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Linguistic Diversity

Many international students use English as a second or additional language. As of 2020 enrollment summary data, 1,058 students have international student status (on F1 and J1 visas). One-third of international students are undergraduates, and two-thirds are graduate and law students. International students represent 5% of total university enrollment. International students are likely not the only students at DePaul that are using English as a second or additional language. According to 2018 U.S. census data, 21.9 percent of U.S. residents speak a language other than English at home. The resources below will help you to best work with students that don’t use English as their primary language. 

"Ear" Learners and "Eye" Learners

In terms of language learning, students often have diverse experiences. “Eye learners,” according to applied linguist Joy Reid, have usually encountered English through formal education—similar to the language education experiences of primary and secondary school students in the U.S. who might take classes in Spanish or Chinese. “Ear learners” have typically learned to use English by being present in the U.S. Neither is a better way to acquire language skills, but each method produces different results.

For example, a student who is an “ear learner” may be very comfortable participating in classroom discussions, but the same student may feel challenged by difficult reading or writing tasks. Learning through formal study, on the other hand, can lead to strong grammatical knowledge, effective academic reading skills, and deep awareness of academic vocabulary. An “eye learner” student who has just arrived in the U.S. from abroad may have strong academic reading skills and knowledge of specialized vocabulary, but may feel intimidated or lost during classroom conversations. 

Language Learning as a Process

In the case of all language learners, an important insight from the field of language acquisition is that developing advanced skills in a second or additional language is a slow and incremental process. As described by educational linguist Jim Cummins, achieving high-level academic proficiency in a second language can take from seven to nine years. This means that international students should not be expected to make dramatic linguistic strides within the scope of a single academic term or possibly even a single academic year. Any college class should be seen as offering a small step forward on a much longer trajectory of linguistic development.

Strategies for Working with Students with Diverse English Language Abilities

Showing tolerance towards the developing English language abilities of students should be seen as a crucial aspect of creating a supportive learning environment. Showing tolerance towards students’ use of language does not mean lowering expectations for strong academic work. Linguistic tolerance and high academic expectations are completely compatible. The role of faculty is finding ways to accommodate English language learners’ developing skills while also pushing for intellectual and academic excellence.

In many cases, the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) will help you to create a inclusive and tolerant classroom environment for English language learners. These are some examples of ways to work with English language learners in your classes:

When working with language learners, you may take on more of the “communicative burden,” a phrase used by linguist Rosina Lippi-Green. As she explains, in all of our everyday interactions, we must decide how much responsibility we are willing to assume to achieve effective communication. In the case of a native speaker interacting with a non-native speaker, the native speaker must be ready to assume a heightened level of responsibility. Doing so can help you to foster a more inclusive learning community. 

Communication Strategies for Communicating with Speakers of Other Languages

The following strategies may help when communicating with speakers of other languages. These strategies are adapted from resources developed by Jason Schneider for the Global Learning Experience (GLE) training workshop. 

  • Show that you are listening through verbal and visual cues.
  • Signal a request for repetition or clarification by saying something like “I’m sorry but can you please repeat what you just said about …?”
  • Confirm your understanding by paraphrasing what you have understood back to the speaker.
  • Let some details pass. You don’t need to understand every word in order to achieve effective communication and you can ask for clarification if you become confused later in the conversation.
  • Be accommodating and flexible and open to diverse ways of using English. Even among English native speakers in the U.S., there is rich diversity.
  • Make explicit rhetorical moves, like signaling when you are going to change a topic or expand on information.
  • Avoid relaxed pronunciation, a relaxed form of speaking where we slur the syllables of multiple words.
  • Avoid slang, metaphor, local or idiomatic terms, and explain or rephrase them when you do. 
  • Consider the difference between grammar and style, and avoid critiquing or changing stylistic choices. Style refers to choices that writers make that don’t violate grammatical rules and we know there is stylistic variation in language.
  • Keep goals in mind and let minor errors pass when reading. Get comfortable with seeing these kinds of minor errors.  


Cummins, Jim. 1979. “Linguistic Interdependence and the Educational Development of Bilingual Children.” Review of Educational Research 49, no. 2: 222–251.

Lippi-Green, Rosina. 1997. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in The United States. New York: Routledge.

Mauranen, A. (2006). Signaling and preventing misunderstanding in English as lingua franca communication. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 177, 123-150.

Mauranen, A. (2009). Chunking in ELF: Expressions for managing interaction. Intercultural Pragmatics, 6(2), 217-233.

Matumoto, Y. (2011). Successful ELF communications and implications for ELT: Sequential analysis of ELF pronunciation negotiation strategies. The Modern Language Journal, 95(1), 97-114.

Reid, Joy. 1998. “‘Eye’ Learners and ‘Ear’ Learners: Identifying the Language Needs of International Students and U.S. Resident Writers.” In Grammar in the Composition Classroom, ed. Joy M. Reid and Patricia Byrd, 3–17. New York: Heinle and Heinle.