The University of New South Wales Main Library


UNSW is Australia’s first international university with students coming from diverse and varied backgrounds. The university has approximately 53,500 students, about 25% of which are international students from over 120 countries. Given this vast array of cultural backgrounds, the university campus is undoubtedly, language-rich. Use of language on campus is thus very interesting to explore.


One of our chosen linguistic environment is the UNSW main library. It is first and foremost a research library, containing an extensive amount of scholarly resources and information. It is affiliated with research institutes and aims to provide academic staff and students with databases and sources of research appropriate to their fields of study. It is also an area for study and collaboration with other students and serves as a helpful environment for communication. Through observation, notable findings on the use of language were made.


  1. Use of Code-Switching by Korean students


On the 4th floor of the UNSW main library, a group of three female Korean Commerce students were observed to be discussing course material in an open-plan study area. What was notable was that during their discussion of their course content, they spoke mostly in English. Some exclamations and off-hand comments were in their own native tongue, but most of their study discussion was in English. However, when they took a break from study, their conversation reverted back to being more consistently in Korean. This is an example of code-switching, where speakers of more than one language alternate to and from different languages, often depending on the context they find themselves in. Consistent with Poplack’s model of code-switching, entire utterances (at the syntactic level) were being alternated between, distinguishing the behaviour from borrowing (which occurs at a lexical level).


When asked about their  code-switching behaviour, one replied, “It is easier to speak in the language we learn in, when we are studying.” They also said that they were not fully conscious of the behaviour and that it “just happens that way, it feels natural.” This implies that their code-switching behaviour is not purposefully orchestrated with serious intent, but rather, it simply occurs for the sake of ease of communication and function.


When asked about their attitudes towards speaking another language in the UNSW library, they reported that they would only speak in Korean with people they knew and who were around them at the time. They do not expect to speak Korean with other people, especially the staff. They also said that when talking to other students, “we definitely speak English, because that is what is normal and expected.” It seemed that the general consensus was that one’s own native tongue is only used when conversing with people who are known for certain to have the same ethnolinguistic identity. Otherwise, the assumed language is English.  This indicates that shared ethnolinguistic identity is important in communication, but also, the dominant language that is expected to be used is English.

This is confirmed by interviews with three other students (Psychology and Science students) who also reported that English is the expected language for communication. Even if they had knowledge of another language, they would not employ it if there was no one with the same linguistic identity present. Especially in a scholarly library, where the academic lingua franca is English, expectation for English is particularly high. This demonstrates an assimilation to the dominant or majority language, and as reported by library users, this assimilation is motivated by their understanding that English is the language of communication in an academic setting. Also conformation to English is motivated by attitudes towards the University itself, which is seen as an official national entity, and thus the national language must be spoken in its premises.


  1. Use of language in study areas


Through observation it was noted that individuals in both the common and individual study areas most often spoke in English, whether it was to other students or on the phone. Only in cases (such as the example mentioned earlier) where all members of a group shared the same ethnolinguistic identity was another language used in conversation. Even in such cases, borrowed words and even whole utterances from English were heard during speech.


Interestingly, when looking at internet use, it was more common to see students in individual study areas using the internet in foreign languages than students in common study areas. In other words, when by themselves, students (whose first language is not English) would revert back to their own native language, especially on social media or for entertainment purposes.

It remains though, that on academic sites, English is still the language used.