Mastering culture and language at a 'boot camp' for TAs

It is Day 2 for Boston University's 40 new international graduate teaching assistants - the foot soldiers in the teaching army here.

Writing on the chalkboard with her back to the class is BU's gentle drill sergeant - Carol Pineiro, who heads the Center for English Language and Orientation programs. She finishes her list of topics to cover and turns to find just eight seated graduate students.

"Oh my goodness, half the class isn't here," she says. "Where is everybody?" One young Chinese woman who is here to study computer science raises her hand. Ms. Pineiro nods. "I think they're looking for apartments," she says.

After telling them to let the others know they must apartment-hunt on their own time, Pineiro continues: "OK, I'd like everyone to say their names and something about themselves."

One young man who arrived from China three days ago raises his hand. "My hobby is reading ancient Chinese master's thesis," he offers. Next, the Chinese computer science student volunteers that reading is her favorite hobby, too, she says. "I like to read everything about Christian-ality."

"I think you mean Christianity," Pineiro offers gently.

"Yes," she says brightly. "That's it!"

Listening attentively, the students proceed to dive into unfamiliar American classroom terms like "open-book test" and "study group." They also debate American cultural aspects of reasoning and approaches to learning. (Hint: Americans like to use lots of statistics to justify their arguments.) They watch a film on what American students look for in a teaching assistant. And they review words like "perpendicular," "apparatus," "supplementary." "Specificity" sticks on the tongues of several students.

Each student here has already passed a written English exam. But during the next two weeks, they will take crucial English-speaking tests, and be assessed by instructors and placed in one of three categories based on their ability to communicate in English.

The best will require no more training. Others will get weekly tutorials during the semester. Those with the most speaking difficulty will get bi-weekly tutorials and won't be assigned to a classroom, but may help with research or grading.

Over a lunch break, Qinzen Peng, who holds a master's degree in physics from Beijing's Tsinghua University, apologizes for his English and speculates he may end up doing research rather than teaching this first year.

"I read and read and read," he says in between bites of a lunchroom hamburger. "My reading is good. My hearing is not so good. Speaking is bad. I think the obstacle here for me is my English."

Across the table, a new friend, Weichao Ma, the computer science student who has vastly improved her speaking ability in the three years she's been in the US, is quick to try to console him.

"Don't worry," she says with gentle sincerity, "when I first came here my English was as bad as yours."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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