Later this week one of my undergrad classes have their first written test and one of the students is not from my country, and he said he's been having some problems both understanding my lectures and the recommended book

And now he desperatedly sent me an email asking for advice on what to do.

The thing is: I don't know what to recommend either... I never have this case before... What could I indicate/advice him that would help?

  • 1
    I like Solar Mike's answer. In addition, and prompted by a class of mainly students whose first language was not English, I began recording my lectures using an inexpensive digital recorder. (Olympus; mike clips to tie or shirt placket; recorder in shirt pocket.) I put the recordings on the web for anyone to download. Students having trouble could listen more than once.
    – Bob Brown
    Apr 15, 2019 at 15:33
  • What country is this? Did you (or he) consult with the international student office? Apr 15, 2019 at 20:35
  • You might also consider directing your student to languagelearning.stackexchange.com .
    – Tommi
    Apr 16, 2019 at 7:22

4 Answers 4


He needs to improve his language skills fast...

When I studied in France (and this was engineering, which means a different vocabulary), we watched tv, worked with our French colleagues (ie other students), we helped them with English and they helped us with French... Total Immersion was what we practiced - limiting our use of our mother tongue to increase the French as fast as possible.

We also did evenings where we provided food & beer / wine to increase opportunities for conversation as well as getting our work checked.

Also, watching France V England at rugby was good for a laugh... :)

Are there any courses in the institution he could enrol in? but these courses need to be accelerated...


First thing first, I'd suggest focusing on what you can do to minimize the impact to the student. For example, what can you do to lower the impact to his GPA: is your course an elective/required course? And has he passed the date to either drop or withdraw? Having him dropping the course, and focusing on language learning for another semester before (re)taking your course may be the best for him.

If he will have to stay in your course, then do an inventory of what you can supply. For example, how much time, man power (including TA), and resource that you can allocate to help this person. Here are some measures I have seen people doing:

  1. Allow the student to record your lecture.
  2. Make your lecture outline/script available. Or make some of the Q&A scheme available so that he can get a sense on the style.
  3. Provide a longer duration of time for tests/examinations. (Based on policy you or he may have to file for accommodation, check with your school.)
  4. Inform your TA about this, so that your TA can use simpler wording with him if necessary.
  5. Be somewhat conscious about your speech: minimize the use of i) local colloquiums, idioms, or jokes ii) somewhat indirect expressions like sarcasms.

Informally, you may also encourage the student to identify some textbooks that are in his language as a reference. It may also be prudent to first see how he did in the test this week first. He may be confusing the language understanding and the content understanding; or he could have some worrier personality that is aggravated by the looming test.

If it turned out to be really language barrier, programmatically you can also consider the followings:

  1. Check with the admission/student office of the program and see if they can connect the student with language service. Some of them may include paid lanuguage tutors, editors, etc.
  2. Connect the student with any kind of student life organization in the school, which may have resources on activities like workshops, peer-writing groups, social hours, etc.
  3. Contact the student's academic advisor, so that he/she may be able to suggest some relevant language courses for the student.

My advice is that, be professional and diligent in helping, but do not take this as your personal responsibility. Making your course understandable to every non-native speaker is not the job. Remember he i) knowingly applied for the institute, and ii) had likely produced relevant language competency during the application process, so the lion share of the responsibility falls onto him and the admission. Time to time, a student with great language test score may not come with an equally good listening or speaking; so, if you detect that the student is unlikely to make it, you should suggest him to withdraw for now and come back when he's more ready.


I have this problem every year.

There are a few recommendations but in the end the student will have to put lots of effort into catching up on the language and you can not fix it for him. You can recommend:

  • Language tandems (there are lots of options in social networks)
  • Mobile phone apps for learning
  • Maybe the university offers language courses?
  • Private courses/classes
  • 1 to 1 private language classes (most effective but expensive)
  • Watch TV with subtitles in the language
  • Taking the book you recommended and a dictionary and struggle the way through the pages. This will be really hard for the first few pages but after a few the words and phrases will start to repeat and it becomes easier.
  • We watched tv that had the subtitles in our mother tongue - much more effective as you get to hear the target language...
    – Solar Mike
    Apr 15, 2019 at 12:50
  • I found it most useful to have the audio and subtitles in the foreign language but this depends on the level you start from I guess ...
    – lordy
    Apr 15, 2019 at 13:03
  • Well, I watch films in VO French then pick holes in the subtitles as to how it should have been translated, my sons do the same now as well... but their French is better than mine...
    – Solar Mike
    Apr 15, 2019 at 13:06

I'm not sure you can tell the guy this, but if I were freely talking to the guy would advise him to get a your language speaking girlfriend (unless he is hitched). Drives your learning fast. Plus there are the added benefits.

In any case, the more he socializes with locals and gets himself out of the immigrant clique the better. Consider how kids dumped into a foreign land for the summer (sans parents, sans bilingual education) get up to speed just from playing with the other kids.

Of course the timeframe for this will not likely help with your class. Probably if all he cares about is your class, the most efficient thing would be just to get a textbook in his own language and use that as an accompaniement. If he reads it (and works problems) AHEAD of your lectures, he will have a much easier time since the content will be more familiar. [This is true even without a language difference...prereading makes lectures easier.]

  • 5
    If you remove the lines about getting a girlfriend I'll consider upvoting. The advice about a textbook in his native language is good, the rest is objectifying and slightly gross, or as you mentioned, useless within the time frame of the class.
    – user141592
    Apr 15, 2019 at 14:05
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    @SolarMike The comment about "added benefits" is gross and the advice is objectifying, regardless of your experience. Furthermore, a comment from a professor that amounts to "you should get laid more to fix your problems in my class" is begging to be reported to the equivalent of a Title IX-office. It is not appropriate coming from a professor to a student.
    – user141592
    Apr 16, 2019 at 7:03
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    @SolarMike Which is exactly why this answer telling the professor to tell the student to get a girlfriend is inappropriate.
    – user141592
    Apr 16, 2019 at 7:07
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    @SolarMike I'm in Europe. We have offices that deal with sexual misconduct here too, although different universities have different names for them. Telling a student to " get a girlfriend" to help with language skills and because "it has other benefits too" is gross and inappropriate and violates the code of conduct at every university I've been. I don't understand why you're so insistent on defending it.
    – user141592
    Apr 16, 2019 at 7:33
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    Suggesting that a student's romantic life or lack thereof has anything to do with their class performance is blatantly inappropriate. Furthermore, comments about "gets himself out of the immigrant clique" could be misinterpreted as the kind of thing that gets faculty in hot water. It would be best just to recommend more interaction with native speakers to help with language learning without involving romance or judgement about the student's friends. Apr 17, 2019 at 3:01

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