How to Identify Audience in a Multilingual World?

How to Identify Audience in a Multilingual World

To some extent, all college students, indeed all people, must navigate multiple cultures and languages.

To solve a problem with your computer software in Dallas, you may be speaking to a tech support person in India.

As you stock shelves in a toy store in Omaha, you may be interacting with a supply chain that originates in Shanghai.

The college environment will introduce you to a wide range of cultural contexts that may be new to you.

Each of these contexts includes a rhetorical situation that is as important to learn how to navigate as the writing situations you will typically encounter in your courses:

Social contexts:

Whether you are attending a full-time residential program on campus, commuting to a local community college, or taking classes online, college provides you with opportunities to join new social groups.

These groups may be connected by social action within a community, a shared cultural heritage, a common interest, or simply the residence hall in which you live.

Whatever context you find yourself in, you should be aware that colleges are generally gathering places for people from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds, with differences in language, communication practices, and social conventions.

Learning to respect and accommodate these differences is an essential part of the college experience.

Workplace contexts:

Whether you are working as a barista at the local Starbucks, a home health aide for seniors, or an assistant in the campus library, your job will likely come with new demands and expectations, and you will have an advantage if you are able to communicate effectively.

Academic contexts:

Disciplines have distinctive languages and cultural expectations.

The language of statistics or anthropology, for example, probably sounds strange and new at first to most students who take those courses.

Academic English in general involves conventions and forms that require familiarity for college success.

This text presents these conventions, and although it cannot cover the terminology of every academic discipline, it will prepare you for the vast majority of college courses.

Exploring culture

In the ways just described, all students are language learners and cultural explorers.

In college, however, students who know two or more languages and cultures may find that they have an advantage over those who know only one.

Multilingual students can contribute insights about other cultures in a world that is interconnected in ever more complex and sophisticated ways.

This article uses the term multilingual to address students from varied cultural, national, and linguistic backgrounds.

You may be an international student learning to speak and write English.

You may have grown up speaking standard American English at school and another language or dialect at home. Perhaps your family has close ties to another part of the world.

You may have moved between the United States and another country more than once.

If you came to the United States when young, you may read and write English better than you do your parents’ native language.

You may speak a blended language such as “Spanglish,” a mixture of English and Spanish. Because the way we talk influences the way we write, blended and other nonstandard forms of English often appear in college students’ writing.

There is no single “correct” English, but Standard Written English is expected in academic contexts.

Academic language is formal, with an expanded vocabulary, a complex grammar, and culturally specific usage patterns.

In addition, disciplines have their own vocabulary. Interacting with classmates as you explore together the specialized language of academic subjects has many benefits.

Monolingual and multilingual speakers have much to learn from one another.

aware of your audience

1. Becoming aware of your audience

If you are familiar with at least two languages and cultures, you already know about multiple ways to interact politely and effectively with other people.

All students must carefully assess the classroom situation as a special culture.

What does the instructor expect?

What counts as evidence?

What is polite, and what is not?

Joining the academic conversation

In some cultures, asking a question indicates that the student has not done the homework or has not been paying attention.

In contrast, instructors in the United States and Great Britain generally encourage students to ask questions and participate in class discussion.

The American philosopher Richard Rorty makes the point that the history of philosophy is all about sustaining a lively intellectual conversation, and classrooms often reflect that principle.

Students are usually encouraged to approach the instructor or fellow students outside class to keep the conversation going.

Finding out what instructors expect

Just as students are not all the same, neither are instructors.

Take advantage of your instructor’s office hours — a time designated for further conversation on material discussed in class — to ask questions about assignments as well as other matters.

Instructors in the United States sometimes ask students to form small groups to talk over an issue or solve a problem.

All members of such groups are expected to contribute to the conversation and offer ideas.

Students usually speak and interact much more informally in these groups than they do with the instructor in class.

Peer study groups, whether assigned or formed spontaneously, can be excellent resources for interpreting assignments.

Instructors in different disciplines may use key words in different ways.

When biology professors ask for a description of “significant” results, for example, that term may mean something different from what English professors mean when they compare two “significant” fictional characters.

The terms analyze, critique, and assess can all be used variously.

Determining what your audience expects

Colleges in the United States and Great Britain, and English-speaking culture more generally, emphasize openly exchanging views, clearly stating opinions, and explicitly supporting judgments with examples, observations, and reasons.

Being direct is highly valued. Audiences in the United States expect speakers and writers to come to the point and will feel impatient without an identifiable thesis statement.

On the other hand, to communicate successfully in a global context, you should be aware of differing expectations.

If, for example, you are sending business correspondence to a Japanese company, you may accomplish your goals more successfully by spending more time on courteous opening remarks.

Everything depends on the cultural situation.

Choosing evidence with care

Different cultures, as well as different academic disciplines, expect varying forms of evidence.

Most scientists and mathematicians, for example, are convinced by the application of the scientific method.

In that sense, science and math are universal languages, but scientists from different fields rely on various types of methods and evidence.

Some scientists compare the results from experimental groups and control groups, while others emphasize close observation and quantitative analysis.

Likewise, different cultures assign varying degrees of importance to firsthand observations, expert opinion, and quotations from sacred or widely respected sources.

Once again, it’s essential to figure out the context and what you are trying to achieve within it.

Considering the organization your audience expects

A laboratory report is organized according to expectations determined by the scientific method. But the organization of most other texts varies greatly.

In the classroom, careful study of the assignment and the advice provided in this book will assist you in organizing your project effectively.

Practicing this kind of analysis should help in writing to multiple international audiences as well.

Seek guidance by studying effective communication in a particular culture.

In addition, on matters of courtesy, it never hurts to consult those familiar with the expectations of readers and listeners in a given situation.

Choosing an appropriate tone

Writing to strangers is different from writing to friends.

Even in an e-mail, use a level of formality when addressing professors and others who are not your close friends.

That attention to tone means typing “Dear Professor Maxell:” and using full paragraphs without abbreviations.

“Texting,” on the other hand, is the ultimate shorthand used by people who know each other well and can literally finish each other’s sentences.

Once in a while, a professor may invite you to send a text on a simple matter, to confirm, for example, that you have received a message about a classroom re-location.

In general, however, texting is an option to be used among friends and in other special circumstances — for example, you might text library information to yourself.

Academic english

2. Using reading, writing, and speaking to learn more about academic English

To develop your facility with academic English, try using the following strategies:

Keep a reading and writing notebook

Write down thoughts, comments, and questions about the reading assignments in your courses and class discussions.

Put ideas from the readings into your own words (and note the source).

Compare your view of a reading with those expressed by your classmates. Make a list of new words and phrases from your reading and from what you overhear.

Be alert to idioms,words and phrases that have a special meaning not always included in a simple dictionary definition.

Go over these lists with a tutor, a friend, or your writing group.

Write a personal journal or blog

Using English to explore your thoughts, feelings, and questions about your studies and your life in college will help make you feel more at home inthe language.

Join a study group

Research shows that nearly all college students benefit from belonging to a study group.

Discussing an assignment helps you understand it better. Study groups also provide opportunities to practice some of those new words on your list.

Write letters in English

Letters are a good way to practice the informal style used in conversation.

Write to out-of-town acquaintances who do not speak your first language.

Write a letter to the college newspaper (though you will need to be more formal in that situation).

Write brief notes on paper or through e-mail to instructors, tutors, librarians, secretaries, and other native speakers of English.

learning tools that are available for multilingual

3. Using learning tools that are available for multilingual students

The following reference books can also help you as you write papers for your college courses. You can purchase them in your college’s bookstore or find copies in the reference room of your college’s library.

ESL dictionary

A good dictionary designed especially for second-language students can be a useful source of information about word meanings.

Ordinary dictionaries frequently define difficult words with other difficult words. An ESL dictionary defines words more simply.


Look up a word in a thesaurus to find other words with related meanings. The thesaurus can help you expand your vocabulary.

However, always look up synonyms in a dictionary before using them because all synonyms differ slightly in meaning.

Dictionary of American idioms

An idiom is an expression that is peculiar to a particular language and cannot be understood by looking at the individual words.

“To catch a bus” is an idiom.

Desk encyclopedias

In the reference room of your college’s library and online, you will find brief encyclopedias on every subject from U.S. history to classical or biblical allusions.

You may find it useful to look up people, places, and events that are new to you, especially if the person, place, or event is referred to often in U.S. culture.