Frequently Asked Questions

Center for International and Cultural Education

What do we mean by "multilingual"?

A "multilingual" student, for our purposes at Gustavus, is a student who grew up using another language in addition to English. 

Why not "English language learner"? All of our students "know" English; some use English as a second language. 

Why not "bilingual"? "Bilingual" suggests two. Many of our multilingual students speak and/or write in more than two languages.

Why not "ESL?" Many of our multilingual students are using English as one of their so-called "native" languages--English is not a "second" language for them. 

Note: All attempts at terminology around linguistic practices and experiences are fraught. We must continually ask ourselves, to what ends and in whose interests do we mobilize these terms? 

Are our "international" and "multilingual" students the same?

By "international," we mean students who are studying in the U.S. on a visa, which includes degree-seeking students as well as exchange students. However, the "international" versus "domestic" student distinction is really somewhat artificial and does not perfectly reflect our students' experiences. Because of where they are coming from, most of our international students are multilingual, but not all. 

It can be helpful to think of our students' experiences as falling along a continuum, rather than either domestic or international.

Your multilingual students might be:

  • originally from Minneapolis speaking Spanish with their family and community.
  • originally from Vietnam, but went to high school in the States, studying at Gustavus on a visa. 
  • originally from Ethiopa, and came to the U.S. when they were teenagers, and have recently acquired citizenship.
  • orignally from Ghana, where English is a national language, arriving in the U.S for the first time.
  • born in Texas, but raised in Japan, using English as a second language here at Gustavus.
  • or any other combination of national and linguistic experiences!

How do I respond to multilingual student writing?

This is a complex question, but there are some basic best practices, which you will find help support all student writers:

  • When possible, incorporate drafts into the writing process
  • If you comment on grammar, style, and word choice, try only marking up the first page, and ask the student to extrapolate from there
  • Avoid rhetorical questions in writing feedback
  • Be sure hand-written comments are clearly written
  • Be explicit about expectations around structure, style, and use of sources, perhaps using a rubric
  • Keep in mind that that rhetorical styles can be cultural, including how/if to declare a main point
  • Avoid using editing symbols, which are not universal, without providing students with a key
  • Be explicit about how and when to use sources, including clear directions on which citation style to use

More resources:

For Writing Consultants: Guidelines to Working with Nonnative Speakers

Writing Across Borders: Documentary Film Project

For more specific advice, contact Carly Overfelt for a one-on-one discussion about what might work best in your course.

Do multilingual students get extra time on exams?

Being multilingual is not a disability and is separate from accessibility needs. There is no requirement to give multilingual students extra time during timed exams, but some departments on our campus have a culture of doing so. This is because some second language users report that a bit of extra time allows them to get through the linguistic tasks necessary for the exam (reading word problems or writing analyses) while still having enough time to show you what they know--the content/skills you actually want to assess. 

Deciding whether to give extra time depends on the learning outcomes you want to assess and is entirely at your discretion. Carly, the MIPC, regularly consults with faculty on how to approach this, so feel free to reach out.

Giving a multilingual student extra time on an exam is not a protected accessibiliy measure, the way documented disability accommodations are. See the Academic Resource Center staff for more information about this. 

Why is my international student so quiet in class?

Your student might be shy, experiencing culture shock, feeling insecure about their English skills, or coming from a cultural context in which students not only are not expected to speak in class, but in which it would be rude to do so. It can be incredibly difficult to suddenly change behavior, even if the student wants to! Your student might not understand the material or be feeling disengaged, but it is just as likely that your student understands the material, and that "engagement" just looks different for them than it does for your other students. It is a great idea to invite your quiet international student into your office for a friendly chat to touch base. 

How can I incorporate international students' backgrounds in class discussion without tokenizing them?

Be sure that when you ask about student backgrounds, you are not only asking your international students. Ask your domestic students about their backgrounds as well. Always avoid framing questions in such a way that a student feels that they are acting as a spokesperson for an entire ethnic group, country, or continent. You can try to approach questions this way: "I know you are from Ghana, and I do not expect you to speak for the entire continent of Africa, but I'm sure your classmates and I would love to hear about your thoughts on ________." Your domestic students will likely also appreciate this approach.

When forming groups in class, should I keep international students in one group, or spread them out? 

Some faculty want to distribute international students out evenly among working groups to help diversify each group. This impulse is well meaning, but could have some unintended side effects. Your individual international students may feel isolated or tokenized in their groups. However, isolating international students into their own separate group can have a similar effect. If you have a handful of international students and a handful of groups, consider placing 2 or 3 into each group so that they are never the "only one" but also they don't feel that they are the singular international student representative. That may mean that some groups have no international students in them, but there are many other ways to diversify student groups.

Even if there are multiple, valid Englishes, my students will eventually have to write cover letters and perform at job interviews. Isn't it my responsibility to hold them to a certain standard of English?

Gusties deserve access to the language and rhetorical styles that have power in our society right now. But we should do our best to accomplish this without reproducing inequalities that stem from "standard English" language ideologies. Affirming students' backgrounds and empowering them to make their own decisions about how to linguistically represent themselves in any context is paramount. That being said, we need to prepare students not just as job seekers, but for their inevitable roles as the ones doing the hiring. The idea that there is one correct English is not only harmful, but is also an increasingly irrelevant idea in the modern workplace, as information about what language is and how it works moves outside of academia and more into mainstream knowledge. When we model linguistic justice and instill values of linguistic diversity, we better equip our students to be not just workers, but leaders. For help navigating this in your course, one-on-one consultation is available.

I want to include a note about Multilingual Student Support on my course syllabus. What should I include?

Feel free to copy and/or adapt from the following:

Multilingual Student Support

Some Gusties may have grown up speaking a language (or languages) other than English at home. If so, we refer to you as “multilingual.” Your multilingual background is an incredible resource for you, and for our campus, but it can come with some challenges. You can find support through the Center for International and Cultural Education’s ( Multilingual and Intercultural Program Coordinator (MIPC), Carly Overfelt ( Carly can meet individually for tutoring in writing, consulting about specific assignments, and helping students connect with the College’s support systems. If you want help with a specific task (for example, reading word problems on an exam quickly enough or revising grammar in essays), let your professor and Carly know as soon as possible. In addition, the Writing Center ( offers tutoring from peers (some of whom are themselves multilingual) who can help you do your best writing.

How can I be sure that my exam questions don't disadvantage my international and multilingual students?

One thing you can do is analyze the performance on particular questions among your highest achieving students. If your A students still all missed questions 3 and 7, for example, you may want to re-visit the wording of that question. More best practices:

  • Introduce in class the precise types of questions and terminology that will appear on your exam
  • Keep multiple choice options to a minimum
  • Avoid "both A and C" type answer choices
  • Avoid negatively phrased questions Ex: "Which of the following is not an example of ____?"
  • Avoid word problems that assume cultural knowledge that might trip up first year students from very different cultures
  • Ask a colleague to check the wording of your more complex questions to be sure they are clear

How can I promote participation in classroom discussion among my international and multilingual students?

  • Speak openly with your students about why your course requires discussion, and what that discussion usually looks like
  • Remind students that asking a question is also a way to contribute to a discussion. Many students mistakenly think they must state a particularly astute observation in order to participate
  • Be explicit about if/how discussions are graded
  • Ask all students to share about their backgrounds, not just international students
  • Model a warm attitude to students of all linguistic backgrounds--everyone has an accent!