Three issues language proficiency can hide for students from non-English speaking backgrounds

Learning difficulties or challenges such as dyslexia or Autism Spectrum Disorder may be masked by language ability for students from non-English speaking backgrounds. Shutterstock

Three issues language proficiency can hide for students from non-English speaking backgrounds

Universities have increasingly diverse student bodies, bringing together varying forms of social and cultural knowledge. But universities generally don’t recognise diverse forms of knowledge. This is particularly so with language and cultural practices, and the way these may affect learning.

Universities require specific forms of English language knowledge in order to complete degrees. This includes advanced understandings of discipline-specific language.

And yet, narrow views of what counts as academic language — and the idea that language and literacy are neutral, transferable “skills” — create challenges for students and staff. It also perpetuates the idea that students lack the capacity to communicate. This is particularly true for culturally and linguistically diverse students if language proficiency is seen as representative of academic ability.


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Language (mis)use can disguise other issues for students from non-English speaking backgrounds. In particular, learning difficulties or challenges such as dyslexia or Autism Spectrum Disorder may be masked by language ability. This presents several challenges for universities, including the extent to which students require specialised English language support, as distinct from social, emotional or mental health support.

1. Language leading to disengagement

Not participating in tutorials, presentations or group work can be seen as lack of commitment in universities and other higher education institutions. But this silence is more likely due to the anxieties caused by having to perform and articulate learning and understanding through unfamiliar and high-stakes forms of language. This includes oral presentations or participation requirements in tutorials.

For example, students’ pronunciation can often cause embarrassment and inhibit participation in class. Additionally, research has found students who struggle with English also typically see themselves as inferior to their peers.

Research in primary and secondary schools indicates a narrow focus solely on language acquisition can lead to disengagement at school: for example, through reduced attendance or decreased commitment to learning. In the school setting, learning activities that don’t rely on English language knowledge (such as music, arts and sport) have been shown to increase school engagement and participation at school.

In the university setting, bringing diverse cultural knowledge of theories or practical issues (for example in psychology, of cultural understandings of mental health) to learning activities may help engage culturally and linguistically diverse students. Such activities will benefit all students by offering nuanced learning activities that assist them to think outside specific cultural reference points.

Universities need to do more to support students with difficulties relating to English ability. Shutterstock

2. Language impacting relationships with staff and students

Communication between non-English speaking background students and educators or other students can be interpreted as students either not knowing the “rules of the game”. Or — worse — it can be interpreted as being deliberately rude.

For example, excessive formality (or informality) and the misappropriation of titles (such as “Dear Professor”) or using only surnames. Students are not typically taught how to deal with the power dynamics and structures of higher education. They wouldn’t know why all lecturers aren’t called “professor”, or why it’s the norm to use titles in the first place.

Also, language is a key inhibitor to forming relationships with students from Australian-born backgrounds. Research has found these relationships are important for wellbeing. This means language plays a central role in the broader wellbeing of culturally and linguistically diverse students in higher education.

Universities could help by offering student activities (assessed or otherwise) that take into account the diversity of strengths brought by culturally and linguistically diverse students. Providing opportunities for culturally and linguistically diverse students to demonstrate their own knowledge may assist them to form relationships with staff and students and increase self esteem.

3. Masking dyslexia or other learning difficulties

Errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation can be read as the student not having the “right kind” of English. But these kinds of mistakes can be the result of (potentially undiagnosed) learning difficulties like dyslexia, or underdeveloped literacy which requires specialist support.


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Research at the primary and secondary school level suggests understanding whether language misuse or lack of engagement is related to the student’s non-English background or a language disorder is complex and challenging. More work is required in this area.

What can be done to address this?

These challenges show us universities and other higher education institutions need to invest more time and money on language and cultural development for students and staff. This would be done by trying to level the playing field in communication.

More holistic educational practices that take into account varying cultural forms of knowledge or approaches to learning will benefit the entire student bodyby asking academic teachers to clarify the kinds of language-related assumptions that many take for granted.

For example, educators could consider any hidden causes of silence within classes, reconsider responses to students who do not fully understand communication norms (such as the use of titles), and design courses to include space for students to discuss understandings of course content from their own cultural perspective.

There is much we can learn from the experiences of culturally and linguistically diverse students and their language-related challenges at university.