The role of social networks in academic discourse socialization: insights from degree-seeking multilingual international students in China

Li, W., & Gong, Y. (2023). The role of social networks in academic discourse socialization: insights from degree-seeking multilingual international students in China. Multilingua.

Research background

The development of internationalization of higher education has led to numerous studies on the educational experiences of internationally mobile students. However, the study abroad (SA) scholarship predominantly reflects Western voices and over-represents the experiences of white Anglophone students with relatively higher levels of economic privilege, who undertake SA more as “vacations” than for academic purposes (Diao, 2021). This perspective largely neglects the experiences of international students from underprivileged contexts, who pursue a degree abroad due to socioeconomic reasons or a lack of higher education opportunities in their home country. Moreover, the media often depicts international students’ multilingualism with a deficit framing that stigmatizes their linguistic and cultural resources and renders them invisible in their academic pursuits. To address these gaps, our study examined the academic trajectories of degree-seeking multilingual international students from less advantaged backgrounds in China.

What we did

In our study, we conceptualized international students’ academic experience as a process of academic discourse socialization (ADS), where newcomers to an educational context acquire the competence to participate appropriately in the academic discourse and practice in the community (Duff, 2010). For international students, socialization demands more than just mastery of academic skills, it also involves navigating different educational norms and discursive practices, negotiating access to academic expertise, and developing multicompetence for academic interaction (de León and García-Sánchez, 2021; Duff, 2010; Friedman, 2021). To investigate these processes, we adopted a social network perspective and analyzed how the students accessed and mobilized resources within their situated contexts to appropriate certain discursive practices in their quest for community participation and acceptance. We analyzed the compositional and structural characteristics of the international students’ networks as outcomes and generated rich information about their socializing patterns. Additionally, we categorized the students’ networks based on compositional and structural features to interpret and compare the role of different social connections in academic discourse socialization.

What we found

The study resulted in a typology of five networks, which include heterogeneous-sparse network, heterogeneous-dense network, homogeneous-sparse network, homogeneous-dense network, and balanced network. These networks were found to have differential impacts on students’ socialization trajectories, in terms of their capacities to access and negotiate academic norms, channels to academic expertise, and space for multicompetence development. Our findings also reveal that networks with similar characteristics may have divergent impacts. Similar socializing patterns do not necessarily guarantee similarly successful academic discourse socialization for individuals with varying agency and learning needs (Carhill-Poza & Kurata, 2021). The participants’ experiences highlight that their social networks were mediated by a range of individual and sociocultural factors, including personal histories and agency (learning trajectories, mobility experiences), program accommodation, online networking access, and more. While we agree that a balanced network can lead to “more successful integration” and provide individuals with richer opportunities for social and academic development (Gautier, 2019), expecting all students to develop such a sociable profile might seem an unattainable goal, considering the complex interplay of various sociocultural factors and individual efforts to establish, maintain, and expand social connections in students’ academic experiences

Theoretical contributions

Our study, conducted through a social network lens, went beyond linguistic and cultural challenges faced by international students in previous SA research to expose the structural tensions underlying students’ academic trajectories. These include deficient framings of international students, group segregation, unequal distribution of resources, denigration of linguistic and cultural resources, and more.

We demonstrated how social networks can facilitate or constrain the access and use of resources for underprivileged international students, and how they negotiated these social arrangements in their ADS. Our findings challenge deficit framings of international students as incompetent “others” and dismantle divisive discourse that categorizes students based solely on their linguistic and cultural heritage.

Our study enhances the understanding of community and competence in ADS research by highlighting the fluidity, multiplicity, and complexity of academic discourse communities (de León and García-Sánchez, 2021; Friedman, 2021). This complexity is complicated by the inclusion of both real-time relations and online SNS, providing myriad avenues for accessing community belonging and developmental opportunities. Additionally, our study extends the traditional understanding of competence, which involved highly “academic” reading and writing literacies, to incorporate individuals’ strategic use of interactional resources in their network channels, such as multi-national peers, families, and online friends, as they build interpersonal connections and engage with academic interaction.

Practical implications

The academic success of degree-seeking international students is largely dependent on developing in-depth and diverse network connections that provide access to academic resources. To understand the availability of educational resources in students’ situated environments and their engagement with these resources, researchers should direct more attention to the various types of social networks in which international students are embedded, including immediate social networks and virtual networks.

Educational practitioners can encourage and support students to develop concentrated and diversified social relationships during SA by implementing adequately designed follow-up tasks to complement in-class group work and promote sustainable and in-depth student collaboration. Program support could facilitate mingling between students with diverse backgrounds, while inclusive accommodation options and friendly educational policies can help international and local students establish meaningful and reciprocal relationships.

Overall, our study emphasizes the importance of social networks for international students’ academic discourse socialization and highlights the need for more research and practical interventions focused on social networks to promote academic success and social integration for these students.


Carhill-Poza, A., & Kurata, N. (2021). Social Networks in Language Learning and Language Teaching. Bloomsbury Academic.

de León, L., & García-Sánchez, I. M. (2021). Language Socialization at the Intersection of the Local and the Global: The Contested Trajectories of Input and Communicative Competence. Annual Review of Linguistics, 7(1), 421–448.

Diao, W. (2021). Speaking against racism: Stories of successful Chinese L2 learners of color in China. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 18(2), 105–132.

Duff, P. A. (2010). Language Socialization into Academic Discourse Communities. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 30, 169–192.

Friedman, D. A. (2021). Language socialization and academic discourse in English as a Foreign Language contexts: A research agenda. Language Teaching, 1–15.

Gautier, R. (2019). Understanding socialization and integration through social network analysis: American and Chinese students during a stay abroad. In M. Howard (Ed.), Study abroad, second language acquisition and interculturality (pp. 207–236). Multilingual Matters.

Author’s Bio

Wendong (Marco) LI, University of Macau

Wendong (Marco) LI is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Education, University of Macau. His research interests are language and identity, language policy and planning, language socialization, and Chinese as an additional language education. His recent publications appear in journals such as Language, Culture and Curriculum, and Journal of Language, Identity and Education, and Multilingua. He can be reached at

ORCID: 0000-0002-0431-6235

GONG Yang (Frank), University of Macau

GONG Yang (Frank) is an assistant professor and teacher educator for Chinese Education in the University of Macau (Macau SAR, China). Born and raised in Mainland China, he pursued his bachelor’s degree in Chinese Language and Literature and master’s degree in History of Ancient Chinese at Zhengzhou University before attending the University of Hong Kong (Hong Kong SAR, China) to pursue his PhD in Second Language Acquisition and Teacher Education. Frank worked as a language teacher (Chinese, English, & Thai), K-12 education administrator, and Chinese journal editor. His research focuses on how to facilitate international students to promote their language proficiency and optimize their learning experience in learning Chinese as a foreign/second language, with expertise in the areas of sociocultural theory, teacher education and development, learner identity, and student intercultural experiences. He serves on the editorial board of Language, Culture and Curriculum (Taylor & Francis). He was the Faculty’s Outstanding Academic Staff (2020/2021) at the Faculty of Education, University of Macau.


ORCID: 0000-0001-5249-6437.

Managing Editor: Tong Meng

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