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Language and cultural issues

How should I, as a PhD supervisor*, handle the problem of language and /or cultural differences interfering with students' work?

The dilemmas associated with supervising students from other cultures seem to be due to sympathising on the one hand with how isolated and confused they must feel and thus wanting to do everything reasonable to help, while, on the other hand, not quite knowing the best way to set about providing that help and being limited anyway in terms of time and energy.

Since prevention is better than cure, prospective supervisors should have an automatic veto on whether to accept a student for a research programme - and this is especially so where there are issues of language competence. However, although this is standard practice in most institutions, there are reports that some institutions are so hungry for fees that prospective supervisors are not consulted. In supervisors' own interests, as well as their students', they should do everything they can to prevent this happening to them. Once a student is registered, the institution and department have the responsibility - invariably through the supervisor - to ensure that the student has all the necessary support to complete the research programme. Supervisors need to check in advance that this support is such that they can reasonably give it, or can direct the student to where it can be obtained.

General information

A common dilemma is how to handle what may be perceived as rudeness or sullenness on the part of the student. In this respect, it is important to be alert to different cultural norms in terms of, for example, looking a speaker in the eyes or arriving for appointments on time. Try to see such occurrences as potential misunderstandings; then deal with them as early on as possible, before patterns of interaction get too firmly established. If it seems appropriate, find out what the behaviour means to the student concerned and explain tactfully how that behaviour needs to change to be acceptable in a Western society. It may be advantageous to solicit the help of a more experienced member of the same culture.

Another common dilemma concerns how to handle students who seem to expect too much in the way of direction and do not appear to have any ideas or opinions of their own to offer. Realise that such students are unlikely to be more stupid than their Western counterparts, but that they probably come from cultures where it is considered good manners to be self-effacing and to defer to authority figures. Such students need a form of permission that original thinking and academic argument are acceptable and valued in Western universities; then, since they have not had the practice in expressing these attributes in a socially acceptable manner, they need help in doing so. Again the assistance of a more experienced member of the same culture can be invaluable.

Yet another common dilemma concerns how to handle students whose written work contains excessive and probably unthinking copying from the works of others. The cause is related: the student may believe, being steeped in the home culture, that he or she is honouring the author and the discipline by such copying. The solution again lies in open and tactful discussion, possibly with the assistance of a more experienced member of the culture.

There are other related dilemmas, and if you would like to explore them, Guide 1 in the series is strongly recommended, and this section has leant heavily on it. The resolution of all the related dilemmas lies first with understanding the possible causes and then with tactful exploration and negotiation. The onus is not entirely on supervisors: the students must want to succeed in their host country and be prepared to work at doing so.

There is advice for overseas students in the students section of this website.

edited extract from no 2 in the Guides series

Resolving Common Dilemmas in Supervision

by Pat Cryer

© Pat Cryer


* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.