Something to Talk About: Language Barriers by Nick Fahnders

Real Talk: The world continues to become a more global society, and the number of immigrant and international students enrolling at colleges and universities in the United States continues to increase. For higher education institutions, this warrants a need to prepare for the challenges associated with language barriers. In order to better align actions to mission statements, higher education professionals will be challenged to consider how their respective institutions will work with students who speak various languages. Higher education professionals can begin to envision an academic environment with an increased number of English as a second language (ESL) students by articulating the implications of inaction, examining strategies to combat language barriers, and working to implement change:

Implications of Inaction

  1. Ineffective Learning Strategies. As institutions continue to strive for a more global population of students, traditional learning models may not be the most inclusive practice. Without consideration for other languages and cultures, additional perspectives could be lost in and out of the classroom. Once in the classroom, students with limited English language skills struggle to keep up with the communication style, particularly discussions. Though these students are excelling, struggling, and failing at the same rate as their English-speaking counterparts, some professors say they have had to significantly alter how they teach (Bartlett & Fischer, 2011).
  1. Uncompetitive with Other Institutions. An institution that chooses not to embrace a more inclusive and global approach may also be less attractive to prospective students, which has the potential to make an institution less competitive. International students will continue to enroll at institutions where there has been reported success of integrating international cultures into the classroom (Glass & Braskamp, 2012).
  1. Potential Loss of Funds. For institutions that choose to be less proactive about attracting a global population, there may be more to lose than a competitive edge. For instance, the government may be more inclined to fund institutions with a more international approach when compared to institutions that do (McMurtie, 2008).

Recommended Actions

Colleges and universities have a history of diligently working to implement inclusive strategies for various cultural, special-interest, and ethnic student groups to engage as active members of campus communities. ESL students should not be exceptions to these practices. Following a thorough analysis of long- and short-term goals, available resources, and student populations, student affairs professionals can begin to develop and implement appropriate combinations of the following actions to support ESL students in their campus communities:

  1. A study conducted by Bifuh-Ambe (2009) found socialization with English speaking or United States citizen peers outside of class to be a highly effective strategy in increasing English language acquisition and thus, promoting greater academic success of ESL students. The increased exposure and ordinary interactions allow ESL learners to practice skills in low-pressure situations and develop a deeper understanding of sociocultural norms. Peer-to-peer exchanges outside the classroom also provide ESL learners with experiences in authentic communicative contexts. Furthermore, participants of the study expressed feelings of connectedness with the larger campus community when engaged with peer mentors, study groups, and co-curricular activities. Student engagement in college and university communities also has a proven history of increasing retention (Kanno & Varghese, 2010).
  1. A peer coach is a designated student from whom an ESL student can ask for help regarding academics and social matters, navigating the university environment, and other aspects of the institution. Peer mentoring programs create opportunities to build student-to-student connections, increase overall support, and help contribute to ESL student development. For example, the University of Delaware has addressed transitional issues that ESL students face by implementing mentor programs that specifically target first-year students (Bartlett & Fischer, 2011). It is likely that institutions already have similar peer mentoring programs in place, and it therefore may benefit colleges and universities to mirror support programs for ESL learners after existing structures.
  1. Holistic Approaches. Employing a holistic approach to explicitly break language barriers and increase the individual successes of ESL students requires resources that all institutions may not possess. However, student affairs professionals can take advantage of opportunities to learn about specific strategies by benchmarking against existing programs and determining what aspects may be transferrable to their institution. Such initiatives may include:
  • Living-learning communities in which ESL and native English speaking students academically and socially support each other. Students might also enroll in clustered courses together.
  • Cultural centers where ESL and English speaking students may interact as mentors, peers, and engaged networks.
  • Study groups designed to assist with understanding of academic prose, to explore concepts and ideas, and to help with reading and writing fluency.

*The underlying theme is interactions between ESL and English speaking students

  1. Translation Services. Research recommends that institutions make official and important resources available in multiple languages. Those resources may include the student code, a residential life contract, financial aid documents, the institutional mission, and other frequently referred to policies and procedures. Kanno and Varghese (2010) cite that ESL students often express difficulty in understanding the content of academic reading and unfamiliarity with specialized vocabulary. Accordingly, it is necessary to make documents that commonly utilize academic jargon or slang terms available in multiple languages.

One Size Does Not Fit All: Institution Type

While any college or university has the potential to host international students with a variety of native language backgrounds, a large number of international students enroll at institutions in New York, Texas, and California (Institute of International Education, 2012). It is important for higher education professionals to pay special attention to the demographics of their institution’s specific student body to determine the composition of international or underrepresented students who attend their institution and to prepare accordingly for the possibility of heightened language barriers. Doctorate and research universities may see an increase in students from another country with a native language other than English. Regional and community colleges enroll a similar number of students with language barriers; however, these ESL students are more likely to be United States residents who are not fluent in English or choose to speak another language, as mentioned above (Berman, 2011). Regardless of institution type, or geographic location, students will continue to enroll in universities and colleges with language barriers that educators may or may not have addressed before their arrival.

In Conclusion: Regardless of institution type, current and emerging higher education professionals have many reasons to stay informed about the various challenges they will face as leaders on college and university campuses. It is critical for campus leaders to become better versed in this issue by analyzing justifications for addressing language barriers, articulating the implications of inaction, and working to implement change. Higher education professionals who are prepared to support diverse groups of students and who take the necessary steps in assessing their campus communities and student bodies will help form the bridge that allows students with limited English-speaking skills to receive access to education in the United States and feel welcome in their new home.


Bartlett, T., & Fischer, K. (2011, November 3). The China conundrum: American colleges find the Chinese-student boom a tricky fit. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Berman, R. A. (2011). The real language crisis. Academe, 97(5), 30-34.

Bifuh-Ambe, E. (2009). Literacy skills acquisition and use: A study of an English language learner in a United States university context. Adult Basic Education and Literacy Journal,  3(1), 24-33.

Glass, C., & Braskamp, L. (2012, October 26). Foreign students and tolerance: I.  Inside Higher Ed.  Retrieved from

Institute of International Education (2012). Open doors: Fast facts 2012. Retrieved from

Kanno, Y., & Varghese, M. M. (2010). Immigrant and refugee ESL students’ challenges to accessing four-year college education: From language policy to educational policy. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 9, 310-328.

McMurtrie, B. (2008). Foreign students pour back into the U.S.  The Chronicle of Higher Education, 55(13). Retrieved from

Nick Fahnders is the International Career Services Counselor/Adjunct Faculty at Kendall College in Chicago, IL. He also supports the ACPA Commission for Social Justice Educators as the Vice Chair for Member Services. If you want to discuss more about inclusive approaches or preparation for personal/professional transitions, Nick is always willing to listen and contribute. Email him at to keep the conversation going!

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