To critically reflect on terms used for writing
In the subfield of research with international students, scholars write in multiple languages and in different disciplines that use terms in a range of different ways. Some terms may be current in some contexts, while they are being challenged and critiqued in others. This resource aims to explain how terms are being challenged and critiqued in the best, most critical and challenging, literature that we are aware of. Italics indicate a consideration of particular relevance for writing about research with international students.
We cannot always escape the use of problematic terms for meaningful communication, particularly for critique, but encourage researchers to engage reflexively with the terminology presented here. We are not recommending specific ‘preferred’ terms, but ask authors to think carefully about and, where necessary, specifically address the assumptions that underpin terminologies used. All definitions are necessarily partial and are currently based on the authors’ best understandings of the issues (as of 2022). We hope to develop this resource further with references and links to further reading in the future.
We welcome contact from readers who have further additions or suggested changes for this resource. This is particularly as we recognise that challenges and terminologies are being constantly raised and new language should consistently be developed for more critical ideas.
- Describing the world
- Colonialism and related injustices
- Getting used to being somewhere different
Describing the world
Western/non-Western – ‘Western’ is usually meant to refer to countries or cultures that derive from Western Europe. The ‘West’ vs ‘East’ dichotomy was a fundamental tool of empire, to differentiate between White European Christian imperialists and ‘the Orient’, constructed as foreign and inferior and therefore a viable population to conquer. The term ‘Western’ and particularly its corollary ‘non-Western’ therefore risks supporting this distinction and giving it further validity.
Third World – the term ‘Third World’ is technically a Cold War legacy, referring to the bloc of countries who were unaligned with either the West (First World) or the Soviet bloc (Second World). Since then, while the terms First and Second World have largely fallen out of usage, ‘Third World’ endures, referring to countries perceived as ‘less developed’, and often with democracies considered less stable or secure. The term ‘Third World’ is often read as negative or pejorative.
Developing/developed/less developed – the ‘development’ of nations combines indicators of economic, social, health, political, and educational status, and informs a global categorisation into ‘developed’, ‘developing’ and sometimes ‘least or less developed’. These categories are used by global organisations like the World Bank and United Nations to inform aid programmes and target global policy. However, the notion of ‘development’ alludes strongly to Western informed concepts of ‘progress’, measuring the world against the ‘standard’ of the ‘West’. In a decolonial approach (see below), it is important to ask where that standard came from, who consents to it, and how information is collected to inform it. Any term relating to ‘development’ should be used critically and cautiously.
Global South/North – the terms ‘Global South’ and ‘Global North’ are often used in an effort to get away from some of the problematic ideologies of the terms above. The ‘Global South’ refers to countries, most of which are in the Southern Hemisphere geographically, that are mostly poorer, less developed, often previously colonised. The ‘Global North’ refers to countries, mostly in the North physically but not exclusively (consider Australia, for instance), that are ‘more developed’ and have more global power. Major critiques of these terms include that they are often geographically inaccurate (see below) and tend to homogenise country groupings through euphemisms that allude to perceived ‘development’. Use of this term should reflect on its accuracy and whether it is being used as an overly simplistic euphemism for other problematic terms listed above.
Global majority/minority – these terms derive from a concern about the use of Global South/North. One of the critiques of the way geography is taught is that putting the North Pole and the Northern Hemisphere at the top of the map implies superiority, because many Western-influenced cultures associate the ‘top’ of anything as ‘the best’ (consider the penthouse apartment, for example). Instead, some scholars wish to emphasise that not only is the ‘North’ an arbitrary geographic position, but also people living in conditions of the ‘Global North’ (i.e. wealthy, privileged, not exposed to severe climate crisis) are in the global minority. The term ‘global majority’ is therefore intended to emphasise how most people in the world live. While these terms are coming into fashion, it is not yet familiar to many potential audiences and may require further explanation.
Anglophone/non-Anglophone – countries in which English is the official or majority language spoken, specifically, for the purposes of this volume, in educational settings. While this term is technically accurate, not all international students travel to Anglophone destinations and the use of the term ‘non-Anglophone’ may perpetuate a dichotomy which presumes that English is the norm, and anything else is outside the norm (i.e. ‘non’).
America/North America/USA – the United States of America is a political nation. ‘America’ technically refers to both North AND South America, as well as the Caribbean Islands. North America geographically refers to the USA, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Frequently, North America is used as a short-hand to refer specifically to the USA and Canada, exclusive of Mexico and the Caribbean. Care should be taken NOT to use ‘America’ as a synonym for ‘the USA’ and to use the correct terminology for the countries under discussion.
Europe/Western Europe/The European Union – ‘Europe’ is the geographic continent. The UK, despite Brexit, is still geographically ‘European’. The European Union is a political entity. Switzerland, for example, is geographically European but not an EU member state. Western Europe is a cultural and historical entity, synonymous with neither the EU nor ‘Europe’ as a geographic continent. Care should be taken not to move between political, geographic, and cultural-historic terminology without purpose.
Asia/East Asia/China/Confucian Heritage Culture – ‘Asia’ is a geographic continent, not a cultural entity. ‘East Asia’ geographically refers commonly to China, Japan, Mongolia, North and South Korea and Taiwan. Often ‘East Asian’ is used as a short-hand that presumes some cultural similarity, but this region includes great diversity. ‘Confucian-Heritage Culture’ is sometimes used to refer to countries influenced by Confucianism, often cited as significant in Korea, Vietnam and Japan, as well as China. It is taken to be significant in educational philosophy. While these terms have value and may encourage researchers to develop culturally relativistic (see below) understandings of their students’ heritage, care should be taken not to develop a fixed, static or essentialist (see below) view that homogenises international students. Sometimes writing that starts from wishing to be specific about the characteristics of a particular group can contribute to the development of stereotypes. As above, care should be taken to differentiate between the geographic, political, and cultural terms used and not to treat them as synonyms.
Colonialism and related injustices
Eurocentric – research, curricula, or other knowledge structures that focus primarily or exclusively on Europe or European-influenced languages, cultures, or other phenomena. Use of this term should be considered to encompass the global influence of the USA and the relative status of countries like Australia and New Zealand as ‘European-influenced’. However, this term disregards inequalities within Europe and implicitly emphasises Western Europe, specifically imperial powers.
Colonial – the act of colonisation was the physical act of occupying a previously independent sovereign nation or territory, and sending people from the imperial power to live and extract resources. This required the imposition of legal and intellectual systems of domination and oppression that legitimated and justified these acts. To refer to something as ‘colonial’ refers to these systems, which endure to the present day. Thus, coloniality was coined to describe systems of thought that structure and underpin colonial oppression. It is important to be accurate in the use of terms ‘colonisation’ (i.e. the act of occupation), ‘colonial’ (the adjective that can describe events and systems both during and after formal colonisation), and ‘coloniality’ (the noun describing the systems of thought). A curriculum can therefore be ‘colonial’ or one can examine ‘the coloniality of curriculum’, but we cannot say ‘a curriculum has been colonised’. Rather it is ‘a product of colonisation’. Use of the language of ‘colonial’ should also refer to the (impacts of) land occupation, not as a euphemism for anti-racism or inclusivity.
Postcolonial – countries which claimed (or reclaimed) their independence from imperial powers went through a historical period often described as ‘postcolonial’ in the political sense. Postcolonial theory developed to understand and challenge the subtle and enduring power dynamics exerted during and after colonialism. It is important to note that many processes of extraction and domination continued after formal independence was declared. Postcolonial is not a synonym of ‘decolonial’ (see below) and should be used specifically to refer to a historical or political period, or to the scholarly work of ‘postcolonial theory’.
Decolonisation – once formal political independence was declared, many countries began to grapple with the great cultural, historic, and linguistic losses imposed during colonisation. In education, this included debates about, among other things, establishing curricula independent of the colonial power, developing school systems that did not refer to the imperial norm, or deciding on official languages in plurilingual contexts. Decolonisation also refers to the physical and material acts of restoring land, artefacts, and other resources into the ownership of the nation, not the imperial power. Decolonisation of knowledge similarly refers to de-centering the knowledge of former colonisers and re-centering local knowledge, history, ideas and values. Critiques have been made that decolonisation is an empty act where it focuses exclusively on the intellectual or conceptual dimensions and not on the physical and material side. Some scholars, therefore, use the term decoloniality or anti-coloniality to emphasise the intellectual dimensions, and reserve decolonisation for the political, physical or material processes. However, this is not a consistent usage. As noted above, ‘decolonisation’ or ‘decoloniality’ should be used explicitly to refer to the restoration of what was lost under colonialism, not as a euphemism for anti-racism or inclusivity.
Cultural Relativism – the belief that there is no single or universal norm of ethics, behaviour, or cultural practice, but rather that cultural practices or beliefs should be understood within their own context and history. Often this is the (implicit) goal of multi- or intercultural education, as it is considered to be an important precursor towards authentic tolerance towards difference. These are often challenged by:
- Ethnocentrism – having a focus on one’s own country or ethnic group, assuming (often implicitly) that the norms of this culture, country or society are universal.
- Essentialism – perceiving culture as fixed, unchanging, and internally homogenous and capable of explaining human behaviour at an individual or small group level.
Use of such terms in this research subfield should be explicit with a detailed description of what and how practices are believed to be ethnocentric or essentialised. It can be useful to disentangle whether beliefs or practices are ethnocentric, colonialist, racist, or all three, treating these as mutually intersecting and reinforcing, rather than synonymous.
Race, racism, et al.
Race – originally race as a concept referred to the biological characteristics that were thought to differentiate between groups of people. Contemporary genetics and evolutionary biologists find a lack of scientific evidence to differentiate between the groups commonly identified as distinct ‘races’. Most are comfortable asserting that there is no such thing as a biological race, although this term is often problematically used interchangeably with ‘ethnicity’ (see below) in some contexts. Because of its history, and use as a justification for imperialism and genocide, the term ‘race’ is challenging to use in contemporary critical writing without detailed reflection.
Ethnicity – a group of people who self-identify as sharing distinctive attributes, which might be cultural, historical, or linguistic. It is sometimes used on a policy level as the more politically correct term to replace ‘race’, but this is not its technical definition. Use of the term ‘ethnicity’ in research with international students should not connote fixed or objective attributes to a social group, but should be used in dialogue with an understanding of the process of racialisation (see below).
Racialisation – refers to the process by which a group is labelled, identified and characterised by people from outside the group. This has particular relevance for international students, who may not identify with a particular ethnicity in their home country, but may be racialised as, for example, ‘Black’, ‘Asian’, or ‘Latin American’ upon arrival in their country of study. This volume emphasises racialisation as a social process.
Racism/racist – discriminating against people of different perceived races or ethnicities. Systemic or institutional racism describes this process at the collective level, rather than the individual level, to show how a school or a university could be institutionally racist, without any traceable acts of overt individual discrimination. Sometimes issues of racism are disguised as ‘unconscious bias’, but this notion is covered within the concept of racism. If unconscious bias is to be disambiguated, its corollaries (i.e. conscious bias and intentional discrimination) should also be discussed.
Xenophobia – discrimination of people from other countries based on nationality or perceived “foreign-ness”. This differs from racism, which is centred on discrimination of people of different perceived races or ethnicities. Care should be taken not to conflate the terms ‘xenophobia’ and ‘racism’, and authors are encouraged to reflect on the root cause of the discrimination that is being described when selecting terminologies.
Stereotype – a simplified perception of a social group, often a racial or ethnic group, which can be positive or negative. The presence of strong stereotypes that serve as a proxy for information often justifies racism. However, stereotyping is not a euphemism for racism, but a specific psycho-social phenomenon in its own right. If we mean racism, we should say it.
Curriculum internationalisation – the purposeful inclusion of international or intercultural elements into teaching provisions and materials. This may include the formal curriculum (i.e. the planned learning materials and activities), the informal curriculum (i.e. learning experiences beyond the formal provisions, such as through extracurricular activities), and the hidden curriculum (i.e. implicit, unspoken, or untended lessons or values learned through the learning environment). Care should be taken that ‘curriculum’ is not confused with ‘pedagogy’ (see below).
Pedagogy – the theoretical explanation for the ways that we teach. This encompasses the practices, approaches, and methods used for learning. Although interrelated, care should be taken in writing that ‘pedagogy’ (how we teach) is not confused with ‘curriculum’ (what we teach).
Anti-racist education – practices that seek to challenge and undermine racism. As noted above, anti-racism is often equated with decolonial and inclusive practice, but it has a specific and differentiated meaning in its specific focus on racism, identifying it, and changing it. Anti-racism should not be used lightly as a descriptor; practices of anti-racism would be seen as highly transgressive, radical and challenging in many higher education contexts globally.
Inclusivity/inclusive pedagogy – to be inclusive refers to a recognition that many pedagogic norms and standards are inherently exclusive of many marginalised groups. This term became mainstream with reference to disabled groups, such that inclusive education refers to education that is accessible by people with a range of additional learning and physical needs (e.g. vision or hearing loss). It has since been applied to a wider range of groups, including racially minoritised groups. Broadening the curriculum to include ethnic minority authors, for example, is seen as an inclusive initiative. Inclusive education can be differentiated from anti-racist or decolonial practices in that its primary goal is to remove barriers to learning and make it accessible. It is not, however, challenging the nature of the canon (decolonial) or necessarily identifying and challenging racist practices (anti-racism).
Native/Non-native speakers – the concept of a ‘native speaker’ refers to a problematic assumption that most people speak one language at home and in public for most of their lives. This would then be their ‘native language’, which they would use with complete fluency. Then, they engage in formal language learning of a ‘second language’, in which they are then a ‘non-native speaker’. This assumption ignores the millions of people who use one language at home and another at school, who have bilingual or multilingual homes, and who live in countries that have more than one official language. In this complex context, what it means to a ‘native’ and a ‘non-native’ user of a given language becomes much less clear, particularly considering the wide variety of World Englishes which are problematically reflected as “non-standard” in many international educational contexts. In addition, the term ‘native’ refers to colonialist ideologies, while ‘non-native’ implies a perpetual deficit as one can never become a native speaker, only ‘native speaker like’ levels of fluency. For this reason, it is suggested that such terms are avoided unless space is given to purposefully critique their use.
Second language speakers (L2) – this term seeks to avoid some of the challenges associated with the ‘native/non-native’ term described above. However, the implicit model of language learning still creates a hierarchy of ‘first, second, third’ languages and therefore could be seen as devaluing repertoires of languages other than the ‘home’ language and the language of study. The same applies to the derivatives English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as an Additional Language (EAL). Care should be taken when using such terms to reflect on their potential inaccuracy for some students.
TESOL – Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages attempts to avoid this implicit hierarchy of ‘first, second’ languages. However, there are critiques that the term ‘other’ might be othering through a dichotomy of ‘English’ and ‘everything else’. Some scholars have proposed Languages Beyond English as one way of avoiding this through a more positive light, but this potentially falls into the same trap. Care should be taken when using such terms to reflect on the assumptions that underpin such binary classifications of language.
Multilingual students – this reframes the implied deficit model of ‘non-native speakers’ or ‘second language speakers’, instead acknowledging that many people have varied linguistic repertoires and might not identify with a single language as their primary mode of expression. When using this term in relation to international students, however, it is important that care is taken to not assume that all international students are multilingual, nor to assume that ‘multilingual’ connotes equal fluency in all languages in the repertoire.
Getting used to being somewhere different
Assimilation – a process through which a member of a minority group (such as an international student) replaces their own cultural practices with the existing practices, behaviours, values, or norms of the host culture. Such replacements are often influenced by racism, xenophobia, or intolerance present within host contexts, creating pressures for international students to ‘fit in’ or else risk further marginalisation. Thus, this process assumes normative cultural standards to which international students should ‘adhere’. Assimilation is also expressly a one-way process which also fails to acknowledge the role of the host society in altering its own practices to create a welcoming, tolerant environment for international students. When writing about international students, this term should be avoided unless used with explicit critique of its underlying problematic assumptions.
Integration – a process through which a member of a minority group (such as an international student) adopts the practices and norms of their host society, without replacing or diminishing their own cultural practices and norms. While this may sound positive at face value, there are problematic underlying assumptions similar to the term ‘assimilation’ (see above). Similarly, there are considerations for the extent to which societies are accepting or tolerant of multicultural identities, or the extent to which international students may feel pressures to “fit in” in public and maintain their own cultural practices “in private”. This term is often used in political discourse to label migrants (including international students) as “not integrated enough”. Given these challenges, this term should be avoided unless used with explicit critique of its underlying problematic assumptions.
Adaptation – refers to the process of integrating or transitioning into a new culture and developing a sense of comfort or ease in navigating life within it. This term may refer to international students’ sense of agency and transformational cultural learning through their transition experience. However, the phrase may fall into the same traps as ‘assimilation’ and ‘integration’ by assuming a normative cultural standard to which international students must adhere. Care should be taken when using this term to describe and define its meaning, as well as reflect and critique any underlying assumptions.
Adjustment – the active management of the negative experiences (i.e. stress, culture shock) that may occur as a result of experiences in a new culture. While this term recognises the agency that international student have to manage and cope, it may assume that adjustment is a one-way process where the onus rests on the individual student to change (similar to ‘assimilation’ or ‘integration’). Use of this term should consider the extent to which adjustment is seen as a two-way process (‘Reciprocal adjustment’) or that recognition is made of its underlying assumptions.
Acculturation – a process of change that occurs as a result of experiences in a new culture or through contact with peers from other cultures. There is some danger in using this term that it may be over-idealised or over-sensationalised by assuming that cultural interactions are, by nature, meaningful or transformative. Similarly, its use may fail to recognise uneven power dynamics between international students and their host society – including the presence of racism, xenophobia, intolerance, or ethnocentrism – which make interactions by nature uneven and unequal. Care should be taken when using this term to recognise its underlying assumptions and the uneven power dynamics which shape intercultural interactions.
Transition – a process of moving from one cultural and social context to another, which reflects on the impacts on an individual’s life, experience, and social relations that result. This term attempts to avoid the negative assumptions associated with assimilation or integration by viewing the experience as nuanced, multifaceted, and multidimensional. However, care should still be taken when using this term to reflect on the how surrounding environment of the new context may frame, pressure, or potentially marginalise individuals within their experience.
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