Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Apr 6 20:14:28 UTC 2005
>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 8, 2005
When the student can't understand the instructor, who is to blame?
By JOHN GRAVOIS
On the phone from Fargo, N.D., State Rep. Bette Grande's voice rings with
clarity. "Colleges are a business," she says in a starched Midwestern
accent. "When we put research as our No. 1 focus, we forgot the student,"
she says. "We got ourselves all turned around." Ms. Grande could be
talking about any of the ills plaguing a modern university -- drops in
per-student spending, tuition increases, or maybe the lack of face time
with professors. But she has something much more contentious in mind.
She wants her state's university system to do something about the fact
that its students can't understand what the heck their foreign-born
instructors are saying. Late in January, Ms. Grande proposed a bill in the
North Dakota legislature to prod public institutions of higher education
in precisely that direction. Under her bill, if a student complained in
writing that his or her instructor did not "speak English clearly and with
good pronunciation," that student would then be entitled to withdraw from
the class with no academic or financial penalty -- and would even get a
Further, if 10 percent of the students in a class came forward with such
complaints, the university would be obliged to move the instructor into a
"nonteaching position," thus losing that instructor's classroom labor.
Almost as soon as the bill went public, Ms. Grande realized she had
touched a nerve. Calls and e-mail messages poured in from all over North
Dakota and from as far away as Florida and Arizona. In nearly a decade as
a legislator, Ms. Grande had never attracted such a prodigious and
That's probably because anyone who has studied mathematics, engineering,
computer science, or economics at an American university in the past
decade is likely to have harbored the frustrations Ms. Grande's bill aims
to soothe. With rising international enrollments in graduate programs,
classroom language barriers have become both a public hobbyhorse and a
subject for scholarly study in their own right. In more than a dozen
states, legislatures have passed laws to set English-language standards
for international teaching assistants. But Ms. Grande's bill was designed
to send a stronger message: If you can't speak the language clearly, get
out of the classroom.
Meanwhile, from the sidelines, linguists are sounding a cautionary note:
The natives are restless, sure -- but maybe they should try listening
A Global Academy
Ms. Grande took up her cause last fall, over the course of several visits
to North Dakota State University's main campus to campaign for fellow
Republicans running in the November elections. There she spoke with former
students of hers (when the legislature is not in session, Ms. Grande is a
middle- and high-school substitute teacher), friends of her college-age
son (a student at North Dakota State), and various kids who had grown up
in her neighborhood. When she asked how their classes were going, she was
dismayed to discover how many said they were having trouble wading through
a professor's accent. What was worse, the students suggested that the
university did not seem interested in doing anything about it.
Ms. Grande sensed a public failing. She approached administrators about
the issue, but received responses she found to be tepid at best. "I found
it as frustrating as any student had described," she says. "'This is
something that the students should work through; it's a diversity issue,'
they told me." "There were more excuses," Ms. Grande sizes up, "than there
were avenues to remedy the situation." At that point she began paving an
avenue of her own with the language of a deliberately unforgiving bill.
("If you don't push it to the envelope where they see that it's going to
affect them financially," she says, "they're not going to come to the
R. Craig Schnell, North Dakota State's provost, defends the university's
policy on foreign teaching assistants, which is built on a series of
written and spoken language-proficiency tests and, for those who fail
them, remedial classes in English as a second language. "We think we've
had pretty good luck with it," he says. He also stresses the importance
of exposing students to international influences, especially students from
a place like Fargo. "I think North Dakota's fairly provincial," he says,
"and if you sound in any way different, that's a point of contention."
Those hang-ups are something students must grow past, he insists. He then
cites one of the basic premises -- for Ms. Grande, a basic excuse -- of
contemporary higher education: "We're going to live in a global society,"
Mr. Schnell says, "and we have to be prepared."
Mr. Schnell is probably right about the way the world is heading: There
are now many times more nonnative speakers of English in the world than
there are native speakers of English, and the gap is likely to widen. But
higher education is heading in that direction much faster than are most
Midwestern towns. In 2003 just under 41,000 people earned new Ph.D.'s from
American universities, according to the federal "Survey of Earned
Doctorates." Of those, about 12,200 -- roughly 30 percent -- were citizens
of other countries. In engineering, foreigners have outnumbered U.S.
citizens among new Ph.D.'s for the past 20 years. In the physical
sciences, meanwhile, 45 percent of the students are foreign. Among all
those who earned doctorates from American universities between 1999 and
2003, the most common source of undergraduates was the University of
California at Berkeley. But the second most common was Seoul National
University, in Korea.
For Nicholas P. Hacker, a 23-year-old resident of Grand Forks who is both
a freshman member of the North Dakota Senate and a senior at the
University of North Dakota, those trends have hit home with unhappy
results. Mr. Hacker says he has taken several classes where the
instructor's accented English was difficult to comprehend. "There were
days when I would go home and have to study the material that they had
taught, for the simple reason that I couldn't understand the things that
came out of their mouth," he says. "It's one thing to go home and study a
concept, another not to understand what the professor was saying."
Those experiences are part of what led Mr. Hacker to co-sponsor Ms.
Grande's bill. "Sometimes we forget who our real customer is in higher
education," he says, "and that's what this bill is -- it's a
consumer-protection bill." Evidence that instruction in accented English
affects the learning process is not all anecdotal. George Borjas, an
economist at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
University who studies immigration, says he has found evidence that
foreign-born instructors do indeed have a withering effect on
undergraduates' academic performance.
In 2000 Mr. Borjas, who is a Cuban immigrant, published a study of
students enrolled in a two-term principles-of-economics course at a large,
top-ranked public university. By focusing on the students who had one
term of a discussion section taught by an American teaching assistant and
the other term taught by a foreign-born teaching assistant, he was able to
study the effects of exposure to the different types of teachers while
controlling for differences among students. On balance, he found that
undergraduates' final grades slid by 0.2 points (on a four-point scale)
when they had a foreign-born instructor.
The question is, do such academic breakdowns happen because universities
aren't doing enough to prepare international teaching assistants for the
classroom, or because American undergraduates, the beleaguered consumers
themselves, simply tune out when faced with someone who is sufficiently
different from them?
Late in the summer of 2002, Min Liu flew from Shanghai, China, to Fargo to
begin a Ph.D. in communication at North Dakota State. Aside from a small
battery of language-proficiency tests administered on her second day in
the United States, she says she was treated no differently from any other
incoming graduate student. Ten days after stepping onto American soil, she
was teaching her first course.
Ms. Liu says she felt woefully unprepared when she first stepped into that
classroom. Though she did attend a weeklong departmental orientation for
all new teaching assistants, she says there was no effort to socialize her
as a foreigner into the mores of American higher education -- much less
North Dakotan higher education. "Had I known the problems I was to get
myself into," she says, "I wouldn't have come." Even today, three years
after arriving in the United States, Ms. Liu says she still gets two or
three complaints per course -- always on anonymous end-of-semester course
evaluations and never from a student in person -- saying that she is
difficult to understand and does not speak English well enough to teach.
But she believes the hang-ups are more cultural than linguistic.
"When I taught as a TA back in China," she says with an intonation that
approaches newscaster's English, "I experienced a totally different
classroom culture. I had total authority in the classroom. Here, it's
almost like the opposite." While Ms. Liu feels that North Dakota State
leaves its international teaching assistants largely to fend for
themselves in their new linguistic and cultural landscape, a number of
American universities have taken greater pains -- often at the prodding of
state legislatures hounded by calls from unhappy parents and students --
to prepare their foreign-born teaching assistants for the classroom.
At the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, foreign-born teaching
assistants go through an intensive two-and-a-half-week program that meets
for five to six hours a day in the summer. The program encompasses
management strategies and teaching methodologies for American classrooms,
campus dynamics, and the broader scope of American culture, in addition to
focusing on simple language fluency. Meanwhile, at institutions like
Vanderbilt University and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities,
foreign-born teaching assistants are paired with undergraduate tutors
whose function is to expose the newcomers to both the rules and
idiosyncrasies of students' behavior and speech.
At the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, incoming international
teaching assistants participate in role-playing exercises in which they
play students and teachers, or in which a student theater group acts out a
number of different classroom scenarios for them to discuss. These
programs have their proud advocates, but are they effective? Do
undergraduates still complain that they can't make heads or tails of what
their foreign instructors are saying?
"Yep," says Diane Larsen-Freeman, director of the English Language
Institute at the University of Michigan, home to one of the most robust
international orientation programs. "We do get undergraduates who will
In 1988 Donald L. Rubin, a professor of education and speech communication
at the University of Georgia, began toying with an experimental model that
would occupy him for the next several years: He gathered American
undergraduates inside a classroom and then played a taped lecture for them
over high-fidelity speakers. The lecture -- an introduction to the
Mahabharata, say, or a discourse on the growing scarcity of helium -- was
delivered in the voice of a man from central Ohio.
While the undergraduates sat and listened, they faced an image projected
onto the classroom wall in front of them: Half the time, it was a
photograph of an American man ("John Smith from Portland"), standing at a
chalkboard and staring back at them. For the other half of the testing
groups, the slide projected before them was that of an Asian man ("Li
Wenshu from Beijing"), standing at the same chalkboard. The two figures
were dressed, posed, and groomed as similarly as possible.
Now for the interesting part: When the students were asked to fill in
missing words from a printed transcript of the central Ohioan's taped
speech, they made 20 percent more errors when staring at the Asian man's
image than they did when staring at the picture of "John Smith."
What did that mean?
"Students who expect that nonnative instructors will be poor instructors
and unintelligible speakers can listen to what we know to be the most
standard English speech and the most well-formed lecture, and yet
experience some difficulties in comprehension," Mr. Rubin says. "All the
pronunciation improvement in the world," he says, "will not by itself halt
the problem of students' dropping classes or complaining about their
instructors' language." At the request of The Chronicle, Mr. Rubin
conducted an interview with Ms. Liu to gauge her speaking proficiency. To
do so, he used a modified version of the oral examination most widely used
in American universities to test foreign-born instructors, the Speak test.
When the test was done, he gave Ms. Liu the maximum score.
"If one actively looks for evidence of native Chinese language
interference in Ms. Liu's speech, it is detectable," he writes in an
e-mail message describing their conversation. He notes that she does drop
an article every now and then ("Although this phenomenon may irritate
listeners who are native speakers of English," he writes, "it is unlikely
to affect comprehensibility"); she occasionally blends "r" and "l" sounds
("also of minor communicative significance at the rate and degree she
exhibits"); and she sometimes produces vowel sounds that are "a little
more tense" than would be exhibited by a native speaker of English. "This
marks Ms. Liu as not a native speaker of English," Mr. Rubin writes, "but
does not interfere with her intelligibility." Moreover, the vocabulary
that she has at her disposal in both speaking and listening, he goes on,
is "sophisticated and probably more fluent than my own."
Yet still, every time she teaches, undergraduates complain about her
English. All of this brings Mr. Rubin to an idea that is just beginning to
figure fully into the nationwide discussion of communication breakdowns in
foreign-born teaching assistants' classrooms: "We must accompany support
for international instructors' teaching skills with support for U.S.
undergraduates' listening skills," he says, "in particular their ability
to listen effectively -- and that means nonprejudicially -- to world
Representative Grande's bill, however, rose in the public eye precisely
because it was designed to give students the power to oust accented
instructors -- a menacing prospect for foreign-born teaching assistants.
"It's too harsh," says Syed Rahman, a Bangladeshi graduate teaching
assistant in North Dakota State's computer-science department -- one of
the most international corners of the university. For Ms. Liu, the entire
issue brings on a certain amount of despair.
'A Convenient Excuse'
International teaching assistants are "set up for failure," Ms. Liu says.
"No matter how hard they try, their foreignness will always work against
them and provide a convenient excuse for the students who want to resign
from a class without taking the responsibility as a student." After
several weeks of discussions with higher-education experts, amendments,
and deliberations, Ms. Grande has begun to think differently about the
issue of language barriers in the classroom.
Her bill, too, has changed drastically: In both the North Dakota House and
the Senate, after several rounds of amendments, it turned into a
relatively vague order for the State Board of Higher Education to create a
new policy on teaching assistants' communication skills, along with a
formalized process for responding to student complaints. By the end of
March, that order had been approved by legislators. "What I'm hoping for
is a solution that offers something to our foreign-born teachers," Ms.
Grande says, having been convinced that there is much more North Dakota
could be doing to prepare international teaching assistants for the
classroom. But she is cool to the thought of culpability on the student's
side of the linguistic equation.
"I can understand when they say the students just need to listen harder,"
she says, acknowledging that that is the "neighborly" thing to do. But she
says there are limits to such strained good will. "What if it was bearing
on whether or not I was going to be able to grasp materials I was going to
need for my profession?" she asks. When it comes down to it, Ms. Grande
still believes that universities are businesses, and students are
consumers: If a student cannot understand her professor, then she is being
served a faulty product.
Mr. Rubin, however, prefers to think of the issue in terms of
prerequisites -- worldly listening skills as a requirement for graduation.
"I consider the ability to listen to and comprehend world Englishes a
prerequisite to success in a wide variety of enterprises," he says. At
this notion, Ms. Grande balks. She thinks of all the countries she has
visited -- Israel, Egypt, Honduras. "In every place, what was the main
thing they wanted to do?" Ms. Grande asks. "To communicate with the
American. They knew that, throughout their lives, if they wanted
advancement they would have to do everything they could to communicate
Volume 51, Issue 31, Page A10
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