Handling language issues

Subject: Media Studies. Course title: Political Communication in New Democracies. Level: Master. Course size: Average 12 students.

Motivation for the activity

In a Master’s course I noticed tension concerning the language skills of some of the international students. At an oral evaluation the Danish students bluntly stated that these students’ low levels of English language proficiency made the Danish students feel they were wasting their time. The exchange students felt badly treated and accused the Danes of ethnocentrism.

Central learning outcomes for the activity

  • To create a safe environment for students with language issues.
  • To help the students understand that they can help each other language wise, by respectfully asking classmates speaking in class to speak slowly, repeat themselves, and so forth.
  • To help the students scaffold one another and better prepare for the final exam (a written assignment and oral examination) through peer feedback activities on short essays and oral presentations.

Description of the activity

My strategy to address this challenge is that I address the potential language issue on the first day, hoping to create a more respectful and secure environment from the beginning.

I stress that English is a foreign language for most of the students as well as for the teacher himself, and that they need to bear with each other because the majority of the classroom do not have English as their native language and will inevitably make mistakes and/or have pronunciation issues.

I also stress that it is important for everyone to speak slowly and clearly and to ask other people to do so in the situation if they forget. I ask them to give each other space to feel secure about their language skills.

Finally, as a means of helping the students hone their writing and language skills throughout the semester I add writing and oral presentation tasks in class that involves peer feedback from the students. 

Outcome of the activity

The course evaluations showed that the students liked doing the presentations, writing the short essays, and getting feedback. They thought that these activities helped them feel at ease and better prepared for the exam.

Reflections on the activity

It is very important to try and make sure that in your feedback to the students and the peer-to-peer feedback in class, focus is not obsessively given to language or style issues but that substance based assessments are also given.

My experience has been that the students with some language proficiency difficulties tend to want more guidance/feedback on 'how to write' or present well in order to pass the exams but focusing on this may sideline an even more important issue: has the student comprehended the key issues taught or asked in the assignment? And is this comprehension evident or perceptible, irrespective of some language issues?

English in the classroom

At the INTL University you can find material on English as an international language, on communicative success and on the problems that lecturers face in the international programmes as well as some solutions to these problems.

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