Teachers pose a language test at U.S. colleges

Communication: Higher education bogs down when foreign-born teachers struggle to speak English.

March 16, 2000|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

At Towson University, Bryan Jablonski hid a tape recorder during class so he could later translate his teacher's broken English.

At Princeton University, Bill Fedyna had four teachers in a math course for engineers. Three of them did not speak English.

At the University of Missouri, Don Collins could communicate with the instructor of his chemistry lab only by jotting down questions in a notebook and waiting for a written response. "It's not so unusual," Collins said. "Almost everyone has a story like that."

In college classrooms in Maryland and across the United States, many students voice the same complaint: the prevalence of non-native speaking professors and teaching assistants -- particularly in math, science and engineering -- has become an impediment.

Although 20 states have passed laws setting standards for English proficiency, Maryland students have no legal recourse when the teacher's speech is unfathomable. Instead, students drop courses, avoid lectures and suffer through unintelligible hours with sophisticated scholars whose accents and halting speech sometimes defy understanding.

Language complaints have been common on the nation's college campuses since the early 1980s, when foreign student enrollment in graduate schools began a sharp rise from about 20,000 to more than 40,000 in recent years. Because the majority of foreign students come from Asian nations, where the transition to English can be particularly troublesome, the problem has persisted.

The issue is controversial whenever it comes up, educators say, because it raises suspicions of prejudice and xenophobia.

On Maryland campuses, several students and professors interviewed for this story asked not to be quoted for those reasons. Some students acknowledged that they preferred not to discuss the topic publicly because they feared retribution from teachers.

Yet the subject comes up repeatedly at even the best colleges.

"This has been a hot topic in higher education for a number of years," said Patricia Monoson, a speech pathologist at the University of Arkansas who has studied and written about the issue. "You find it at the large research institutions, even in some smaller colleges."

Student complaints at Princeton became so frequent that the school announced recently that graduate students will have to pass an English proficiency exam before they can teach.

At the University of Missouri, complaints reached such a pitch this year that the state Legislature held public hearings and began debating a bill to require professors to demonstrate English fluency before being allowed to teach.

In most cases, the underlying tension is not prejudice toward foreigners, observers say, but a feeling among parents and students that they are not getting their money's worth.

"Students here don't feel there is any acceptable excuse to have someone in the classroom who can't communicate with us -- not when you're paying $30,000 a year," said George Soterakis, senior class president at the Johns Hopkins University. "That's just a blunt statement of fact."

Although Maryland's largest campuses, such as the University of Maryland and Hopkins, have policies and programs designed to assure English fluency, students still experience problems.

At Hopkins, computer science major Phil Lawton recalls the year he dropped a course because the professor's English defied his ability to understand it.

At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, student government President Alicia Hobson remembers a statistics course where the lectures eventually proved too difficult to fathom.

"I just stopped going to class," she said. "I don't know if I wasn't being understood or if it was my problem that I couldn't understand the teaching assistant. Whatever, we weren't communicating."

Administrators of some schools' language proficiency programs acknowledge the problems.

"It's an issue everywhere," said Jim Greenberg, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at College Park. "It's a real big issue for undergraduates because if they are in a class and they feel the teaching assistant is not able to help them at the level they need, then they are being disadvantaged."

Testing and remediation

At College Park and Baltimore County campuses of the University of Maryland, teaching assistants -- known as TAs -- must take oral language tests before being cleared to teach. Also, as is true at Hopkins, the schools offer language and cultural instruction.

Misuzu Otsuka, a Japanese graduate student in economics, came to Hopkins in 1998 understanding English but without being able to speak the language. Although the school needed her to teach weekly sections for a large undergraduate economics course, she had to wait a year and improve her English before being allowed to lead a class.

Even though she now feels comfortable teaching, she still does not always understand students' questions. Speaking spontaneously, she said, can be a struggle.

Struggling with slang

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