Re-interpreting Silence

L10 5

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  • Title: Re-interpreting Silence: Chinese International Students’ Verbal Participation in U.S. Universities
  • Author(s): Xuan Zheng
  • Publisher: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Collection: Common Ground Research Networks
  • Series: The Learner
  • Journal Title: The International Journal of Learning: Annual Review
  • Keywords: Chinese International Studenst, Verbal Participation, Intercultural Communication, Silence, U.S. Universities
  • Volume: 17
  • Issue: 5
  • Year: 2010
  • ISSN: 1447-9494 (Print)
  • ISSN: 1447-9540 (Online)
  • DOI:
  • Citation: Zheng, Xuan. 2010. "Re-interpreting Silence: Chinese International Students’ Verbal Participation in U.S. Universities." The International Journal of Learning: Annual Review 17 (5): 451-464. doi:10.18848/1447-9494/CGP/v17i05/47068.
  • Extent: 14 pages


Chinese international students are often viewed as silent and passive in U.S. universities. This qualitative study of four Chinese students in a U.S. public university reveals Chinese students’ perceptions of verbal participation in U.S. classrooms, as they negotiate different classroom cultures and communication styles. As an insider of the Chinese community in U.S. universities, the author designed this case study around four Chinese students enrolled in different academic programs in an American public university. Over a period of six months, I interviewed the students multiple times on their class participation, observed their interaction with teachers and students in their academic classrooms, and built long-standing friendships with them. This study revealed a portrait of Chinese students that deviated from the previous literature. Rather than merely reflecting English deficiency, the participation of the students in this study was an active choice they made. Behind the relative silence there was an evolving process of negotiating class participation, which is related to English proficiency, cultural and academic knowledge and more. Sometime during the process, the Chinese is considering the same issues as Americans do, such as the appropriateness of their speech. However, since they identified themselves as the “cultural other”, they chose to be silent.