Foreign teaching assistants' first test: the accent

Universities are responding to a fresh wave of complaints about the speaking abilities of TAs

At the University of Missouri at Columbia, frustrated business major Douglas Dudenhoeffer once tape-recorded a mathematics lecture so he could prove to others how hard it was to decipher his instructor's thick accent.

At Northeastern University in Boston, Peter Smith, a senior, sometimes finds himself "stressed out" if an international teaching assistant with a strong accent is "helping" him. It can require hours longer to figure out engineering problems, he says.

And at Princeton University in New Jersey, Lisa Leslie told the campus newspaper last spring that she had difficulty understanding the international TA in her geo-sciences class.

After a nearly decade-long lull, undergraduates at public and private research universities nationwide are again complaining publicly about their daily struggle to understand the heavily accented English of foreign-born teaching assistants, who help full-time faculty lead discussion groups, grade papers, and conduct labs.

One mid-1980s study dubbed the phenomenon the "Oh no! syndrome" because of student reactions to finding out a foreign TA would be teaching them. Like many studies, it implied a communications problem, but did not document a direct impact on student learning.

In fact, many like Mr. Smith and Ms. Leslie are irked at the extra effort required to learn, but concede they do not believe their grades were harmed. Others like Missouri's Mr. Dudenhoeffer are less sure.

"I'm done with all my math now, but I can't believe how bad [the language gap] was," he says. "I never had any problems as far as grades go [in other courses]. But there have been many situations where my grades could have been better in math if I had a teacher that knew how to speak [English] and understand my questions."

He may be right. A new report suggests a serious impact from teachers' heavy accents. Undergraduate Americans in sections taught by foreign-born TAs received lower final grades than those taught by native speakers - about 0.2 grade points lower - according to a study by Harvard economist George Borjas.

But Dr. Borjas also points out the study's limits: It examined grades in only one large economics class at a public university. Broader studies of many classes are needed, he says.

"When you teach undergraduates, as I have, you hear the complaints that foreign-born TAs often don't do a great job," he says. "It really is an important component of education policy in higher education because the number of foreign-born TAs is huge. It's not something that's going away."

Indeed, it has not. The first wave of student complaints arose in the mid-1980s. It led to laws in 18 states and statewide mandates in four others requiring that university teaching assistants be able to speak English clearly, says Patricia Monoson, a speech pathologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. The ruckus died down by the early 1990s.

Now, with college costs reaching new peaks and consumerism in higher education on the increase, some university students openly argue they're not paying $20,000 a year to learn from unintelligible teaching assistants. Since January 1999, undergraduates in at least 11 universities have complained publicly about TAs or professors whose English was hard to understand.

"We literally couldn't understand a thing he was saying," Anthony Garza, a sophomore chemical-engineering student at Texas A&M at College Station told the campus newspaper, The Battalion, in March. "He could show us how to do a lab, he still graded effectively, but whenever we had a question he wasn't prepared for, he couldn't explain it."

One possible reason for the fresh upsurge in such complaints may be the nation's hot economy. Native English speakers who might otherwise have pursued a master's or doctorate and served as teaching assistants are being enticed into the job market, especially in fields like math, computer science, and engineering, some say.

To make up for the shortfalls, universities appear to be placing more foreign-born graduate students as teaching assistants.

Evidence of the growing number of foreign teaching assistants is indirect. Nobody measures the nation's supply of teaching assistants. And not all graduate students become TAs. But the number of foreign graduate students studying in the US did increase 11 percent last year to a record 211,426, compared with 190,244 just two years earlier, reports the Institute of International Education in New York.

A notable difference in this second wave of controversy is that students complain about faculty, too. At the University of Missouri at Columbia, 15 percent of 1,649 students surveyed this spring said they had contact with a faculty instructor whose "use of the English language is problematic."

Not everyone, though, is convinced there is a problem.

"The international graduate assistants I've had have worked out just fine," says Emily Roy, a Northeastern sophomore who is majoring in mathematics.

And Marc Christensen, a graduate student and president of the Graduate Employees Organizing Committee at Wayne State University in Detroit, says that while a problem may exist, it is probably overblown.

"We get many complaints from undergrad students," he says. "Sometimes there's a genuine problem. Usually, though, it's just a question of attuning one's ear to the accent."

Still, some wonder if a new spate of laws is just around the corner. Last year, Missouri lawmakers debated tough new legislation to test professors' English abilities (a 1986 law already requires English proficiency of teaching assistants). It didn't pass. But it might this year.

In that light, university administrators seem to be genuinely trying to solve the problem, says Stacy Henry, assistant legislative director for Associated Students of the University of Missouri, a student group that has lobbied for legislation.

"They have an enormous incentive to do this because they don't want the legislature passing laws that will curb their ability to hire," she says.

Other universities have also been taking the issue seriously. Princeton, the University of Maryland at College Park, the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and Pennsylvania State University are among those that have recently tightened English requirements or expanded preparation sessions for foreign teaching assistants.

Staying ahead of the curve, Boston University two years ago expanded its graduate assistant training sessions from a 3- to 4-hour orientation session to a two-week class designed to familiarize the new graduate student recruits with the cultural differences of an American classroom - and closely assess their ability to speak English (see story, above).

"You get more complaints about a few than praises for the vast majority who do a very good job," says Alan Marscher, an associate dean at BU's College of Arts and Sciences who is in charge of TA training. "The flip side is that some undergraduates are intolerant of people with accents. We had a TA last year from Russia who speaks fine English with almost no accent, and we still had a few complaints."

Dr. Marscher and others point out that rubbing shoulders with other cultures is part of the value of being at a university and that learning to understand different accents is an important exercise. But many students don't want to grapple with thick accents, and they worry about their grades.

"There's no question it is a distraction," says a BU junior, a business major who asked that his name not be used. "There have been times I haven't gone to discussion sessions because it's a waste of time - I couldn't have understood what the TA was saying anyway."

That's an attitude Dagmar Kusa, a Slovakian who arrived in Boston a week ago, will have to cope with. She's working on her PhD in international relations.

Though she speaks slowly and carefully, her English is pretty clear compared with some of the other 40-odd Boston University TAs just off the plane from more than six countries. She's already assigned to lead a 30-student discussion group for Introduction to International Relations.

"I'm very excited and scared at the same time," she says. "I think American students are more confident than where I come from. I may have some in my class that are more confident than I am.... But I think I'll do all right."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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