (2001) found the average vocabulary of university-aged English language students in several countries to be just under 4600 words. As would be expected with such a limited vocabulary, students' understanding and progress are likely to be affected. A study by Shanahan and Meyer (2003) found that first-year students of Economics for whom English was a second language, did significantly worse in end-of-semester examination results than students for whom English was a first language.

The following quotes reflect some difficulties initially faced by some international students studying Economics in the UK:*

‘At the beginning of the course it was difficult to grasp more technical and academic terms, but I would not see that as a long-term problem.’

‘I had hardly any experience with essay writing, which resulted in several bad marks at the beginning of my course.’

A high proportion of international students of Economics in the UK report that their learning had been affected in some way due to language:*

‘To some extent, yes. It doesn't affect my understanding, but when it comes to asking questions and writing essays, I do have some problems.’

International students who are native or near-native English speakers, and to some extent UK students whose first language is not English or who come from areas with strong regional accents, can also struggle. The practical suggestions on learning and teaching we share in this chapter may be useful for them as well.

Many international students initially rely on varied verbal and non-verbal cues to understand what is being said, including pace and emphasis, lip reading, facial expressions, hand movements, multisensory signals and contextual prompts. Strong regional accents, colloquialism, the use of unusual phrasal verbs, jargon, abbreviations, acronyms and references to culturally specific information can all obscure the message. Being aware of language and cultural references is very important, as commented by a UK Economics lecturer:

‘My most serious issue is providing material in language that is understandable by ESL students. I am searching for ideas all the time – [the Economics Network site] helps me in this regard.’

3.2. Strong regional accents

It is inevitable to encounter strong accents in an international environment whether individuals are native speakers or not. Both international and UK students consider language issues as barriers to learning:*

‘The seminar tutor should speak better English, as a strong Chinese accent makes it sometimes very hard to follow, even for my native English speaking friends.’

‘Use of more understandable English by the tutors would make seminars far more useful. They can be a little useless when the group cannot understand the tutor and the tutor cannot understand the students when questions are raised.’

Whilst it may be expected that in international environments people may not immediately understand each other, and that this should not necessarily be a barrier to communication, a strong accent can make the a lecture or tutorial incomprehensible. From the students’ perspective, struggling to follow what we are saying because of our accent can be very frustrating and from their perspective, unacceptable. It is therefore crucial that the delivery of content does not rely exclusively on the spoken word.

Another problem is when students ask a question or offer an opinion but we cannot understand them due to their accent. Asking the students to repeat or rephrase may be embarrassing and counterproductive. Sometimes, it is tempting to pretend we have understood the contribution and try to move on. On a practical note, from our experience, the more we engage with different accents the more we are likely to come to understand them.

Top Tip

A constructive approach when we cannot understand students’ contributions due to strong accents is to ask the student to write the question/comment on a piece of paper for us to read, and then for us to write the question on the board for the benefit of all.

3.3. Particular uses of English

Colloquialism, idiomatic and unusual expressions, phrasal verbs, jargon, abbreviations and acronyms

Calling a spade a spade. We should avoid using colloquialisms, idiomatic or unusual expressions that take a long time to understand and learn. One of us recently heard a specialist referring to ‘looking at the accounts with a beady eye’ thought it was an acronym 'a BDI ', and asked what it was. So if we do use such expressions, we should explain what they mean and why we are using them.

Most international students will know common phrasal verbs including to stand up. Less common phrasal verbs can be very difficult to decode and even puzzling. For example, what does to stand down mean? Is it the opposite of to stand up? If so, how can we physically do it? To develop awareness of such unusual uses can take a long time! Can we use alternatives maybe closer to the Latin or Greek root? For example, instead of to stand down we might use resign. Linguistically related to phrasal verbs are also expressions that use the same particles as phrasal verbs but in a different order and which have very different meanings – these can be very confusing. Examples of this include to set off and offset; and set up and upset.

We should write down all specialised jargon, abbreviations (e.g.; i.e.) or acronyms (BDI!), and what they mean in legible print so that we can refer to this when we use them. It is most helpful if we can refer to a glossary that we have previously made available to students (as discussed in section 6). Also, if year after year, international students make a spelling mistake writing specialised jargon or expressions, we should refer to this, and maybe suggest a way of memorising the word/expression properly.

3.4. Culturally specific references

Examples are important to illustrate information and to help students pay attention to the lecture or tutorial. However, if examples are specific to cultural references they are meaningful only to some students and many international students may effectively be excluded. An illustration of this is when we asked non-European international students and staff about ‘Asterix and Obelix’ and very few recognise these characters.(note 1) Further examples include cultural, social, political, religious or historical references based on the UK, USA and Europe; and TV and radio programmes, films, magazines, newspapers, cartoons and books. Many international students frequently prefer to watch and listen to programmes and to read sources from their countries of origin. So if we want to use local examples, we need to explain the context and why we are using them, and if applicable we could bring a copy to the lecture or tutorial to show.

In cases where our lectures focus on UK specific systems—say, the UK tax system—some international students may feel that this is not relevant to them. We can explain that the underlying thinking and practicalities about systems in the UK are transferable to other systems, and that it is of value to analyse different models of organisation and to learn how to access the relevant information.

Top Tip

The motivation of international students can increase if we ask them to contribute with information relevant to their country. For example, we can ask students to verify the specific impact that a global trend has on a particular economic aspect of their country.


The Adventures of Asterix is a series of hardback French comic strips, first published in 1959, very popular with children and adults alike, in many European countries (