Multilingual Students and FTS

"Multilingual" and other terms

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 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 are fraught. We must continually ask ourselves, to what ends and in whose interests do we mobilize these terms?

Who are our multilingual Gusties?

MLLs in recent years

  • usually 60-80 incoming MLL students
  • around 20-30 are "international"
  • most are "domestic"
  • over 20 languages!

A sample of the languages spoken on our campus:

. . . Spanish, Hmong, Amharic, Tigrinia, Mina, Pa-Karen, Twi, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Laotian, Jamaican Creole, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Swedish, French, Thai, German, Oromo, Arabic, Ki-Swahili, Akan, Hindi, Urdu, American Sign Language, Swa-Karen, Mina, Punjabi, Bengali, Telugu, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog, Malay, Russian, Slovak, Walloon, Tamil . . .

International vs. Multilingual Students

At Gustavus we refer to students who are using a visa to study in the U.S. "international students."

Because of where they are coming from, most of our international students are multilingual, but not all. Some domestic students are multilingual, but most are not.

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

Your MLL 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.

Challenges MLLs May Face Their First Semester

MLLs largely face the same challenges all students face:

  • adjusting to a new academic system
  • finding social belonging
  • learning about and navigating college offices and resources
  • adjusting to life away from home

Because our MLL population overlaps heavily with our students of color, first-gen, and/or international students, these concerns can be heightened.

In addition, MLLs may face:

  • cultural stereotyping and misunderstandings
  • racial microaggressions
  • tokenization on campus
  • pressure from family in collectivist cultures
  • a fraught relationship with their reading and writing practices, due to problematic past interactions in the U.S. education system

Questions, comments, and requests for consultation are welcome!

Carly Houston Overfelt, Ph.D.

Multilingual and Intercultural Program Coordinator (MIPC)

Suggested Syllabus Content

Some faculty add information about MLL support to the syllabus. If you do so, below is the language we suggest:

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.


Best Practices

  • When possible, incorporate drafts into the 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


Best Practices

  • Introduce the types of questions and terminology that will appear on your exam in class
  • Keep multiple choice options to a minimum
  • Avoid "both A and C" type answer choices
  • Avoid negatively phrased questions
  • Avoid word problems that assume cultural knowledge that might trip up first semester students from very different cultures
  • Ask a colleague to check the wording of your more complex questions to be sure they are clear


Best Practices

  • Speak openly with your students about why courses require discussion in the U.S., 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 to participate
  • Be explicit about if/how discussions are graded
  • Ask all students to share about their backgrounds, not just international students
  • Hold space for students of all linguistic backgrounds--everyone has an accent!

"Asset" vs. "Deficit" Discourse

Speaking and writing in multiple languages is an amazing ability! It is an asset that often gets spoken about as a deficit in educational contexts when we speak about students of color and/or international students. See the Google slides below to view an infodeck about asset vs. deficit discourse.

Asset Discourse Infodeck

Do multilingual students get accommodations on exams?

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 multilingual students 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 CARE staff for more information about this.

Reflection Questions

In what ways do the best practices above also benefit students who are not MLL?

How can we balance the need to give sufficient writing feedback with the need to control time spent commenting?

What's the line between acknowledging/incorporating a student's cultural and linguistic background and tokenizing?

Where are you already using asset discourse? Where might you be in danger of slipping into deficit discourse?