Breaking language barriers: supporting non-native English-speaking students

Steps that tutors can take to better support students who are non-native speakers of English and ensure they feel included and able to play an active role in their university community



13 Dec 2022
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Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Xi'an Jiaotong Liverpool University 

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At English-medium universities, there are clear behavioural differences between students who are native and non-native English speakers. For example, non-native speakers tend to participate less in academic activities and social events compared with their peers.

One reason is that these students are working outside their linguistic and social-cultural context. Compared with their peers who learn in a familiar environment, many non-native English-speakers need to observe and learn quietly before taking part in various activities.

To better understand the academic and social experiences of these students, our research compared more than 4,000 native and non-native English-speaking undergraduates from 46 four-year universities in the US. It revealed that non-native speakers experienced greater social-emotional dissatisfaction than their peers. In particular, these students:

  • reported significantly poorer relationships with faculty;
  • had less satisfying relationships with peers;
  • and perceived more difficulties in making friends.

Since social-emotional dissatisfaction can lead to low motivation, which affects academic achievement, we further examined students’ bachelor’s degree completion, university grades, and graduate degree plans. Surprisingly, our study found that, despite the challenges non-native speakers encounter in terms of language, acculturation, socialisation and work responsibilities, they can still obtain degrees and achieve satisfactory performance as their peers do. Specifically, compared with their peers, these students:

  • obtained slightly higher GPA (grade point average) than their peers;
  • had similar likelihood to obtain a bachelor’s degree in four years; and
  • had similar likelihood to plan for a graduate degree.

This suggests that students from different linguistic backgrounds are as determined and motivated to achieve satisfactory academic outcomes as their peers. However, this does not mean these students do not need resources and support. In fact, overcoming social, linguistic and cultural obstacles can require much more than determination and motivation. Here are a few suggestions we offer to better support non-native English-speakers:

Facilitate social inclusion

Instructors should create opportunities to interact with non-native speakers. Due to language barriers, these students may shy away from talking to instructors. However, this does not mean they don’t want to communicate or build a good relationship with their teachers. Instructors should try to better understand these students and help them feel comfortable with relationship-building conversations. To do so, faculty can initiate organised efforts to gather non-native English-speakers, listen to their needs, and discuss ways that the programmes and departments can do better at facilitating social inclusion. In academic activities, instructors can create incentives to encourage all students’ participation, especially those from different linguistic backgrounds. Through this process it is also important that instructors focus on building students’ academic strengths rather than merely on their academic deficiencies.

Incorporate multicultural perspectives

Universities should incorporate multicultural perspectives when designing campus activities. This promotes understanding of students from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds and helps them interact and build relationships with their native English-speaking peers. When designing teaching and learning activities, instructors should make an effort to incorporate multicultural perspectives by introducing diverse sources of learning materials and varied types of assessment. For example, a poster presentation with visual graphics or video journal can be adopted to avoid heavy use of text in English.

Provide more structural support

Deans, policymakers and institutional leaders should design policies and organisational structure to legitimately offer support to non-native English-speaking students. For example, student services and counselling centres should be provided and fully utilised to offer social-emotional support. Academic programmes should specifically target students’ cultural and social backgrounds when incorporating supplementary support such as academic advising, social activities and networking events.

Build an inclusive and diverse environment

Universities can create official channels of communication for university leaders to speak to students who are non-native English speakers on a regular, scheduled basis. This can increase campus awareness and these students’ visibility. Institutions can also designate personnel to support non-native speakers and liaise with other students on campus to join events.

The success of non-native English-speaking students is dependent on institutions appreciating diversity and meeting their needs. As the world becomes more culturally and linguistically diverse, universities need to remain committed to supporting students from diverse linguistic backgrounds.

This advice is drawn from the findings of the study Reproduction of Educational Disadvantage? Examining the Bachelor’s Degree Attainment, College GPA, and Graduate Degree Plan of Non-Native English-Speaking Students.

Jiajun Liu is assistant professor and deputy programme director of the Global Education Programme and Qian Wang is assistant professor and research director of the Academy of Future Education, both at Xi’an Jiaotong – Liverpool University; Shuai Wang is associate professor and assistant dean of the School of Education, Shanghai Jiaotong University.

The authors would like to thank Jiaqi Fu and Ernest Pascarella for their contribution to the study on non-native English-speaking undergraduates.

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