Students Protest Foreign Accents
Some US states require exams in English proficiency for overseas teaching assistants
BOSTON — LIKE a giant education magnet, American universities attract graduate students from around the globe. Many of them help pay their way by teaching lower-level courses.
But some American students are finding that they can't understand the international teaching assistants standing at the front of the lecture hall.
Boston University student Christa Coleman remembers a classmate asking an international teaching assistant, ``What's normalism?'' The instructor had been talking about ``nomadism'' in African cultures.
``It's been a big problem,'' Ms. Coleman says. ``Students get intimidated about asking to have something repeated or spelled out on the board. If you spend half the time figuring out what the words are, you forget the gist of the lecture.''
Some students end up dropping classes or even avoiding any course that lists an instructor with a foreign-looking name.
``That's ludicrous,'' says Leo Lambert, associate dean of Syracuse University Graduate School in Syracuse, N.Y. ``Sometimes these [instructors] are Japanese- or Chinese-Americans who speak English as well as you or I do but who have a foreign-sounding name.''
Instructors' incomprehensible accents or rudimentary training in English are eliciting complaints on many campuses. Some students have taken their cases to court.
In response, about 13 states have passed legislation mandating English proficiency tests for international teaching assistants, says John Swales, director of the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
In some cases, laws have gone into effect quietly. But there is opposition. Susan Bayley, executive director of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages in Alexandria, Va., calls the state laws ``exclusionary and potentially discriminatory.''
Rising concern over this issue reflects the dramatic increase in international instructors at US universities. Between 1980 and 1990, the percentage of PhD degrees awarded to non-US citizens rose from 13 percent to 23 percent, according to the US Department of Education.
``Within the last 10 years, the balance has shifted, and more internationals are earning PhDs in mathematics in US universities than are American citizens,'' Dr. Lambert says. Most of these students are well-versed in their fields of study, but they are often unprepared for teaching.
During the past five years, many universities have initiated training programs for their international teaching assistants. The training often includes practice teaching, one-on-one coaching, and computerized lessons to reduce accents or mispronunciation. Those who cannot pass the training course are reassigned to nonteaching positions.
These programs also help acclimate international teaching assistants to the American method of instruction.
``Much of what interferes with effective communication between students and faculty or students and teaching assistants is not a language problem but a cultural difference,'' Lambert says.
Steve Lewis, who trains teaching assistants at the University of Texas at Arlington, agrees. ``One thing we have to educate them to is that American students expect interaction in the classroom'' rather than just lecturing.
``That is something that is overwhelmingly new to some of our international teaching assistants,'' Lambert says. In many Asian countries, professors are ``revered as a demigod of some sort'' who should never be challenged with questions, he explains.
While administrators provide support to new teaching assistants, they are also working with undergraduate students to foster greater tolerance toward nonnative English speakers.
``Undergraduate students are sometimes too quick to condemn an individual or to use an international teaching assistant as a scapegoat for poor performance,'' Lambert says. ``That is simply unfair.''
He sees ``an element of xenophobia in which students don't want to have any international teaching assistants because they have very little experience dealing with individuals from other cultures. There's this built-in prejudice or intolerance toward students who might sound or look different than they do.''
Mr. Lewis at the University of Texas has had the same experience. He recalls one incident in which several complaints were registered about a teaching assistant's English. ``After investigating the situation,'' Lewis says, ``we found that it was two or three disgruntled students who were not doing well, and they needed a reason not to do very well. Sometimes that's an easy out.''
On some campuses, a homogeneous undergraduate student population collides with a more diverse graduate enrollment. ``A lot of our undergraduate students are Connecticut-born and raised,'' says Rich Clark, a member of the Graduate Student Senate at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. ``There's always some tension between them and the international graduate students who are teaching assistants.''
The University of Connecticut now requires all foreign teaching assistants to achieve ``English proficiency'' within 10 months. Mr. Clark views this as protection for international graduate students in the classroom. ``When the complaints come in now, the teaching assistant can say, `I passed the proficiency exam.' ''