BCLA Perspectives

Making Languages Visible in the Library by Ean Henninger and Alexandra Kuskowski

Ean Henninger and Alexandra Kuskowski


Languages are a means of communication, a part of people’s identities, and an important resource, but they are often not visible until and unless one speaks up. Even then, it is not always obvious whether someone speaks additional languages or what those languages are.

Research shows that people learn best when they have access to scaffolding and resources in their home languages, and although libraries are only sometimes sites for formal instruction, informal teaching and implicit behavior modeling happens in them all the time.

The idea for this article arose when we learned that we had independently arrived at ways of making languages more visible in our workplaces–University of British Columbia (UBC) Library and Chapman Learning Commons student workers via their name tags, and University Canada West (UCW) Library and Learning Commons staff and student workers via their desk signs.

To encourage folks at all kinds of libraries to make the relationships between people and their languages and among different languages more visible, we invited workers at our institutions to share their experiences:

How has having your additional languages visible affected your or other people’s experiences at the library?

André, UCW Student Assistant:  “When people see that I speak Portuguese or a little bit of Spanish, their reaction is positive and I can sense some relief when they realize that someone there can help them in their mother language and get the information needed without any barriers. The fact that the Library has people from other nationalities working there creates a stronger connection with students and I believe it could be a positive factor to attract more students to the space.”

Vale, UBC Student Assistant: “I am encouraged to talk Spanish with other patrons, and I think it is extremely helpful. I can connect to people from similar cultural backgrounds and in between helping them, we are able to make small talk about the transition to UBC and be able to identify if they have other needs we can help with.

Maitreyi, UBC Student Assistant: “The Indian diaspora has a significant presence at UBC and my language skills have certainly helped me navigate situations at the desk. Community users and older patrons who aren’t as comfortable in English, have encouraged me to speak Hindi after noticing the name tag! Explaining scanning instructions, printing set-up, campus directions  – I found that patrons were at ease when addressed in Hindi. It really helps patrons connect with our services and not be intimidated by the list of instructions we give them. It is also a friendly reminder of UBC’s strengthened international community.”

Angela, UBC Student Assistant: “Patrons who speak Spanish notice my name tag and start talking to me in Spanish! Most people find it easier to express themselves in their native language, and I can tell that patrons feel more comfortable with me when they speak their native language, Spanish. They speak faster and with a more natural flow, and look more relaxed. They are also excited to meet another Spanish speaker! It is a great reminder for patrons that they are not alone in their English learning journey. It is a small act, but it is essential for a truly welcoming and inclusive community.”

Sara, UBC Student Assistant: “I believe that languages are one of the best ways to connect with people and that has certainly been true at the desk. Most of the people I have spoken French with fully understand English, but gladly switch to French when we both realize we are francophones.”

Gina, UCW Student Assistant: “Based on my experience, with the visibility of my additional languages, some students found it more comfortable talking to me because they know that English is also my second language. For that reason, some people that encounter a language barrier with other staff with native language will approach me to speak slowly and focus on enunciating the word.”

Ean, UCW Librarian: “I’ve spoken more Spanish in my six months at UCW than I did in the prior six years in Vancouver! Some students find it easier to explain and understand things in their original languages, and some want to practice their English. Even if we interact entirely in English, people seem to appreciate having the option to do otherwise and the explicit recognition that other languages exist.”

Alex, UBC Librarian: “Our student-staff have found the ability to share the multiple languages they speak at the desk an enjoyable opportunity to build connections with patrons. It is easier to find a point of connection person to person, outside of their roles at the desk.” 

Have you seen yourself or other students encounter barriers or difficulties based on language in your educational career in Canada?

André, UCW Student Assistant: “I found some barriers at the beginning because I was not mentally prepared to face situations where I would have to use my second language skill to succeed. With time and practice, it got better, but at first, it was hard because I felt my brain working harder than usual. Also, I heard some of my classmates saying that they found it a little difficult at the beginning to keep up with the lectures either because of how fast the instructor was talking or because of the academic level of our readings to complete the assignments or write essays.”

Vale, UBC Student Assistant: “My native language is Spanish, and UBC was my first exposure to a 100% English environment. I have met some patrons at the desk that have some problems with the language. Usually, if they talk in Spanish, we both prefer using that to express ourselves.”

Maitreyi, UBC Student Assistant: “Initially, I remember having some difficulty understanding accents but everyone I met was very patient and willing to repeat their sentences. This is to be expected in such a global community so I thoroughly enjoyed the interactions!”

Angela, UBC Student Assistant: “Receiving customer service when you struggle with speaking the language can be a daunting experience, and I went through it many times when I was getting used to speaking English. It feels frustrating to not be able to express what you want to the person in front of you and spend more time than usual there, while other people are waiting in line behind you. Sometimes, you would want to accept the wrong item or type of help just to get out of that situation. This is why it is very important for me to make non-native speakers feel comfortable when they approach me at the desk and ensure that they receive the kind of help that they were looking for.”

Sara, UBC Student Assistant: “I am from a French-speaking country but was fortunate enough to start learning English since high school, so I have had no difficulties language-wise living and studying at UBC. However, as an International Student, I recognize that many of my peers do struggle at the beginning of their UBC journey while adapting to a 100% English speaking environment.”

Gina, UCW Student Assistant: “I often encounter linguistic difficulties on written assignments due to grammatical accuracy and academic vocabulary alongside presenting ideas in English. The discrepancy between my self-view and expression is significant and affects me.”

What can academic libraries (and postsecondary institutions more broadly) do to support people who speak additional languages?

André, UCW Student Assistant: “I believe that giving opportunities to people from other countries to work at libraries and all institutions, and providing a broad range of services in other languages creates a place that embraces every person, highlighting the importance of diversity in educational institutions. Keeping on hiring other language speakers is a great way to keep supporting everyone.”

Maitreyi, UBC Student Assistant: “A board which can be easily updated with language stickers – we can change languages based on who is at the desk. Residence advisors make such boards all the time very easily with velcro behind stickers etc.”

Angela, UBC Student Assistant: “Having important signs, library and institution maps and other materials with translations for different languages below or next to the English words. It would also be really helpful to have the library catalog and information about the collections online available in different languages. Advanced search methods usually contain technical terms that non-native speakers might find difficult to understand. Besides, libraries in places with diverse communities should have staff that can communicate in different languages in order to assist patrons more effectively.”

Aida, UBC Student Assistant: “Having resources in multiple languages. For example, printing related handouts in different languages to help those who may not understand complicated technological issues. Or even videos or posters in other languages to help students study better.”

Gina, UCW Student Assistant: “In UCW Library, I found it very helpful to make the additional languages visible to the students. Also, since most UCW’s students are international students, make sure to be patient and speak with more clarity while communicating with someone who has difficulties in English!”

Ean, UCW Librarian: “I’ve really been encouraged by efforts at other places such as VIU Library and SFU, and I feel like there’s always more that can be done. Put your staff’s languages on your website if they’re open to it! Code-switch in class if appropriate! And so on.”

Alex, UBC Librarian: “I believe finding ways to feel comfortable and familiar as we start to learn together can help folks to branch out to be creative and expansive in future learning. Examples I would love to look to in the future are McGill’s Multilingual intro library guides and SFU’s support for instructors with multilingual learners.”


As these examples and testimonies show, making languages visible in library spaces has many beneficial effects for both patrons and staff. However, there is still more that libraries of all kinds can do to support people who speak additional languages at every level – small changes such as putting languages on signs and nametags, and larger changes such as those suggested by students. We hope these ideas and examples will be as helpful to other libraries as they have been for us.