One of the great things about academia is its global scope in terms of research and people. At my US university, I work with colleagues, graduate students, postdocs, and undergrads from many different parts of the world, and my work involves travel to international sites for conferences, visits, and research. I value and enjoy this aspect of my job.
As a native English speaker, I have the advantage of being fluent in the language that is used in most international journals and at international conferences. Even for native English-speakers, however, the global scope of research and education makes it very useful to know languages other than English.
In addition to the languages I studied during my school years, I have recently been taking classes and working with a tutor to learn another language, and this has been very helpful in my research and travels. One of my goals is to be able to give a research talk in this language, and, although I am far from being able to give such a talk fluently or well, I have made some progress. These efforts have given me greater sympathy for those who struggle to give talks in English at international conferences.
In the research sphere, I think many of us make an effort to understand each other somehow, even if there are some language barriers. The intersection of people with different speaking and comprehension abilities in different languages is, however, more complex in the teaching sphere, where students and instructors need to understand each other in a very different context.
A well known and much-discussed academic/language issue involves the difficulty some students have with professors and teaching assistants who are not fluent in English or who have such strong accents that they are difficult to understand. This is one important element of this general topic, but today I want to consider a slightly different (but related) issue and a second issue that flips the situation around. That is:
The related issue: Without minimizing some very real problems that do exist when instructors are not easy to understand owing to their language skills or accents, some of my foreign-born colleagues who teach at US universities are frustrated by the inability or unwillingness of some American students when it comes to listening to an instructor with an accent. Even a very fluent English speaker with an accent that does not impede comprehension for most people may be difficult to understand for some students.
Alternatively, some students are inflexible or irascible and refuse to listen to anyone who sounds different from what they are used to. I have some colleagues whose accents I don't even notice (perhaps in part because I am used to talking to them) who get student evaluation comments about their "thick" accents that are difficult to understand.
I don't think this phenomenon is entirely confined to the US. I once listened to a very understandable and interesting talk by a Scottish scientist, only to have some English people in the audience complain that they couldn't understand him. Similarly, I have heard comments from colleagues in various European countries who complain when a compatriot has an accent (in their native language) that is different from their own. And even within the US, there can be impatience by northerners with those who speak with a "thick" Southern accent (for example).
I was once on a committee that looked at the teaching evaluations of faculty in various parts of the university. I was struck by one case in particular in which a professor from another country had very good teaching evaluations, well above the averages for his department, and many positive comments in the written portion of the evaluations. On one of many pages of student comments, I saw that a student had written "Learn English" as a criticism of the professor. I searched through all the other pages, representing >5 years of teaching evaluations, including peer evaluations and student evaluations, and there was not a single other mention of any problem with this professor's English-speaking or listening abilities. This one student, who was clearly unhappy for unknown reasons, took a cheap shot at a foreign-born professor.
Perhaps this student was just being mean or perhaps this student really did have a comprehension problem of some sort. Some students eventually learn to "listen", but others don't.
This leads me to the second issue, brought to my attention by a reader who wonders what he, as a native speaker of English, can do to help his non-native English speaking students who complain that he speaks too fast or speaks in other ways that are difficult to understand. From other information supplied by this reader, who is teaching a rather large Science class, it is clear that the student made no effort to get help and waited until the end of the course to complain, when it was too late to devise strategies to help him.
Of course it's best to know early-on if a student is having such a problem, but lacking such input, are there things we as professors can do? Here are a few suggestions, although I hope that others will chime in with additional ones:
- Announce early in the term that anyone with any problem with comprehension, whether it be related to language, hearing, seeing, or whatever, should contact you, the instructor. You can do some general things to make yourself heard by as many students as possible as well as possible, even in a large class, but you can't help particular students with particular problems unless they communicate with you. Let them know you are open to such communication, but put some of the responsibility on them.
- If you have many students who are not fluent in English, avoid idioms and unusual slang as much as possible.
- Don't talk too fast. This will be helpful for everyone.
- Consider doing a mid-term (or earlier) evaluation. Maybe some students having problems will identify these problems early enough for there to be a solution. There is also the possibility that you will get such a wide range of comments that you can't possibly please everyone, but at least you could discuss the issues with the class and let them know that you are fixing issues that are fixable and have (good?) reasons for not changing other aspects of your teaching.
- Use some form of online teaching system that allows students to help each other via discussion boards, chats, or something like that. Perhaps study groups or other supportive subgroups will develop on their own, especially if the course has a lab, but you might also be able to do some direct or indirect organizing to encourage interaction among students, particularly among diverse groups of students (e.g., those not fluent in English working with those who are).
Maybe technology will solve all of these problems one day.. but in the meantime, we can take some steps to make in-person classroom experiences as comprehensible and interesting for as many students as possible. Even so, there are always going to be some complainers, especially in a large class, and we just have to do what we can: care about the class and its content, but not go insane dealing with the unreasonable.