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Learning Challenges

Two smiling students seated outside

We aim to provide more context to help you understand some of the key challenges multilingual students commonly experience on campus and in the classroom.

To learn about specific strategies to support your students, please visit our Teaching Support page. 

What Challenges Do Multilingual Learners Face?

How can you support students in their transition?

Many multilingual learners experience transition shock as they adjust to US culture. On an everyday basis, they must adapt to different weather, food, and transportation methods.

In addition, they often face serious pressures like family expectations, religious discrimination, anxiety about grades, and financial difficulties, along with feelings of isolation while being away from family and friends.

How can you help students adapt to the US classroom?

Multilingual students must also learn to adapt to different academic expectations and norms. They may experience many academic challenges, including differences in instructional styles, exam format, participation expectations, and connecting ideas between readings, lectures, and assessments. Sometimes students may have difficulty adjusting to active learning methods, such as discussions and group work.

  • Explain how students should refer to their instructors. Students may be used to a different level of formality in the classroom and feel uncomfortable with the use of first names.
  • Explain the purpose for discussions and other types of interactive learning activities. See our Teaching Support page for specific strategies.
  • Make expectations clear for participation. Because of different cultural views, some students may feel that they are challenging the professor if they voice their opinions or ask questions in class.
  • Avoid making assumptions about students’ abilities. A student’s perceived shyness, lack of confidence, or language difficulty could actually be influenced by cultural differences or personality preferences.
  • Learn more about how culture can influence the teaching and learning process by reviewing the Considering Culture section of the Writing for International Students website.
  • To learn more about multilingual students’ academic challenges in the first year, read the Student Voices report published at the U of M in 2012 by Anderson, Isensee, Martin, Godfrey, and O’Brien.
  • Gain insight on the perspectives of graduate international students by watching this Breaking Boundaries video produced by the Office for Diversity in Graduate Education & Global Programs and Strategy Alliance.

Visit our Teaching Support page for more strategies and tips.

Studying university coursework in a second language is a complex and ambitious task. 

  • Multilingual students may have many variations in English proficiency. Some students excel at using English conversationally but may have more challenges with writing, grammar, and vocabulary. Other students may be proficient in academic language but have more difficulties with conversational English. All students can benefit from learning about informal opportunities to use their English on campus. Many different practice opportunities are listed on our Campus Resources page.
  • TOEFL scores may not always accurately predict students’ abilities. Standardized tests such as the TOEFL or IELTS are used to determine an international student's English proficiency; however, you may find discrepancies between students’ scores and their actual proficiency level. If a student is struggling due to lower proficiency in English, please recommend some options from our Campus Resources page.
  • Speaking or writing with an accent is not a sign of deficiency. Unfortunately, many studies document that perceptions of the nonnative English accent (in speaking and writing) are often negative. Yet more people in the world speak English as nonnative speakers than native speakers, so accented English is actually more common than unaccented English. You can play an important role in helping to correct the perception that accent is a sign of linguistic deficiency.

What Are Students Saying?

Interview with student Natalia Morales

Read the video transcript. 


Interview with student Mark Lyu

Read the video transcript.


Learning challenges

Variations in proficiency

Speaking with an accent

Getting oriented to US culture

Teaching and learning styles