Language Considerations

At NC State, all non-native English speaking international students are required to demonstrate an English proficiency level indicating readiness for academic work. In addition to the challenge of taking courses in a new language, international students will need to adjust to the U.S. system of higher education and its various requirements.

Overview

In this section, you will find information on how to better engage with international students, check for understanding, and help them adjust to the U.S. classroom and its expectations. The NC State University Tutorial Center provides helpful writing and research resources and the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has a good collection of resources providing English language support.

Adjusting to Speech Styles

We all have unique features to our speaking styles, from our accents to our rate of speech to the non-verbal mannerisms we use. It takes time for students to become accustomed to these differences.

A large number of international students will only have been directly exposed to one type of English during the course of their studies in their home countries; some may have had very little contact with native speakers of English.   

Suggestions:

  • During the first few weeks of classes, speak a little more slowly than usual.
  • Repeat or rephrase key ideas. Summarize important points.
  • Use signal words or expressions to indicate what is coming next.
  • Use a variety of techniques to check for understanding.
  • Avoid or minimize idiomatic expressions.

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Cultural, Historic, and Popular References

It is commonly known that college-age students may not understand the historic, cultural, or popular references made by members of older generations. This is even more true with international students.

Suggestions:

  • Do not assume that all of your students possess the same background knowledge.
  • Give context and a brief timeline for historical events.
  • Be judicious in your usage of pop cultural references.

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Vocabulary and Idioms

English does not have a close correspondence in the way things are spelled and the way that they are pronounced. Often times, students will be familiar with the written form of words, especially discipline-specific words, because they have seen these words multiple times in their readings. However, they may never have had the opportunity to hear these words spoken or it may be the case that they are pronounced differently in their native language with the stress on a different syllable.    

In addition, understanding and correctly using slang, idioms, and metaphors demonstrate high proficiency and comfort in a given language and culture. For example, in the U.S., sports metaphors are frequently used in daily life but they can pose challenges particularly if students have little understanding of or exposure to a given sport. Note that these types of expressions are rarely taught in English courses in the students’ schools.

Suggestions:

  • Provide students with a list of keywords or concepts that will be frequently used in your class ahead of time.
  • Say keywords and write them down or point to them on a slide to assist internationals in making the connection between the written and spoken forms of specific vocabulary.
  • When using idiomatic expressions or metaphors, be sure to include a rephrase of what you mean. If you do not, students may interpret the phrase literally and become confused.

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Academic Integrity

Issues surrounding academic integrity are not universal and should be clearly discussed in classes. Many violations are unintentional and can be prevented by providing additional information, examples, and class discussion.

Learn more

Engage Students in Class Discussions

Due to lack of confidence in their English abilities, many non-native English speaking international students can be reluctant to engage with their professors or peers due to their fear of making language-related mistakes. They may be unsure of their grammar, word choice, or pronunciation. These students are highly aware that they are at a linguistic disadvantage compared to their domestic peers. In addition, they do not want to draw attention towards their deficiencies or perceived deficiencies, which may result in a loss of face. Simply having students repeat their questions multiple times may cause them significant embarrassment and loss of confidence in their language ability.  

Furthermore, non-native speakers of English may need extra time to process what is being said in order to formulate their responses.

Suggestions:

  • Share a list of possible discussion questions with the entire class at least the night before to allow those students who need it the opportunity to prepare and look up any vocabulary that will help them to better express themselves during class.
  • Focus on and respond to the content of what is said rather than the form.
  • Allow students extra time to formulate their spoken responses. Encourage their ideas and build upon them. Do not let overly eager students talk over them.
  • Repeat or rephrase student questions for the entire class before answering them.
  • Use strategies to confirm understanding or clarify meaning, “If I understand you correctly, you are saying that…”

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Check For Understanding

International students can be reluctant to indicate that they do not understand course content, their professors, or classmates due to embarrassment or fear that they will be negatively judged. Be aware that some students are likely to agree with you and nod their heads rather than ask for clarification when needed. Nodding of the head does not necessarily indicate agreement or understanding. It can mean “I’m listening,” or even be a tactic to avoid speaking.

Suggestions:

  • Consider changing the way that you ask students if they understand the course material. Instead of asking, “Do you have any questions?” ask instead, “What questions do you have for me?” or “Before we leave, I need two questions from you.” The second question type implies that you expect students to have questions even after listening to your lecture, which can be a great relief for international students.
  • Summarize what students have said and invite clarifications before responding. This will ensure not only that you’ve understood the student, but may also assist other students in the class especially if the meaning behind the student’s response or question wasn’t entirely clear due to language issues.
  • Elicit questions by asking students what more they would like to know about a given topic. Alternatively, you can ask students to write down several questions, have students post them to an online forum, or share their questions during the class session.
  • During office hours, ask students to tell you briefly what they have understood so you can check their comprehension. Follow up your discussions in writing wherever possible not only to retain a written record but also to assist students in their recall of your discussion and remind them of any action items. 

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Use Transitions and Signal Words in Your Lectures

Listening to an academic lecture can be challenging for international students especially if they are not aware of the general organization that lectures tend to follow in the U.S. Keep in mind that lecture formats often differ by language and culture, so students will need time to adjust.

Suggestions:

  • Provide students with an outline of your lecture before class.
  • Consciously use signal words, expressions, and non-verbal cues to identify main ideas, important vocabulary, examples, change of topic, conclusions, etc.
  • Emphasize content words and pause strategically to allow time for processing especially before going on to a new point.

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Use Direct Language

Many people, especially in the South, tend to avoid direct language when making requests in order to be more polite (“You might want to…”  “If I were you, I would…”). However, indirect language can be difficult for an international student to understand as it is not clear whether the stated information is mandatory, optional, or simply a suggestion.

Suggestions:

  • Use clear direct language as much as possible. Your tone and the inclusion of “please” will convey sufficient politeness.
  • Clarify the strength of your requests or suggestions and make students aware of any consequences for not following them.

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