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SPRING 1999-00
Volume 43, Number 3


Study in Summer? Almost 12,000 Students Say "Yes"

Listening to Students: President Coleman Finds Them 'Invigorating'

First and Foremost: Ten Standouts Launch Program That Gives High School Seniors an Early Start on College

Your Tuition Payment: Building Our Students' Future

Financial Aid: The Buffer Zone Between Students and Higher Education Costs

Investing in Your Student's Future

Accents: Problem or Opportunity to Learn?

A Challenge From Frank

Parent Times Briefs

University Calendar


Your first-year student is on the telephone, obviously not happy. "I’m not doing well in chemistry, Mom. I can’t understand my professor."

"Do you mean you can’t understand the subject matter?" you ask.

"No, Mom, I can’t understand her accent. She’s from another country, and she talks really fast, and I can’t understand. I’ve tried really hard but I can’t."

The fear that students will not understand people from other countries is one of the most common concerns that parents express at Orientation each year. Parent Times decided to ask teachers, students, and those who work with them to examine the issue.

Professors, graduate students, staff, and students come to the University each year from more than 100 different countries. Graduate students frequently want to become teaching assistants, to help finance their studies. To qualify to teach at Iowa, students must pass two assessments of their language and cultural skills.

Elena Kallestinova, a native of Russia with Five years of university training in English, and Oduntan Bode, an African languages instructor from Nigeria, both teach in the Department of Linguistics.

The Department of Linguistics first tests students’ proficiency in English. If a student doesn’t pass, he or she cannot teach until a retest is successful. To get help, the student enrolls in the Iowa Intensive English Program, which assists students with learning the U. S. culture as well as its language.

Once the language test is passed, a second assessment takes place in a typical University classroom, with instructors, undergraduates, and a camera operator who videotapes the session. The prospective instructor is asked to explain clearly, in words that an undergraduate could understand, a concept in his or her field. The student must answer questions during and after the presentation, show awareness of teacher-student relationships in the United States (which frequently are very different from those in the student’s country), and show interest in the subject and in students as learners. Only when the student passes that test is he or she certified to teach.

"Our instruction is open-ended as long as they are taking classes," says Maureen Burke, director of the Iowa Intensive English Program. "(Graduate students) can always take the test again. Language is not a content area that you can learn, take the test, get your A, and forget. It’s more like learning to play a musical instrument. It needs practice, practice, practice."

Professors Have Accents, Too

Teaching assistants are not the only persons who can be difficult to understand. The Center for Teaching works with professors whose students tell them they cannot follow the instruction. While the graduate assistant training is compulsory in order to be certified to teach, professors seek help from the center on a voluntary basis.

Tom Rocklin, professor of educational psychology and director of the center, says, "I encourage faculty members to put the problem on the table right away on the first day of class, and then repeat it frequently and honestly. They should say to their class, ‘I know it can be hard to understand me, but I am committed to making you understand. Tell me when something is unclear.’ Don’t let the situation be the pink elephant in the living room that no one talks about."

Rocklin adds, "I also tell them that if they do have a difficult accent, they have to do everything else right. No talking to the blackboard, no speaking very fast. They must be perfect in every way but the accent. I suggest that they use visual aids that give students a redundant channel to use in addition to the lecture."

Rocklin says the problem usually is more intense with new students, who are trying to grasp a subject area that has its own jargon at the same time that they are trying to figure out an accent. By later years, the student understands the subject area better so it’s easier to listen and understand.

"Students who have traveled a lot, especially abroad, seem to have very little problem (with accents)," says Esther Materón-Arum, assistant director of the Honors Program. "I see this problem from both sides, because when I came to this country from Colombia, I had trouble understanding United States accents, too. But worse yet were professors who mumble. You can learn an accent, but a mumble is impossible."

Students say they sometimes need to compensate when they cannot make something out. Elizabeth Wood, an exercise science major, says some science teachers are hard to understand. However, she doesn’t let this affect her grades.

"I took a chemistry lab where I didn’t have a clue at all what was going on because the teacher was so hard to understand," she says. "But I did well. I had to go talk to my professor to get additional help for this class."

Marketing major B. J. Fraher says that overall the Tippie College of Business does a good job of providing helpful teaching assistants for students. In general, though, he feels that having a teaching assistant with a strong accent is unfair because students not only have to learn the course material but also an accent.

"Discussion sections are supposed to help you," he says. "It’s almost an oxymoron sometimes."

Jane Tang, a native of Taiwan, is a first-year Ph.D. student in nursing. She had studied English for nine years before she came to the United States in 1993 and studied for her bachelor’s degree in nursing in Nebraska before coming to Iowa for graduate study. She’s been a teaching assistant in nursing for three years and is nominated for an outstanding teacher award this year.

She says that when a student occasionally complained verbally or showed nonverbally that a problem existed, she tried to assess the nature of the problem. "I tried to see if it came from my ‘unperfected’ English," she says. "If so, I made fun of myself and apologized for that problem.

"Then I tried to communicate by using different words or rephrasing them, and used writing to communicate rather than speaking. It helped to solve some problems."

However, she says the problem usually lies with students who don’t try to listen. She has developed other techniques to deal with that problem because it is so important for nursing students to listen well. After all, they will need to understand patients with strong accents.

"When people speak with heavy accents and it’s hard to understand, we can ask them to slow down or rephrase to help us understand better," Tang says. "We can ask questions with few words, slow down our speed, and use body language to help with the conversation. We could encourage them to talk by smiling, nodding our heads, or simply saying ‘yes’ or ‘I understand.’ Most important is to show our respect. When people feel we are interested in listening to them, we will be amazed how many things we can learn from them."

Elena Kallestinova also came to Iowa with considerable knowledge of English. She studied the language for five years at the Moscow Linguistics University in Russia. She teaches Language and Society and Language and Formal Reasoning in the Department of Linguistics.

"I try to speak distinctly and slowly," she says. "If I’m afraid students won’t understand something, I put it on the blackboard or prepare a handout." She also keeps a sharp eye out for a student who isn’t understanding but isn’t complaining, either. "What I do is to ask the student to repeat or explain to everyone what has been said. Then we know there is a problem."

Materón-Arum says parents should make sure their students have followed established procedures all the way through before considering intervening in some way. The syllabi for all courses in the liberal arts contain the procedure, and student handbooks in other colleges list remedies for problems. Parents intervening before the student has done everything possible simply give the student an "out," she says. They also deprive the student of a chance to learn how to solve problems.

"Students may find when they get out in the work world that a co-worker has the same accent that is bothering them here," she says.

Rocklin says he prefers to think of this situation as an opportunity to learn, rather than a conflict. Because of the University’s diversity, "our Iowa students have an opportunity that they do not always appreciate," he says.

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