Understanding the Challenges our NNS Students
Face in College Classes
Leigh Anne Sippel, Faculty – Skyline College
Faculty Flex Day Presentation, January 19, 2011
No magic bullets
◦ There is no “single fix” that helps NNSs achieve
greater skill in English
The goal of this presentation
◦ To better understand factors in NNSs’ struggles
with English in our classes
◦ To better conceptualize our own classes in order to
provide better support to NNS students
With exception of cited material…
◦ All ideas herein are those of the presenter
◦ NNS – Nonnative Speaker
ESL – English as a Second Language (U.S.)
EFL – English as a Foreign Language (outside U.S.)
ESOL – Skyline College’s version of ESL
EL – English Learner (high school designation)
LL – Language Learner (foreign language designation)
L1/L2 – 1st language/2nd language
An ESL/ESOL student is a student taking ESL/ESOL classes
A NNS is not necessarily an ESL student (i.e., s/he may not
be taking any ESL classes at all)
Types of NNSs (presenter’s terminology)
Young Immigrant/International Student
US-high school educated
Low-skilled long-term resident
Refugee or underresourced
Traditional – middle aged, educated
Young Imm/Int. Stu. – usu. early 20s
US-high school educated – 18-22
◦ Assets: intellectual capital, resources, motivation
◦ Challenges: inflexibility, limited patience/receptiveness,
don’t blend in to student culture
◦ Assets: age, family support, blend in to student culture
◦ Challenges: lack of affinity/identity with host culture,
bound to 2 cultures in different ways, some translation
dependence, affective issues impact motivation
◦ Assets: acculturated, positive affect, flexible learner
◦ Challenges: ingrained linguistic habits (ear-learner), lack
of foundation in 1st language affects dev. of 2nd
language, lack of awareness/gravity towards language
Low-skilled long-term resident – usu. over 30
◦ Assets: Motivated, high affinity for U.S. culture
◦ Challenges: fossilized linguistic habits, weak
learning skills/intellectual capital, inexperience with
academic discourse, dependence on translation
Refugee or under-resourced
◦ Assets: usually highly motivated
◦ Challenges: range from education to health to legal
status to personal issues; often employed in a lowwage job; frequently subject to worker exploitation
Discuss: what does SLA entail?
◦ Grammar: Form, Function, Phonology*
◦ Acquisition of vocabulary
◦ Language morphology and word families
◦ Register and situational appropriateness (e.g.
academic language vs. language for work
◦ Emotions, insinuations, attitudes, expressions
◦ Culture, history, pop-culture influences, slang,
applied theoretical lenses (e.g. feminism)
◦ Affect and identity as a speaker of the language
*Larsen-Freeman 2000
Language Processing Time, Resources, and
Input > Sounds are selected > Translation > Association
of multiple meanings, nuances, and contexts >
Appropriate meaning extracted > Response formed >
Response self-evaluated, affective filter adjusted >
Response emitted > Reaction to response evaluated
Don’t assume that Ss understand the lecture 100%. Notes
and clearly written assignments provide support.
Consider writing the agenda and HW on the board each day in
the same place.
In 1-to-1, always ask a S what s/he understands of the
assignment before moving forward.
Allow time for questions.
Cultural differences
The U.S.
low-context (relies on explicit information over context)
monochronic (time is measured, takes priority over all)
focus on exact words, exact meaning, ambiguity not
tolerated (“say what you mean”)
litigious and rigid
blunt, direct, self-advocating
writing begins with the central point, then explains it
Iowa State University 2005
Pistillo 2003
Almost every other culture
high-context (relies on context, implied information)
polychronic (time is fluid, secondary to human concerns)
focus on emotional content and imagery; ambiguity
preferred (“don’t dumb it down for me”)
negotiating, flexible
polite, indirect, face-saving
writing may not state a central point until the end, or
perhaps never at all
Asian cultures
 Hubris vs. humility - respectful, polite, high-context
 Reverence for writing: Great Writers Get Published, Bad
Writers Do Not ∴ ℎ   
 Fatalistic views can conflict with common
assumptions in western thought (i.e., Fate vs. Cause
and Effect)
 Confucianist thinking seeks compromise, not debate
 Writing tends to “dance around” the topic without
ever actually grappling with it. Writers tend to be
shy about arguing with an author’s claim and fear
making powerful statements. “The nail that sticks out
gets pounded down.”
*Source: Lee and Lee 2009
Arabic cultures
 Image is more important than meaning; style is
more important than accuracy.
 A negotiating culture; polychronic, high-context
 Writers tend to speak in vague, repetitive terms
because the point is to create the image and feeling,
not to put all the meaning into individual words.
Writers often want to argue all angles of a topic
instead of focusing on one single angle so as to give
a more complete picture. Descriptions can be lurid
and sometimes emotionally charged.
*Source: Zaharna 1995
Latin cultures
 Collectivist values over individualistic ones;
family over independence
 High-context culture
 Writers do not always elaborate on what they
feel should be universally understood.
Inexperienced in argumentation. Values can
appear to be the product of lack of examination
or critical thinking when actually they reflect the
comfort of being in a group and the absence of
a need to be independently recognized for
one’s thinking.
*Source: Lee and Lee 2009
 Remember: The English academic style is just a
style, not the only style. Don’t devalue other styles.
 Reassure: Ss’ thinking or value system is not wrong,
but gets interpreted a certain way by American
academic writing and reading.
 Clarify goal: to become bicultural in writing rather
than feeling the need to adhere to rules that make
no logical sense.
 “This probably sounds great in your language, but in
English, it sounds like xyz… What do you want to
Think about one NNS you have encountered
who might exhibit any of the traits discussed
so far.
◦ What were the challenges?
◦ How successful was the student?
◦ What could you do/have done to help the student
see the differences between his/her culture and
American culture, with respect to writing English?
Iowa State University (2005) Cultural Differences
Lee, J. and K. Lee (2009) Facilitating Dynamics of Focus Group
Interviews in East Asia: Evidence and Tools by Cross-Cultural
Pistillo, G. (2003) The Interpreter as Cultural Mediator
Zaharna, R. S. (1995) Bridging Cultural Differences:
American Public Relations Practices & Arab Communication
Leigh Anne Sippel
Associate Professor, English for Speakers of Other Languages
Coordinator, English Language Institute
Skyline College
3000 College Dr.
San Bruno, CA 94066
(650) 738-4408
sippell at smccd dot edu
I have never visited Chicago.
Form: subj + aux + adverb + verb past
participle + object = present perfect tense in
the negative
Function: time frame and meaning (general
life experience, negative)
Phonology: I’ve /ive/
visited /visitid/

Nonnative Speakers and Writing