Teaching Multilingual Higher-Ed Classrooms

Our classroom methods haven’t changed much over time, based upon European education systems developed hundreds of years ago.  On the other hand, the world has changed so much in this time, and the needs of our learners are different than when these learning systems were developed.  Of the many changes in our learners, a major change is the shrinking of the world, with the potential of students from all corners of the earth to be found in the same classroom.  This provides challenges of all sorts to our teachers, who not only have basic language differences affecting learning outcomes but also sometimes nearly impenetrable cultural barriers for meeting our students’ needs.  Yet, these classrooms can be the most stimulating kind of classrooms.  Teaching multilingual classrooms requires teachers to not only teach their subjects but also be extremely sensitive to the differences between the students in their learning processes, and at the same time taking advantage of what each student has to offer the class as a whole.

Teaching a multilingual classroom requires careful planning and thought behind the structure and presentation of each lesson.  Teachers must be careful to speak in “international English,” free from accent and clearly dictated.  The language should also be free of idioms, or if idioms are used, they need to be explained.  Visual aids are a must and should include physical objects as well as powerpoints that highlight the important concepts and vocabulary next to photographs or other illustrations that are done well.  Finally, video can be very helpful, but it needs to be screened by the teacher carefully to make sure that the speech in the video isn’t too quick and is relatively easy to understand.  If it isn’t, the teacher needs to take time to stop the video and talk through it with the students to make sure they are following it ok.

The teacher also needs to take the time to reach out to their non-English speakers one-on-one to discuss the tools they can use to help communicate what they are confused by or would like additional help with.  Students may be hesitant to do this because they feel embarrassed, but encouragement from the teacher will help this.  Tools include taking pictures of things with their phones that they don’t know the words for or were confused by.  They can also record parts of the lesson that they didn’t understand to follow up with the teacher about after class or during office hours.

Changing the format of the lessons from the traditional lecture style format will potentially improve student learning outcomes.  More time spent in small groups working on activities related to the content of the lessons will allow students with different proficiencies in English to learn from and help each other.  Teachers need to assist the group formation to make sure each group includes students of different levels of English fluency and competencies in the subject at hand.

While challenging, multilingual classrooms have a huge potential for cultural and multi-dimensional learning if managed well by the teachers.  If teachers are able to see their students as assets instead of extra work due to their lack of fluency in English, they can transform the classroom experience for all of their students.  Finding ways to encourage each student to participate isn’t easy, but each student will bring a different perspective and background related to the subject being taught based on how their home country teaches and values this subject.  There is no better way to learn than through different perspectives, and this is a huge gift to all the students in the room.  Teachers must take great care to establish a relationship of trust with their students and provide much time and encouragement for student interaction in the lesson.  Much creativity in involving students in the lesson will reap many rewards.