Multilingual Students in College

by multilingualmania on January 11, 2012

in Language Learning, Multilingualism


College can be an exciting experience, a time to develop a sense of independence, and discover ways to turn passions into a career. It can also be daunting to rein in newly found independence and often realize a chosen path may require more effort than previously thought. Imagine navigating all of this, as well as writing papers, completing assignments for online courses, and even carrying out lab work in a language other than one’s native tongue. In a world increasingly aware of its cultural diversity yet continually drawn together by advancing technology and global economics, multilingual students find both challenges and rewards in pursuing college education.

The ability to speak multiple languages is considered an advantage throughout the world. Studies show learning a foreign language correlates with higher scores on assessment tests, including the standardized college admissions test used in the US, the SAT. Historically less concerned with foreign language instruction, the United States is increasingly aware of the need to reform its approach to education as American students consistently rank below the global average in assessment tests and the nation finds itself faced with challenging economic and foreign policy issues.

Speaking a foreign language is an important trait employers often seek in their staff. “Being able to communicate in a colleague’s native tongue helps business negotiations as well as social interactions with that colleague go much more smoothly than does working through a translator. There are just some cultural aspects of communication that do not translate well,” says Kathy Mahnke of the University of Denver. Simply put, the face of business is changing. As companies in every nation and industry find global competition, they are forced to rely on those most capable of communicating with the world.

While multilingual college students may have advantages over monolingual peers, challenges remain. Before students even arrive on campus, they must demonstrate proficiency in the dominant language of study. In the US the TOEFL is the standardized evaluation used to ensure immigrant or international students can adequately perform with English-language instruction. Even with high test scores, students may feel socially isolated as they find everyday idioms used in the classroom setting intimidating since mastery of a language does not necessitate a seamless cultural integration.

Students face increased competition when navigating the college application process in a foreign language. With a growing number of foreign language applicants, schools are able to be more selective. In turn, students may find language ability alone may be insufficient when measured against more culturally robust candidates.

Addressing the needs of a student body that speaks multiple languages, colleges offer a range of assistance programs. Multilingual staff may be available to assist foreign language students in completing application materials, and multicultural organizations or language conversation clubs can help students acclimate. Some universities connect instructors with experts to understand the specific challenges multilingual students face.

To address the needs of globalization, colleges will find it necessary to support multilingual students. A better understanding of foreign cultures and the importance of knowing multiple languages can direct schools’ efforts. Personalized services such as cultural mentors could help students adjust to foreign language environments, as well as more formal assistance programs.

College students who want to be competitive upon graduation face many challenges, but command of a foreign language goes far to bridge the gap between cultures and offer a unique vantage point. By simply knowing another language, students distinguish themselves from their monolingual peers. As colleges realize the importance of a more global approach to education and adjust their curricula and course offerings, multilingual students will gradually find the college environment becoming less one of extra challenge and more one in which they’re poised to succeed.

About the Author: Marina Salsbury planned on becoming a teacher since high school, but found her way instead into online writing after college. She writes around the Web about everything from education to exercise.

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