Thu 23 Jun, 2005 08:55 pm
Unheard on the U.S. Campus: What the Foreign Teacher Said
By ALAN FINDER
Published: June 24, 2005
Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
Valerie Serrin could not understand her Berkeley teaching assistant.
The teaching assistant, a graduate student from China, possessed a finely honed mind. But he also had a heavy accent and a limited grasp of spoken English, so he could not explain to Ms. Serrin, a freshman at the time, what her report had lacked.
"He would just say, 'It's easy, it's easy,' " said Ms. Serrin, who recently completed her junior year at the University of California, Berkeley. "But it wasn't easy. He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant, but he couldn't communicate in English."
Ms. Serrin's experience is hardly unique. With a steep rise in the number of foreign graduate students in the last two decades, undergraduates at large research universities often find themselves in classes and laboratories run by graduate teaching assistants whose mastery of English is less than complete.
The issue is particularly acute in subjects like engineering, where 50 percent of graduate students are foreign born, and math and the physical sciences, where 41 percent of graduate students are, according to a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools, an association of 450 schools. This is despite a modest decline in the number of international students enrolling in American graduate programs since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The encounters have prompted legislation in at least 22 states requiring universities to make sure that teachers are proficient in spoken English. In January, Bette B. Grande, a Republican state representative from Fargo, N.D., tried to go even further after her son Alec complained of his experiences at North Dakota State University. Mrs. Grande introduced legislation that would allow students in state universities to drop courses without penalty and be reimbursed if they could not understand the English of a teaching assistant or a professor.
"If a student has paid tuition to be in that classroom," she said, "he should receive what he paid for."
State lawmakers, however, balked, instead ordering education officials to assess how well state universities were training teaching assistants.
Many universities are trying to minimize the problem by creating programs to assess the English skills of international graduate students who are prospective teaching assistants and offering courses as needed.
But interviews with dozens of undergraduates at six universities over the last few weeks indicate that the problem remains acute, in some cases even influencing decisions about what majors to pursue.
Ms. Serrin said that she went to Berkeley thinking she might go to medical school but that she was now majoring in economics, in part because of freshman chemistry.
Myles Sullivan, a University of Massachusetts senior, twice dropped courses, once in astronomy and once in linguistics, because he could not decipher his teaching assistant.
"Both were brilliant men, but the language barrier was just too much for me," Mr. Sullivan said.
Some students end up spending hundreds of dollars to conquer the language barrier. Loyda Martinez, a senior at the University of Massachusetts, started subscribing to an online service that provides copies of notes from previous courses at the university when she had a hard time understanding teaching assistants in math, science and psychology classes. The service cost $20 to $75 a course, Ms. Martinez said.
Others in the academic world believe that the complaints are not entirely about the shortcomings of foreign-born teaching assistants.
"Is there some low-level carping? Absolutely," said Dudley Doane, director of the Center for American English Language and Culture at the University of Virginia. "Is it justified? At times it may be. However, we have some students who aren't used to stretching."
It is a point echoed by some foreign teaching assistants who, in addition to their own studies and the rigors of grading papers, overseeing labs and leading discussions, must deal with what they sometimes consider intolerant undergraduates.
I think the problem's overstated, but there should be a standard of English language competence required of instructors at public colleges and universities. It's ridiculous, however, for the North Dakota State Representative to argue that students should be able to determine the instructors level of competence--too many students would use that as an excuse to bail on any challenging professor who happened to have a strong accent.
Another area where language or at least a strong accent can be a problem are the help lines of the various computer manufacturers since many are now based overseas or so I'm told.
Pitter: I've occasionally run into that problem myself. If I'm absolutely unable to understand the help line technician, I try to get the job number and call back. Most of these help line services are too busy for you to get the same technician, so you'll get someone different who can pull up your problem on his or her computer; I keep doing this until I get someone I can understand.