A Second Life with a Second Language

By Huaning Gu

English, for most overseas students, is a second language. My friend’s daughter was born in China. She has been struggling with English since she started as a primary school student in Australia. Recently, the school teacher persuaded my friend to sign an agreement that English was the second language of the daughter so that she would be examined and evaluated differently from the local students. For overseas students at university however, things are not that easy.

It’s easy to assume that a language barrier wouldn’t be there, since overseas students who succeed in getting offers from Australian universities are expected to have strong English language skills. It is true that foreign students need to get a certain score through external language testing systems like IELTS or TOEFL to be eligible for an offer. I had been quite proud of my IELTs score until I was frustrated by reading and writing in English academically. The first barrier I encountered was literature review. It seems quite strange to me that I need to translate long English sentences into a half Chinese, half English version to understand them better. This has sometimes frustrated me when reading, since I frequently found myself extending my book loans. Suddenly, a normal habit of reading turned into something that felt like torture. I was juggling hand-written notes in half Chinese and half English, and I had to type up my notes in English, categorise and analyse them, and insert them in the literature review one by one. The whole process felt so long and repetitive that I kept on googling a better way of doing this, but the other easy and simple ways of reading and citing online, didn’t work for me.

I discovered that time is often the biggest enemy for someone troubled by language barriers. My schedule of finishing one piece of good writing in a month, had to be adjusted many times due to my slow reading and writing. I am used to throwing all useful research material in one big pot when writing essays, offering the readers a mixed stew before telling them which aspects are the most important. My husband Daniel, has been very helpful. He thought me that I should be succinct, and aim for a more brief and direct use of language. Tell people what I want them to take away from my writing at the very beginning.

During the first four months of my candidature, this has taught me something very important: following a degree in a foreign country is like living a second life with a second language. It can feel like a painful but worthwhile learning curve. Not many people have the chance of living a second life. Cherish it if you get such a chance.


Huaning Gu is a SJD candidate at La Trobe Law School. Her research focusses on arb-med in China and how Chinese arb-mediators gain their authority and settle disputes. Before moving to Australia, Huaning worked for the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (CIETAC) for ten years. She is now a CIETAC arbitrator.


La Trobe