Cultural and linguistic differences can sometimes lead to misunderstandings when communicating with multilingual students. The strategies below can foster successful interactions with students—whether you're a professor, advisor, or any other staff member.
These simple tips can help you communicate with your multilingual students and, in turn, help them communicate better with you and their classmates.
Learn how to effectively:
- Tell students how you prefer to be addressed (e.g., Dr. Smith or Jane). If they know how to properly address you, they may be more likely to ask a question.
- Learn how to pronounce their names correctly. Check out VOA Pronounce for a pronunciation guide. Your pronunciation does not need to be perfect—it is the effort that people appreciate.
- Engage in small talk so that students can learn to be more at ease with casual conversation.
Speak more effectively
- Speak clearly, not loudly. Although our instincts may be to increase the volume, it doesn't always help with comprehension.
- Speak at a moderate speed that does not affect your normal intonation pattern.
- Watch for nonverbal cues that may indicate misunderstanding such as blank stares or quizzical looks.
- Pause to give students time to process what you said, and ask if they have questions.
- Use simple and concise sentences—eliminate unnecessary phrases or words when possible.
- Reduce use of phrasal verbs (two-part verbs), such as “turn down” “call off” or “set up.” Sometimes a more formal verb might be more recognizable (e.g., arranged vs. set up).
- Explain technical terms, abbreviations, acronyms, idioms, or slang that may be unfamiliar to students.
- Recognize that when a student smiles politely or nods, it does not necessarily mean that they understood what you said.
- Try to avoid yes/no questions like “do you understand?” Sometimes "yes" does not mean that the listener understands but is a device to keep the conversation moving.
- Use open-ended questions that require students to demonstrate understanding. For example, ask them what their next step is after your conversation ends.
- Be patient and wait for students to respond. They may need time to think of how to express themselves.
- Ask students to repeat information if needed, or write down a word.
- Paraphrase what you think the student said and see if you are correct.
- Send a follow-up email to clarify key points if you think a student may be unclear about what you discussed, .
- Give informal feedback to students in one-on-one situations.
- Ask questions to build greater understanding.
- Repeat a student's question or statement in your own words, and let them confirm what they meant (e.g., "What I hear you saying is...").
- Help students understand cultural uses of language, including complaints, compliments, and requests. Students may not be aware of the tone of voice, word choice, and body language that is expected for these types of interactions.
- Explain to students what you have noticed about their communication and how it differs from standard communication in the US: “In your email, you asked for a recommendation by saying [x, y, and z]. For this situation, we would typically use the words 'would you be able to...' "
Navigate communication styles
- State things directly to all students so that there is no room for misinterpretation. Tell students what you can do to help them, what is not possible, and what they need to do.
- Use strong, straightforward language, for example:
- Instead of “If you can, try to turn in this form by Friday,” say “You need to submit this form by Friday.”
- Instead of “It would be good if you can set up an appointment with me next week,” say “Please meet with me next week during my advising hours.”
- Instead of “I think it could help if you visit the Student English Language Support office,” say “You should make an appointment with the Student English Language Support office.”
- Recognize that misunderstandings may result from a conflict between indirect and direct communication styles.
- assume that the speaker is responsible for communicating the meaning.
- tend to be comfortable stating facts and asking explicit questions.
- typically prioritize efficiency and honesty.
- may get impatient if the message is unclear.
- consider meaning to be understood from a shared context.
- may use nonverbal communication and questions to get their message across.
- might need more time to think before responding to a question.
- may not be comfortable saying “no."
- may become uncomfortable when asked to state their opinions or feelings.
Sometimes it's hard to know how to bring up a language concern without offending a student. Here are some tips.
- Acknowledge how difficult learning a second language may be. If you have experience learning another language, share your stories to relate.
- Ask questions to understand more about their experience learning English, such as:
- What is the most challenging part of learning English for you?
- Have you tried ____________ ? (Consult our Teaching Support page for a list of strategies.)
- What campus resources do you use?
- Have you been to ____________ ? (Consult our Campus Resources page to see a range of resources.)
Sometimes students can internalize feedback to mean that all aspects of their language needs work, when in reality only one part needs work.
- Point out what is strong about a student’s language to help bring focus to the area for improvement. For example: “You have a great deal of fluency in English, but writing an email to a potential employer requires a more formal style…”