Being a college student sometimes means having to deal with professors or teaching assistants who might not be on quite the same level as you. But when these instructors do not speak English well, should students have to be the ones to go through the extra trouble of deciphering lectures?
For North Dakota State Representative Bette Grande, the answer is a resounding “no.” Grande proposed a bill that would allow students to drop a class without academic penalty and receive a refund if their reason for doing so is that the instructor does not speak English clearly with good pronunciation. If 10 percent of a class gave the same complaint, the university would have to move the instructor into a non-teaching position.
“Students are in the university to be educated; they’re paying to be educated,” Grande said. “If the product given to them is not working, there should be some form of recourse.”
More recently, the bill was amended to urge North Dakota’s Board of Higher Education to create a universal policy to address the issue. In California, there is no legislation to mandate what universities can do if professors or instructors are not intelligible.
“It may be less of an issue here in California,” Associate Vice Chancellor of Undergraduate Educations Mark Appelbaum said. “Many students come from a background where their grandparents or parents are non-native English speakers, and they learn how to shift between English and another language.”
In 1987, the California Legislature passed a resolution requiring the UC system to evaluate the oral competence of all prospective teaching assistants. However, campuses have their own programs for making sure that international faculty and graduate students are prepared to teach in the classroom.
At UCSD, an international graduate student must take a 15-minute oral examination to determine their language abilities before becoming a TA. If he or she fails, language classes are available with the Center of Teaching Development located on campus. Through the International Teaching Assistant Language Program, graduate students receive assessments and learn teaching techniques.
“Essentially all international graduate students are required to demonstrate a high level of English comprehension,” ITALP Coordinator Martha Stacklin said. “There is concern that they have the resources they need to learn to communicate more effectively if they need to.”
The initial North Dakota bill received much attention from educators around the country and raised the question of whether universities are doing all they can to address what some see as a problem. Others, however, are arguing that the issue is a cultural one.
University of Georgia Education and Speech Communication professor Donald Rubin began a study about 15 years ago in which he played an audiotape of a Standard American English speaker giving a lecture in front of undergraduate students. First, the tape was played with a photograph of a visually identifiable East Asian man in front of the students. Afterwards, the same tape was played with a photograph of a Euro-American man.
When students were asked to fill in missing words in a transcript of the lecture, they made 20 percent more mistakes when looking at the photograph of the Asian man than that of the Euro-American.
“U.S. undergraduate students are cued to believe that they are listening to an international instructor giving a lecture even if they are in fact listening to a speech by a teacher born and raised in Ohio,” Rubin stated in an e-mail. “Their rating of the speaker’s accent is more pronounced and their recall of the lecture diminishes.”
While his model used participants attending schools in Ohio and Georgia, Rubin points out that students from a more cosmopolitan area such as California would have a different reaction in his study.
“Those who are used to hearing Standard American English spoken by individuals who are identifiable as being of East Asian ancestry might be less susceptible to the biased listening process we discerned,” Rubin said.
Rubin suggests teaching students how to listen actively and immerse themselves in different kinds of English, as well as training instructors.
With studies such as Rubin’s, some are wondering whether students are just not putting in enough effort in the classroom and are simply using an instructor’s intelligibility as an excuse.
“When students are enrolled in challenging classes, it is natural to search for some external explanations for the difficulties they are experiencing,” Rubin said. “The international instructor’s spoken English is one such convenient factor to indict.”
However, Grande, who has received a multitude of responses to her initial bill, insists that universities must do their part to make sure that students are getting what they pay for and that TAs and faculty members speak intelligible English.
“Universities always point to the students’ fault — that they should just work harder — but this is a two-way thing,” Grande said. “The common denominator in this country is English. Yes, have diversity, but we have to communicate with each other with English.”
Others believe that the problem lies not only in actual language issues but also in the instructor’s ability to communicate with students. Suggested solutions to the problem include a more comprehensive program in which future TAs learn about both language and the culture of the American classroom, as well as other teaching techniques.
“In my classes, I cover communication skills, whether it is public speaking or one-on-one,” Stacklin said. “[Communication] requires different strategies — there are cultures where strategies of business communication are to be polite and indirect, but if you speak that way here, you will have very frustrated recipients.”
According to Stacklin, classes at ITALP touch upon language skills and ways for graduate students to have the right rapport with their students.
Cognitive science graduate student Dan Liu, originally from China, has experienced first-hand the challenges of teaching in an American classroom. She recalled a time last year when she encountered blank faces as she introduced herself for the first time in front of her class at UCSD.
“Language was a big problem for me when I was a TA for the first time,” Liu said. “Sometimes I couldn’t understand the questions the students raised, and sometimes I couldn’t find the best words to explain the answer.”
Liu had to use other techniques, like asking the students to repeat their question or having them write their questions on the board. In one instance, she explained a derivative by cutting up a muffin she brought to class. For the most part, she found that students were willing to work with her through the language barrier. However, she also said that American students have more complaints in general.
“Students here are more willing to challenge you with questions,” she said. “In China, it is the professor’s responsibility to teach and whether you understand it or not, that’s your problem. But here, it’s really important that I’m prepared for all the possible questions they ask.”
Computer science and engineering Ph.D. graduate student Sameer Agarwal said that students have different expectations in the United States than in India, where he is originally from. He says that while his tendency to speak very fast may cause some confusion, it is ultimately the different grading system that has caused the most difficulty. He points out that homework counts a lot for grades, and therefore, students ask TAs for as much of the solution to a problem as possible.
“I am more than willing to explain the concepts to the students, but I find it hard to justify to myself to solve the assignment for them — something for which I have gotten bad reviews in the past,” Agarwal stated in an e-mail. “It is highly unlikely for someone to be hired who doesn’t have a good command of spoken English. Sometimes we hire someone who is hard to understand, but in California, we’re so used to hearing all sorts of variations of English that we have to learn how to do it well.”
Political science professor David Forman-Barzilai, who received his degree in Israel and has taught in the United States for 13 years, says that language issues are not so much of a problem for him.
“I think a good and serious student will look beyond an accent,” he said. “It should not be an issue. In an academic setting, what is important is the content of a lecture.”
Most students at any university will encounter an instructor who is more than just a little hard to understand.
“I had one non-English-speaking professor, and I think that initially it was a problem and there were people a little thrown off by it,” John Muir College senior Keerthi Paliath said.
With increasing numbers of international graduate students and professors coming to American universities every year, the issue is likely to be raised again.
“I think that the bill was meant to be dramatic and it was meant to be provocative, and in that, it got a lot of attention — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Stacklin said.