first-year student is on the telephone, obviously not happy. "Im
not doing well in chemistry, Mom. I cant understand my professor."
mean you cant understand the subject matter?" you ask.
I cant understand her accent. Shes from another country,
and she talks really fast, and I cant understand. Ive
tried really hard but I cant."
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.
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.
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.
of Linguistics first tests students proficiency in English.
If a student doesnt 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 students 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.
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.
Its more like learning to play a musical instrument. It needs
practice, practice, practice."
Have Accents, Too
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.
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. Dont let the situation
be the pink elephant in the living room that no one talks about."
"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."
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 its easier
to listen and understand.
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
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 doesnt let this
affect her grades.
a chemistry lab where I didnt 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."
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.
sections are supposed to help you," he says. "Its
almost an oxymoron sometimes."
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 bachelors degree in nursing
in Nebraska before coming to Iowa for graduate study. Shes
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.
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."
says the problem usually lies with students who dont 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.
people speak with heavy accents and its 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
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.
to speak distinctly and slowly," she says. "If Im
afraid students wont understand something, I put it on the
blackboard or prepare a handout." She also keeps a sharp eye
out for a student who isnt understanding but isnt 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."
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.
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.
he prefers to think of this situation as an opportunity to learn,
rather than a conflict. Because of the Universitys diversity,
"our Iowa students have an opportunity that they do not always
appreciate," he says.