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, adviser, or any other staff member.
- 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. VOA Pronounce has developed a pronunciation guide for names from people all over the world. This can help build rapport between you and the student, and 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 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 clauses when possible.
- Be aware of using 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).
- When possible, take the time to 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 he or she 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 demonstate understanding. For example, ask them to summarize a process or what their next step might be after your conversation ends.
- Be patient and wait for students to respond. They may need time to think of how to express themselves.
- If you are unsure about what a student is trying to explain, ask them to repeat information or write down a word. Paraphrase what you think the student said and see if you are correct.
- If you think a student may be unclear about what you discussed, send a follow-up e-mail to clarify the key points.
- Give informal feedback in one-on-one or small group situations where it is usually best received.
- 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...").
- When possible, give feedback to help students understand cultural norms in various 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 e-mail, 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...' "
- Be aware of these two different communication styles:
1. Direct Communicators
- assume that the speaker is responsible for communicating the meaning in a situation.
- tend to be comfortable stating facts and asking explicit questions.
- typically prioritize efficiency and honesty in communication.
- may get impatient if the message is unclear or vague.
2. Indirect Communicators
- 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 and may not be comfortable saying “no."
- may become uncomfortable when asked to state their opinions or feelings.
- 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.”
Sometimes it's hard to know how to bring up a language weakness without offending a student. Here are some tips to help address your concerns.
- 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:
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 e-mail to a potential employer requires a more formal style…”