What Are You Saying?

Dec 15 2010 Published by under colleagues, teaching

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.

40 responses so far

  • gerty-z says:

    This is super! Thanks for the great tips.

  • AnonProf says:

    Hmm. I had a kneejerk, visceral negative reaction to parts of this blog post, and I'm trying to figure out why. I think it's because some of the comments feel unnecessarily adversarial to me. Some of the comments made me feel like they were too focused on blaming students, interpreting student comments in the worst possible light, and assuming that students are acting in bad faith.

    I realize I'm probably being unfairly negative in turn about this blog post. As someone who hasn't had to deal with these kinds of complaints from students, perhaps I'm being insufficiently sympathetic to the professor's plight. And quite possibly I'm reacting not so much to the blog post itself, but rather it reminds me of attitudes that I see around me. The blog post makes many excellent points, and I'm grateful for the discussion of these issues. But I also want to share an opposing viewpoint, which I think may have some validity as well:

    I tend to think we should listen to what students have to say and try to find something that works for them. I realize students sometimes act in bad faith, or write thoughtless comments on student evaluations, but I think dismissing a student comment as written in bad faith should be a last resort, not a first resort.

    Please don't automatically assume that if there is a communication problem, then it must be someone's fault. Communication can be a problem even if everyone is acting in good faith and with the best intentions: indeed, I suspect that's the most common case. Playing a blame game makes this unnecessarily adversarial; I think it's more useful to avoid trying to pin the blame, and instead focus on what can be done to mitigate or solve the problem.

    Are you familiar with the rule of thumb for reviews on research papers? Rule of thumb: The reviewer is always right. If the reviewer totally missed the point of your paper, then that's an indication that the paper did a poor job of communicating the point of the paper and needs revising. If the reviewer drew a faulty conclusion about the paper, maybe you should look at how to improve the writing to help other readers avoid the same faulty conclusion. I think that same rule of thumb is a pretty good one to keep in mind for student evaluations, too.

    I do understand that students sometimes write inappropriate or inflated comments on student reviews. But keep in mind their perspective: it's not uncommon for students to feel frustrated about problems in their courses, but also powerless to do anything about it. Student reviews may be the first and only chance they have to really do something or have their concerns heard and acted up, and sometimes students overreact and write overly harsh comments. That's lamentable, but it's not a good reason to dismiss their comments: when that happens, I suspect it is often (not always, but often) a sign that there are some underlying substantive opportunities for improvement in the class. The student review may not have been worded in as elegant, gracious, thoughtful, and constructive a way as what you would have written: but heck, these are students, not professor-level scholars.

    I appreciated the last half of the blog post, where you discussed what professors can do to help. I thought that was really great! I'm glad to see discussion of this and some specific tips for what professors can do to help.

    Some specific examples from the blog post:

    "the inability or unwillingness of some American students when it comes to listening to an instructor with an accent", "some students are inflexible or irascible and refuse to listen to anyone who sounds different from what they are used to": That looks like trying to blame the student. Oh, no, it's not that there is a real communication problem; it's just that my students are unwilling to even try to understand me. I find that attitude troubling. If there's a communication problem, rather than blaming students, wouldn't it be better to look for constructive solutions that can help students understand the instructor better?

    "I saw that a student had written “Learn English” as a criticism of the professor. [..] 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.": First off, this feels like picking one example which is not representative of the average student evaluation at all. Second, I feel like you may be a bit too quick to assume bad faith on the part of the student. Is it possible that there is a more charitable interpretation of this remark? Maybe "Learn English" is a bit harsh, but at the same time it's worth asking if perhaps there could be some real basis to it. It's hard to know for sure, from just the course evaluations: they give you only a limited view into a class. Ideally, evaluators would sit in the classroom for a few hours and read all the homeworks and lecture notes; anyone who hasn't done that probably isn't in a position to know for sure whether the instructor's English could use improvement. Just because no other student mentioned it doesn't mean the instructor's English is perfect, or that the student making the comment is motivated by bigotry.

    "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.": Again, transferring blame to the students. If there is a communication problem, assume it must be the student's fault.

    "there are always going to be some complainers": I find this dismissive and unhelpful. I wonder if it is even accurate. Implicitly, it seems like this is implying that there will always be some people who complain about the instructor's English, especially in a large class. Well, that doesn't match my experience. I don't think I've received a single complaint about my English. I think this disproves any assertion that there will always be some who will complain about the instructor's English.

    P.S. I love the blog. Sorry to be so negative and critical. Thank you for taking the time to write: your essays are always thought-provoking and frequently inspiring. Please keep writing!

    • samantha says:

      As a current student myself, albeit considerably older-than-your-average-freshman, I have to admit that SP is pretty close to accurate, from what I've seen and heard as a student in numerous classrooms at my university, when she talks about “the inability or unwillingness of some American students when it comes to listening to an instructor with an accent”.

      I wouldn't say it's necessarily "placing blame" as it is acknowledging a stubborn, privileged position from which many university-level students sit - and due to their ignorance and unawareness of the great big wide world outside of their limited experience, they have the idea that the world should bend to suit them.

      Naturally, it's anecdotal, but I've been in multiple classes with foreign-born professors, whose English is quite good and clear although accented, and had students behind me murmuring different ethnic stereotypes under their breath and giggling incessantly. I'm fairly sure the profs knew, too - I'm finding that there's not much most good instructors miss in their classrooms - but it was never addressed in class.

      • CSgrad says:

        You're definitely right that there are students who just won't make an effort, or, because of privilege or ethnic prejudice, don't think they should have to.

        That's not always what's going on, though. I have an auditory processing disorder, where I intermittently am unable to parse the sounds that I'm hearing into words (or am significantly delayed in doing so), and the effect is much worse when the speaker has an accent that I'm not closely familiar with (whether it's "Indian" or "Boston townie" or whatever). A professor that I had this term, who is from an Eastern European country, spoke good but accented English and had little trouble being understood by non-native-English-speaking students from China and India, but frequently I just had no idea what he was saying. It's not like it only applies to professors, either - I have the same problem with fellow students who speak accented English, or characters in Cold War-era movies/TV shows with strong German or Eastern European accents.

        This is a major source of embarrassment for me because I'm afraid that I just look like a privileged American who expects the world to bend to suit her. Also, I've worked in a non-English-speaking country before, so I know how it feels to be on the other side and be trying to hard to be understandable to the native speakers of your host country's language.

        TL;DR sometimes students are being brats, but other times they have legit reasons they can't understand, and it's not always obvious which are which.

        • BGS says:

          I think your problem is a rare exception, CSgrad. A reasonable professor would immediately understand (perhaps allowing you to record and re-listen to lectures, or facilitating the use of your university's transcription service) if you explain the issue to him or her. SP was talking about those who complain out of laziness or something worse. A cognitive disorder is totally different.

    • iGrrrl says:

      I have to disagree with equating student evaluations with peer reviewers. The peer reviewers were chosen (ideally) based on their domain knowledge and history of publication. Students take courses for many reasons, sometimes because the major requires it but they personally don't like the subject area. They are not peers, and they are not always right.

      When I was teaching undergrads, and in the evaluations of seminars I do now, I pay attention to the comments. If something is consistent, meaning even 5% of evaluations noting something as a problem, I look into how I might change it. If 1% note it, I think about whether I agree. There are cases where even a 5% complaint rate isn't something I respond to. For example, often it is noted that they would like more interactivity. My audiences are usually 60 and up to 200. It's very difficult to maintain much interactivity when you have over 30 people in the room, and even above 25 it gets difficult. Think about the differences in class size for your own lecture. So those comments I ignore, in terms of changing my behavior, because it would be nice to be more interactive, but it isn't possible in the context (size) of the seminar.

      So my bottom line is that a student isn't a peer reviewer, and all evaluation comments do not have equal validity in context.

      • AnonProf says:

        iGrrrl, well said. I accept your criticism of my analogy.

        A small revision I would make: personally, I try to think about whether I agree for every complaint, even if it doesn't reach the 1% mark (e.g., even if only 1 person out of a 200-person class brings it up).

        Certainly, I realize students are not always right, when it comes to knowledge about the material. But when it comes to comments about class structure and what is/isn't working for them, they often are aware of aspects of a class that aren't working well for them, and for that particular topic, they do have special knowledge. (Many comments in course evaluations are not an issue of domain expertise, so the fact that students lack our domain knowledge is only modestly relevant to those comments.)

  • Hermitage says:

    I think it's an issue that can cut both ways. I have certainly met students that will find any, and all, excuses to pin their failures on the instructor/TA rather than themselves for not seeking out other options. But I do distinctly remember when moppet Hermitage from Small Fairly Homogenous Town where All Accents Are the Same, had to move to a school where almost everyone had an 'accent'. It was absolutely terrible, it did not help they were the first STEM courses in my life.

    What did I do? I scraped by, I stumbled through, it would be a lie that I did not have a double hurdle of trying figure out what my instructors were telling me on top of trying to learn the material. It certainly affected the outcomes of my courses, but I would not dream of trying to make it an excuse when it came time to justify my grades. But I had to do it over and over, and soon it was no problem. It's easy now for me to forget how hard it was to have serious communication issues with someone who is trying to tell you something important.

    TL;DR it is a double-pronged issue where obstinance on either side can make learning and communication almost impossible.

  • GMP says:

    I have recently looked at the recipients of university-wide teaching awards in the past 10+ years (about 7-8 awards per year). All but maybe 2 or 3 overall went to American-born instructors, i.e. native speakers of English. Even college-wide teaching awards (this is a college with STEM disciplines and a large percentage of foreign-born faculty) feature a drastic skew towards native speakers. So I think FSP has a completely valid point that many students do react negatively, to varying degrees and for varying reasons, to people with accents.

    Even when I look at the teaching scores in my department, I think light accent vs no accent does add up to a small but discernible difference in the teaching evaluations. For a thick accent, the difference is quite marked (I have colleagues who routinely receive comments to "Learn English" even though they have been in the US for 25+ years, have impeccable command of grammar and spelling, but are likely never goint to lose the accent).

    AnonProf said "Just because no other student mentioned it doesn’t mean the instructor’s English is perfect"

    I think any foreigner's English could always be better and may never be perfect. None of us who arrived in the US as adults should delude ourselves that we sound just like native speakers. However, I personally work hard on continuously improving my written and spoken English, and I think most foreigners who teach in the US do the same.

    • Bob O'H says:

      I have recently looked at the recipients of university-wide teaching awards in the past 10+ years (about 7-8 awards per year). All but maybe 2 or 3 overall went to American-born instructors, i.e. native speakers of English. Even college-wide teaching awards (this is a college with STEM disciplines and a large percentage of foreign-born faculty) feature a drastic skew towards native speakers. So I think FSP has a completely valid point that many students do react negatively, to varying degrees and for varying reasons, to people with accents.

      What's proportion of teachers in your university are non-native speakers, though?

      • GMP says:

        It varies with discipline. In the natural sciences and engineering, there are a LOT of foreigners (it's a big R1 public university). My guess is that the percentage of foreigners is significantly lower in the arts/humanities or social sciences.

  • AnonProf says:

    If there's a correlation between "native-born speakers of English" and "high student evaluation ratings", it seems like an interesting question whether that's because students are, on the average, learning more effectively from native-born English speakers -- or if it's because of extraneous factors that have nothing to do with learning -- or a combination of the two.

    It would be interesting to devise experiments to test this. I wonder if anyone has already studied this?

    • AnonStudent says:

      I just informally evaluated my undergrad profs based on how well they taught and if they were foreign or not. My definition of foreign includes any prof that was born outside of North America, so this includes native English speakers from Australia, Britain, New Zealand and Rhodesia.

      Foreigners: Good 4, Not good 9
      Non-Foreigners: Good 11, Not good 2

      Two broad generalizations:
      My general impression is that my foreign instructors tend to just write on the board/throw some slides up and expect the class to copy down the notes. Comprehension of material is for later -- on your own. I suspect that is how they were taught.

      The non-foreigners I think put more effort into teaching. They seem to care about student progress and comprehension. Classes are a lot more interactive.

  • ecologist says:

    I often speak and lecture to audiences where English (my first language) is the second language to everyone (or nearly everyone) in the room. I second the suggestion mention this at the beginning and encourage immediate questions about anything that isn't understood. I also find that it makes me more aware of some of my bad speech habits, which I try extra-hard to control in these situations. So I speak slowly. I try to avoid digressions in the middle of sentences. I try to completely avoid slang. I have had students thank me for the effort.

    I had not thought about the accent issue in non-native speakers, but it gives me an idea. We all know that you can learn a language. But you can also learn to put on and take off an accent. Actors do it all the time. Are there any tricks of that trade that would be useful for those of us who want to go beyond grammar and vocabulary in the search for clarity?

    • GMP says:

      We all know that you can learn a language. But you can also learn to put on and take off an accent. Actors do it all the time.

      I think putting on and taking off an accent at will is effortless only in one's native language; it is extremely extremely difficult in any language which you didn't master as a child. How many foreign-born actors (don't count Brits, Canadians, or Australians, whose native language is English) do you know who speak English without any foreign accent whatsoever? I cannot think of a single one.

      • hkukbilingualidiot says:

        There are actually quite a few, but that seriously depends on how you classify a foreign accent. Here in the UK, the spread of accents from Scotland, Wales, Liverpool, Midland, Southern(posh), Yorkshire etc are all very different. Though the written form is exactly identical when heard, if you are not accustomed to it, you really can't understand it. Of course, when you also add in African, Indian, Pakistani English into the mix it gets even more messy. However, they are all proper English. It really depends on how you define an accent as foreign. Of course, there is the standard one that is used here which is the Queen's English. Before anyone comments on that as being derived from snobbery of the upper classes it was actually chosen for the exact reason that it was the cleanest form of the English language (note: it is only called the Queen's English out of respect for our monarch!). That is because this form of English had been refined through centuries of English speaking scholars and is governed by strict rules of phonetics and grammar.

        In my view, unless you speak the standard English, which meant that you can actually break a word down to its syllables and pronounce it clearly, you have no more right than anybody else to judge or even say that others can't speak English.

        • GMP says:

          I'm certainly not judging -- English is not my native language.
          I had American-born friends in grad school who would say "Why don't you people lose the accent?" to me and my other foreign-born friends. As though it's trivial to lose the accent and people are just not trying hard enough or are choosing to hold on to their accents for some mysterious purpose (there was a hint of this attitude in ecologist's post above -- if actors do it, it can be done, you're just not trying). Trust me, I would love nothing more than to sound completely inconspicuous for the region of the US I live in, so that no one would ask me where I am from and the issue of belonging here would not come up. But no matter how hard I try, there is still a light foreign accent that I cannot shake.

          • ecologist says:

            To clarify, I did not say, and did not mean to say, and do not believe, anything even remotely like "you're just not trying".

            Rather, it occurred to me that there does exist a group of people (some actors) who have learned to manipulate accents in ways that most of us cannot. I assume that this is a learned skill, and that led me to wonder whether there could be anything useful to us (i.e., teachers and lecturers) in the training methods of actors.

            I had not thought about the question of whether actors regularly manipulate accents in languages other than their native one. Interesting question.

            In general, it has often seemed to me that we teachers and lecturers could benefit from some stage/theatre experience. After all, a lecture is a performance in front of an audience. My very limited experience with performance definitely improved my teaching.

        • drugmonkey says:

          oh please. "standard" English is now that which is spoken by US News Announcers at 6pm. Sorry Britfolks, life moves on.

          • Bob O'H says:

            Historically, there has never been a "standard" English. The nearest we had was Received Pronunciation, aka BBC English, which the BBC developed for radio.

            What with the cultural imperialism from across the pond, I think this means I'm agreeing with you.

      • GradStudentAbroad says:

        GMP wrote: "I think putting on and taking off an accent at will is effortless only in one’s native language; it is extremely extremely difficult in any language which you didn’t master as a child."

        I'm not so sure about the first part -- I am completely incapable of convincingly "putting on" any accent that is not my own in English (my native language). I think it might in some ways actually be harder to learn a different accent in your own native language, because of interference from a lifetime of practice speaking the way you already do.

        Despite this, I speak the foreign language that I mastered as an adult fluently and (almost) without an accent -- I know this because native speakers with whom I have casual contact are often very surprised to learn that I am not a native speaker. Of course, a prerequisite is that you have actually learned to speak the foreign language, which is usually a multi-year endeavor in and of itself.

        Getting rid of my accent took a lot of diligent, patient and attentive work over the course of a couple of years. It's possible that some early exposure to the language helped, and/or that I have a particularly good ability to distinguish and reproduce phonemes. However, people who assume I'm just "talented" usually don't know about the two years in which I completely immersed myself in the language and spoke, heard and read almost no English, or about the hundreds of hours I spent just practicing making specific sounds -- figuring out the exact shape of the mouth required, then repeating until it was second nature.

        It's like how you get to Carnegie Hall -- practice, practice, practice.

        [And although I didn't use one, I know that vocal coaches can also help with this. (think Professor Higgins).]

        • Grumpy Lurker says:

          AHAHAHAHA -- well aren't you awesome, GradStudentAbroad!

          I know several people who feel they don't have an accent in their second language; turns out they actually do, but they are just being overconfident and oblivious. And the people around them are too nice to burst their bubble.

    • HypatiasGhost says:

      But you can also learn to put on and take off an accent.

      No, not everyone can. Some people can do this very easily. Some people can't. It really requires being able to listen to the sounds people make, rather than listening to interpret meaning, and learning how to reproduce those sound-shapes.

      But, Amy Walker, she of the 21 accents video, has a series of YouTube videos where she describes how to learn to reproduce accents. For example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RuoXH2fBDA -- Though, there are plenty who protest that her accents are really caricatures; I'd certainly say that about her Southern accent. And it that case, would you want to take the chance of trying to "put on" and accent and having it come off as really offensive to your students? I think you're probably doing the right thing by just trying to speak very clearly.

  • If the problem is "speaks too quickly", try slowing down. Most public speakers do speak too quickly, and almost none too slowly.

  • Cherish says:

    First, I think a lot of college student who may not have been exposed to many non-native English speakers don't realize that they can learn to understand once they get used to the accent. However, some never learn to listen through the accent, and I think this is not because they are being difficult. I personally haven't really had problems with this (probably because a lot of my high school friends had parents who were from other countries), but there was a single professor I had who, for the life of me, I still couldn't understand by the end of class. (We were talking about cutoff frequencies, and it sounded for the life of me like he kept saying Kirchoff frequencies.) I think that an inability to hear someone through their accent is a normal difficulty that can only be dealt with through exposure, and if there hasn't been a lot before the class, likely it will pose a serious problem for the student. I know a few shut down, but for a lot of people, it's not anything they can control.

    Second, a very obvious solution to the problem is to not talk so much. Present information in more visual formats...lots of pictures and videos. Lots of labels and diagrams. If language really is a barrier, present things in a way that is conducive to learning the material without such a strong reliance on the spoken word. (Actually, I wish more professors would do this, regardless of their speaking ability.)

  • I am a grad teaching assistant (native English speaker) and at my university we give 45 minute lectures prior to lab sections that we run. I discussed this issue with a couple of my classes because I heard them complaining about some of our TAs. I felt like a lot of students just shut down and wouldn't make an effort if the TA had a strong accent. I tried to get them to understand the situation from the perspective of the TA. Personally, I have a lot of respect for someone who tackles a graduate program and a foreign culture / language all at one time.

    In my own experiences I always appreciated someone being very up front and relaxed about this issue. Just telling a class that you know that some people have trouble understanding you will take the edge off. If you can laugh about it and make it no big deal then students are more comfortable in asking for clarification.

  • Linguistics Grad Student says:

    We are studying this! There's a huge interplay between race/ethnicity, accent, and native speakerness. A study that sparked much of the current research into this is Rubin (1992). He looked at whether students thought they heard an accent when listening to audio taped lectures. The lecturer was a native American English speaker, but students were shown pictures of either a white or a Chinese woman. In short, students heard an accent when they saw a picture of the Chinese woman, even though the audio tape was the same for both groups. More modern research has built off of Rubin's study.

    Clearly, this is a huge issue. We sometimes hear accents because we think they are there. And, sometimes an accent really is an issue. But there is much more going on than just saying that the professor should speak better. As Science Professor points out, students need to learn how to listen as well.

    Rubin, D. L. (1992). Nonlanguage factors affecting undergraduates’ judgments of nonnative English-speaking teaching assistants. Research in Higher Education, 33, 511–531.

  • I didn't have much problem with teachers' accents in college (except for one Russian math professor in grad school, whose name I can't remember now—but I might have had trouble with any professor who talked with his back to the class and erased as fast as he wrote on the blackboard).

    I've found that it is often the foreign students who have the most trouble with professors' accents, and that non-American English accents are at least as troublesome for them as non-English accents. When the channel already provides limited comprehension because it is a foreign language, adding further decoding difficulty can degrade the signal to noise pretty easily.

    I advise people who have difficulty with a few students understanding them to slow down, speak in full sentences, and write more on the board. Avoiding sports metaphors, pop culture references, and slang also helps.

  • Anonymous says:

    Another bit of advice for helping foreign students: reduce or eliminate the use of cultural references. I took a course in college with my European friend. When the teacher used baseball as a clarifying analogy, it made things *more* confusing for my friend. Referencing a Sesame Street character to make a point just made my friend shrug his shoulders. We assume a lot about what "everyone" knows in the U.S. and it's easy to forget that many things are culture-specific.

  • Amanda says:

    As with everything, there are definite privilege issues here that make this problem a complex one. I always felt as an undergrad that I was pretty fair in my evaluation of accents, having grown up around many people who speak accented English.

    Whenever I had frustrations, it was most likely because the prof was accented due to simply not being fluent. I've never been bothered by mild- to moderate accents, but I certainly did have professors who would stammer over finding words in lecture, or whose pronunciations of words were completely unintelligible to me and others for the majority of the lecture.

    Part of my frustration was that I was attending a well-known R1 institution that had large class sizes, and it was just not acceptable to stop a professor every time you didn't understand something (and this isn't even just related to accents - this is over conceptual knowledge as well.) So in the large class, the problem of not understanding and not always being able to ask questions was only exacerbated by a professor who didn't speak understandable English. It was frustrating because it was a problem going to office hours couldn't entirely solve - I had one professor in particular who I had such a hard time understanding that even when I went to his office hours I spent way too much of my allotted time asking him to repeat what he had just said. It made me not want to go to office hours anymore because they didn't help my knowledge, but even worse, I felt like a big jerk for obviously calling my professor's accent into question by making him repeat things.

    I guess I remember my main irritation being that the department couldn't manage to field a professor whom it was more likely that more students could understand. I knew that at schools like mine, teaching was really not anyone's first priority. But I could never wrap my head around the department continuing to send out the same professors to teach the same class when there were obvious, legitimate complaints about unintelligible speech. Was there not a single other person available?

    It also put an unfair burden on the graduate TAs. The lab I volunteered in as an undergrad had me working under a grad student who, one quarter, nearly lost her mind over her TA appointment because she was constantly barraged by student emails asking her to clarify every tiniest detail of lecture, and often in an unfairly (to her) irritable tone. She spent so much time that quarter having meetings with students that her work really suffered, and the PI we worked under unfortunately had no sympathy and would blithely tell her just to refuse to put any more than [x] hours a week into the TA position. But out of a responsibility she felt to her students, who legitimately struggled, she kept helping them. The last thing she wanted was to risk that the students, already on edge from not understanding their professor, would complain about her as well.

    I guess my main point about all of this is that yes, some students are just jerks, and angry students are even bigger jerks. But if time after time, there is a large consensus among course evaluations that the professor is seriously hard to understand (and not just from the random nasty "Learn English" comment,) the department needs to take those complaints seriously and find another professor to teach the class. I can't tell you how bewildering it was to discover that both for years before and years after I had the non-coherent professor mentioned above, said non-coherent professor had taught and continued to teach that very class, even with the majority of students addressing the problem continually in written course evaluations and personal complaints to the department.

  • Carrie says:

    I'm a current grad student at a university with many non-native-English speakers, but in a discipline that is still largely composed of native English speakers. I also spent 2 years overseas speaking in a very different language to people who never heard non-native speakers use their language, and I cannot tell you how difficult that makes it--much more difficult than for English speakers, most of whom are used to hearing English in many different forms. At any rate, I highly recommend going slowly (since I speak too quickly naturally anyway, my rule is that I go slow enough that it sounds painful to me...and that's probably about right). The professor I TA'd for this last semester went extremely slowly at times, to emphasize certain points, and I was impressed with how well it worked. Also, I suggest using written feedback (or even using a question box, for written questions), both to ensure that students can give you feedback if necessary AND that they can ask questions when they have time to write them (since non-native speakers are less likely, in my experience, to feel comfortable asking questions in class). As far as losing the accent, I can't help; I haven't lost my accent in either of the two foreign languages I speak (although I speak neither of them fluently, and I didn't learn either of them as a child).

  • Bagelsan says:

    A little anecdote about the role that racism/xenophobia seems to play in students' intolerance of accents:

    I had an undergrad prof who had a fairly thick accent, which everyone thought was maybe "European of some kind?" and students definitely whined about not having an easy time understanding him ("gah, I hate profs with accents! It's a pain to listen to him!") ... but then we all found out that no, he was a native English speaker who happened to have a speech impediment. And maaagically the complaints died out, and he became "not that hard to understand."

    So yeah. Anecdote, but still an intriguing one.

    More generally, even when there is a legitimate complaint about a strong accent -- for example another undergrad prof, who was one of the only people I've ever really had much trouble understanding -- it morphs into xenophobia and racism really easily. "I can't understand" often turns into "why can't those people learn to speak English??" which I think is lazy and defensive and assholish.

  • AB says:

    As a non native speaker with very fluent English, I have noticed the accent issue can be overcome by positivity from both sides. If you speak boldly, students typically listen. And don't give a damn if there are a handful of students who have a problem with the accent. They are going to be left behind in the global economy anyway...so its better they drop out sooner rather than later. If they join any sort of major firm, they are gonna have an Indian boss at some level in the hierarchy above them, so who cares?

    I am jovial, forward and enjoy a great relationship with my students. I usually end up with a high standard deviation on my student evaluations. I step in and take control. I tell jokes because I love the humour and the students do too.

  • I'm in a Humanities discipline, and have a department colleague whose accent I would characterize as "moderately thick," though we her colleagues have grown accustomed to it. She told me once that she starts off every new class by acknowledging the elephant in the room, then telling students that she will write key words and phrases on the board as she goes, and encouraging them to ask her to repeat/write anything they didn't understand. And they actually do.

    And if I could get away with it, I'd remind those few students who might snark on her that she wrote a dissertation and is publishing (and extensively!) in a language that is vastly different from the one she grew up speaking, while some of them still can't figure out that a sentence in their own language requires both a subject and a verb.

  • Anonymous says:

    I try to approach student feedback as something that can better my teaching, even when they write something in an evaluation that might seem bigoted or asshole-ish. Even if they are either of those things, the student is clearly frustrated with their ability to perform in the class and perhaps alienated.

    If students say they have trouble understanding me, I kind of have to believe what they're saying (even if they're not saying it in a nice way, and even if it turns out they're not understanding me for the reason they believe). And then I need to think of ways to be a better communicator. I think assigning blame is unproductive, and misses the point of teaching: to communicate knowledge. I encountered this a lot when teaching high school as well; teachers wanting to assign blame for students not wanting to learn or not knowing enough when they come to their classroom. Your job is to teach, to take students further on the path of knowledge.

    Not the best analogy, but when a piece of lab equipment doesn't work, we don't "blame it" for not working or simply wish it came to us in better condition, and it would be poor taste to use that as an excuse for unproductive research in general; we accept the reality of the equipment's condition and we figure out how to make it work.

  • undergrad says:

    When I'm in classes, I often notice idioms or unnecessary references, because I think "if this lecture were in [the other language I know], would I understand?" When we're going along on-topic, I think I could, but I would miss the little asides that some professors like to make, and I would never know if they were important or not. I know that I can listen to politicians making speeches in my other language and follow them word for word, but when I hear people just chatting, I comprehend so little I might as well have never studied it at all. I think this observation about my own navigation outside of English makes me way more conscious about how my English and other people's English is heard by non-native English speakers. You cannot take mumbling professors and force them to learn a new language in order for them to gain first hand experience with this, but perhaps just telling them about it would be useful.

  • becca says:

    I suspect there is a range of human capacity for this kind of thing.
    I think it's interesting that *diagnosed* speech disorders and auditory processing disorders are viewed as exceptions, not just as a (particularly challenging) point on a continuum. That someone who claims to be unable to understand is presumed to be unwilling to try.

    One thing in particular I've noticed about myself and language processing is that it *frequently* takes me a while to 'get into' a very different accent/way of speaking- i.e. I do much better by the *end* of a lecture than at the beginning.
    One thing professors and TAs who know they may have trouble being understood is to start each lecture with a bit of review, or grading policies that are also available in a written handout, or something of the sort that is not *crucial* to hear correctly- this gives students a chance to get in the correct mental mindset to understand the speech. It's a balance- as a speaker you never want to loose your audience by boring them at the get-go!

  • Big Blue says:

    I wonder how much of the foreign accent complaints are also coming from cultural differences in teaching? Many of the foreign professors I've had, and many of the foreign students I've taught, came from ex-British colonies. In their school systems, there was only one big exam at the end of the year, with a few writing assignments but no quizzes, no smaller exams, no assignments; to a certain extent, the way the foreign professors taught and the way the foreign students learned tended to repeat that. I had a couple of foreign students fail the entire semester because they didn't realize that all those exams they missed were real and counted towards their grade, despite this being made explicit in the syllabus and in class.

    I particularly remember (not fondly!) one professor who counted in-class exams as 20% of the grade, homework assignments of epic length as 5% of the grade, and the final exam as 75%--and our reading assignment was two thick textbooks, with no effort made to relate class discussions to the text. Spending a couple of decades in the American system of constant feedback and interactive lesson plans made his course quite a shock, and sad to say I learned very little.

    Also had a couple of foreign students from particular countries who brought their high school English textbooks to office hours to help them translate, and it became clear that ESL teachers overseas are not all the virtuous and helpful folk we might like to imagine: plenty of the textbook was downright incorrect any way you looked at it, and many students overseas pay enough money for ESL tutoring that it's worth a con artist's time to rip people off.

    • Grumpy Lurker says:

      I think this does not hold exclusively for ex-British colonies. In my experience, in most of Europe coursework is structured so that there is a final (a long in-class written exam, which, in some countries, is followed by the oral if you managed to pass the written part). Discussions have more of a worth than I have seen in the US; that's where you learn to do the complicated problems, it's not just the TA doing homework problems so the students don't have to bother. In Europe, it's left up to the student to take the course seriously and practice; if they don't want to, it's their funeral. They will fail, and, depending on the actual school system, that can mean having to repeat the year or even getting kicked out from the university.

      In the US we bend over backwards to engage and entertain our students; even though there are shiny textbooks with plenty of problems, I never see students doing any unassigned problems for practice or going even a little bit above and beyond what's explicitly and absolutely necessary to get a good grade. Every single bit of work they put in has to count for a grade. And don't even get me started on the partial credit... I am disgusted by how low I have to keep the criteria, so I have to pass someone who has managed not to complete (beginning to end) a single problem in any of the exams, but has written stuff here and there and got partial credit. If I were to uphold the same standards in my undegrad classes in the US that I was subject to when I was an undergrad in Europe, only 20% of the class would pass and I would be the most hated teacher in the university. So yeah, I have gotten with the US university education program, and I have a peptic ulcer to show for it.

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