What is it about?

This study offers timely empirical evidence of the magnitude of the language effect on the performance of different language user groups, namely English as a Foreign Language (EFL), English as a Second Language (ESL), and English as a Native Language (ENL) in an accounting program instructed in English, an area that has been under researched. Informed by Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), this study develops an innovative research methodology (crossover repeated measures design), drawing on a large data analysis (n=2912) of students’ academic results in six accounting specialisation subjects between 2007 and 2014 in an Australian university’s undergraduate accounting program. Results show that while all language user groups perform worse in more conceptually (MC) oriented subjects compared to less conceptually (LC) oriented subjects, the relative performance between MC and LC is strongly related to English language user groups. For the first time the magnitude of the impact is derived. The study has implications for the instructional design of accounting programs in English-speaking universities and their offshore programs in non-English speaking countries.

Featured Image

Why is it important?

Being the first study to quantify the relationship between English language ability and performance in different types of discipline study, and to offer a theoretical framework to understand this relationship, it helps nuance the discussion about international students and their approach to study in English language degree programs.


Recent media reports on English language related teaching and learning problems tend to cite ad hoc EFL (often Chinese) students’ learning issues in some Australian universities. However, a close examination of the claims in the media reports reveals that there are deep myths about the English standards for international students. Often such comments are made by academics from so called soft field of subject disciplines (e.g. sociology or law) where a higher level of cognitive academic language proficiency is required not just for EFL students but also for local English as native language students. The fact is international students from China made up 30% of the 621,192 international student enrolments in Australia as of November 2017 (Department of Education and Training, 2017), followed by India (11%), Nepal (5%), Malaysia (4%), and Brazil (4%). This means that even if just 1% of Chinese students have language related difficulties because the method of testing for English is poor, the large absolute number of Chinese students means that even this small percentage of outliers would represent a significant number of students, 1864 who could be quoted as misleading examples of the “whole cohort” having a problem. It highlights that quoting individual examples when dealing with large numbers is neither good science nor good reporting. The observations cited in The Age “ We're not generally racist, but we're low-key annoyed at international students, [and say] 'they all stick to themselves'. [Local students] see Chinese students as a burden” highlight the challenges faced by non-ENL learners (not just Chinese students) in the process of academic acculturation in English speaking universities. Cheng and Fox (2008, p.309) described academic acculturation as “the dynamic adaptation processes of linguistically and culturally diverse students engaging with the academic study cultures” of English-medium universities. Academic language proficiency is cognitively demanding for all language group learners. However, it is more challenging for EFL (e.g. Chinese) and ESL (e.g. Malaysian) international students compared to ENL students (e.g. local Australian students) in the process of academic acculturation. This is because non-ENL international students as newcomers to English-speaking countries struggle to develop networks that will allow them to participate in the process of academic acculturation (Benzie, 2010) .In the spirit of objectivity and integrity of academic research, we feel it is important to present the facts about English standards for international students in Australian universities in order to inform the general public to sort what they hear.

Helen Yang
La Trobe University

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Quantifying the impact of language on the performance of international accounting students: A cognitive load theory perspective, English for Specific Purposes, July 2019, Elsevier,
DOI: 10.1016/j.esp.2019.03.003.
You can read the full text:




The following have contributed to this page