Inclusive Language: Supporting Multilingual Learners

Brown classrooms are rich multilingual and multicultural spaces, and therefore a critical component of course design is the intentional use of language as an inclusionary tool. A substantial proportion of Brown students -- 11% of the undergraduate and 37% of the graduate student populations -- are international, the majority of whom are multilingual. In addition, the Center for Applied Linguistics reports that 20% of the U.S. population speak a language other than English at home. In the Sheridan Center’s work with English Language Learners (ELLs), Brown students report several ways in which an instructor’s use of language helped multilingual students to feel included in the classroom.

Inclusive language is varied. Most frequently, Sheridan staff hear that Brown students value when instructors intentionally vary their language to reframe concepts. A graduate student whose first language is Mandarin shares, “[My professor] is always willing to explain sophisticated epidemiology terms in a simple way, and that makes it easier for me as an international student to understand that.” Another student reports that this practice makes it easier to engage with other students in the class: “The professor helps me with the terminology, and it makes me feel easier to talk with others.” Use of multiple examples has generally been found to be an effective teaching approach for promoting deep understanding in a discipline (National Research Council, 2000).  In addition, professors may vary language to model appropriate ways of navigating linguistic registers, or levels of formality. A student whose first language is Spanish praises this technique, saying, “When I explain a concept, [my professor] ‘translates’ them in the English-academic-structure used to argue an idea. Just this simple gesture creates a bridge between my thoughts and my listeners.”

Any patient and friendly treatments will provide true help. That will improve our confidence and willingness to keep learning, though they're really little things.  - Visiting scholar from China

Inclusive language pairs verbals and visuals. Generally, students learn more from pairing verbal explanations and images, than from words alone (Mayer, 2011). However, for ELLs specifically, spotlighting important text –such as key technical terms or ideas -- can be beneficial (Mayer, 2014). For example, a reading guide could identify key terms that a student should be able to define after reading, and an advance agenda or organizer before a class session can highlight important ideas that should be retained.

Inclusive language is interrogative. When providing feedback on student work, asking questions that can help students to distinguish between content and language points are useful. A graduate student who speaks Korean relates, “Non-ELL graduate students' writing also needs improvement for clarity, cohesion, etc. [but] teasing out the issues related to coherence of thoughts and English grammar can be difficult for first- or second-year ELL graduate students. My advisory professor did this well and was patient.” Additionally, inquiring about a student’s learning goals or the types of feedback they prefer can help multilingual students feel that their ideas are being considered in equal measure with their language use. To accomplish this, one approach for a writing assignment is to ask students to use Microsoft Word’s comment feature to address three questions or comments to the instructor about where feedback is most requested or to explain in greater detail what the writer is trying to achieve (LaVaque-Manty & Evans, 2013). In research about this approach, students found instructor feedback to be valuable, and they also reported an increase in disciplinary thinking skills.

Inclusive language explicitly discusses language. Noticing language patterns and using these as teachable moments can also help to include students. For example, idioms, or expressions, are often confusing for multilingual students as they are difficult to translate and are typically culturally-specific (e.g. “in the ballpark”). A study of the use of idioms in academic speech, including lectures, found that the most common include “bottom line,” “the big picture,” “come into play,” “down the line,” and “what the heck” (Simpson & Mendis, 2003). Analyzing where idiomatic or culturally-specific language may naturally appear in class or conversation, and pausing to briefly address this language, is beneficial for multilingual learners. For example, a student from China recalls that a Brown professor taught her the meaning of  “cross your fingers.”  “In China,” she says, “we do not do that to mean ‘hopefully’.”

Although these teaching strategies are directed at enhancing the learning experience for Brown’s multilingual students, the research noted here suggests that most can benefit all students.

Anne Kerkian and Jen Kim are available for consultations on supporting multilingual students (email: [email protected]).

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LaVaque-Manty, M., & Evans, E.M. (2013). Implementing metacognitive interventions in disciplinary writing classes. In M. Kaplan, N. Silver, D. LaVaque-Manty, & D. Meizlish, Eds. Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning: Across the disciplines, across the academy (pp. 122-146). Stylus: Sterling, VA.

Mayer, R.E. (2011). Applying the science of learning to multimedia instruction. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 55:77-108.

Mayer, R.E. (2014). Research-based principles for designing multimedia instruction. In V.A. Benassi, C.E. Overson, & C.M. Hakala, Eds. Applying science of learning in education: infusing psychological science into the curriculum (pp. 59-70). Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Available:

National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Available:

Simpson, R. and Mendis, D. (2003). A corpus-based study of idioms in academic speech. TESOL Quarterly, 37: 419–441. doi:10.2307/3588398