News

A New Mindset for Multilingual Student Support

Andrew Wu '19
Andrew Wu '18

You are a first-year college student. You sit down to write your first college paper. The topic: the role of religion in systems of Ancient Greek law. And, as if that isn't challenging enough, you have to write it in your second language.

Andrew Wu '18 found himself in a similar situation his freshman year. A native Mandarin speaker, he was not yet familiar with his instructor's expectations, but he was confident that he could write a compelling, creative paper with some guidance.

He sought help from staff in the college's Writing Program, and found a unique support system for multilingual students just like himself.

Honing Their Skills

"Multilingual—not deficient," stressed Rebeca Fernández, coordinator of non-native English writing and the Multilingual Student Support Program within the Writing Program.

Last year, Fernández held 141 sessions with 49 students, more than 80 percent of whom were international.

Often, there is a stigma associated with the commonly used term "ESL" (English as a Second Language), Fernández explained, as people tend to assume ESL students are low-performing and struggle with spoken English—an unmerited depiction.

"[Multilingual students] have a broader linguistic repertoire; they have more choices," she said. "They are extremely accomplished and bring great multi-competence to the table."

Many of the college's multilingual students earn high verbal SAT scores as well as foreign language test scores–scores on par with those of native speakers, Fernández said. But those tests are largely formulaic and grammar-heavy, and writing, listening and conversational skills often take longer to develop.

For Fernández, the challenge is to help her multilingual students hone their English writing skills, while still appreciating their unconventional—often delightful—linguistic choices, which stem from their native languages.

"[Our goal] is not necessarily to stamp out ‘the other' because it interferes with English, and that's a challenge," she said. "It takes faculty and a community that is open to a more generous approach to language. Instead of saying ‘That's not what we do, so that's not good,' they open themselves up and say, ‘Well, you know, we don't usually use metaphors like this, but this is really refreshing.' That's the [mindset] I want to foster in the community."

Fernández's own experience as a multilingual student informs her work. She immigrated to the United States during elementary school.

"As difficult as the transition was, my ability to learn English and perform well academically opened so many doors—doors that were not there for some of my peers who hadn't learned English as well, or for my family members," Fernández said. She now holds a doctorate in language and literacy from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

A Generous Approach

Now double-majoring in math and philosophy, Wu continues to work with Fernández, though the nature of the work has shifted dramatically—from drastic structural and grammatical overhauls to subtler, more targeted work on rhetoric and writing style.

His success is a testament to the effectiveness of the Multilingual Student Support Program's "mainstream-support" model.

Whereas traditional ESL programs tend to inhabit extreme ends of the support spectrum, either immersing multilingual students in regular classes and curriculum, or isolating them from classes with native-speaking students, at Davidson multilingual students are given a third option that exists somewhere in the middle: multilingual students attend the same classes as their native English speaking peers while receiving support and additional help when necessary.

The aim, Fernández said, is to allow multilingual students to participate fully in regular classroom sessions while avoiding the sink-or-swim pressure that often accompanies unaided immersion.

"By senior year, I don't see them for papers anymore; I see them for cover letters, statements of purpose, applications, sometimes when they're working on their theses and want to make sure they're polished," Fernández said.

As students hone their skills, they become increasingly self-sufficient linguistically and academically, which is the ultimate goal.

"I often tell [students], if they stop seeing me because they don't need me, then they've succeeded," Fernández said. "By senior year, almost everyone has become independent, and to me, that's success."

Royce Chen '20
rochen@davidson.edu