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Accents affect students’ ability to understand teachers

Accounting senior Matt Ruhlin is frustrated. He took two courses he describes as “highly related” back-to-back, Finance 300 and 304. The problem is he got an ‘A’ in the first one and a ‘B’ in the second.

If the two courses cover similar material, then why did he get a lower grade in the second? His explanation: the teacher’s accent.

“I ended up with a lower grade in that class because I had a difficult time understanding that guy, even though I had covered the same basic material six weeks before that,” he said.

Ruhlin is not alone. All 15 students interviewed for this article said they have either experienced or heard of similar complaints.

Neal Carothers is not surprised by the figure. He is the director of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, which has staff from 26 different countries.

He said the first thing a student with such a concern should do is ask the instructors to repeat themselves more often. While many students fear being rude in such circumstances, it is actually quite acceptable.

“My experience is that they aren’t the least bit embarrassed if we ask them to repeat,” he said. “We casually don’t think it is an insult, and neither do they. We do it but we say, ‘huh?'”

Digital arts freshman Anne Miller agreed, stating that her Indian biology lab professor is happy to repeat himself.

The only problem with that, according to junior Paige Salamin, is that it wastes time in classes where accents are a concern.

“The accent didn’t necessarily hinder my grade at all, but I think that there were a lot of times that they had to repeat themselves,” she said. “I think that takes away from class time were you could be learning useful things.”

But beyond asking the students to be more patient, Carothers said, there is not much else he can do.

“It is not like I can just bring in a relief pitcher,” he said, adding that it is rare for a student to be switched to another section of the course.

“Virtually every student that comes to see me, almost all of them are able to cope,” he said. “Just raise your hand in class; ask them to repeat themselves. It is usually just that simple, and the problem tends to go away.”

Even though a section switch is rare, he said several students still come to the department office on the second day of classes and claim they will be unable to learn from their foreign-born instructor.

He feels that a day or two is too short for most students to adapt to a new accent, but that each student is different because each may be familiar with different accents. An Eastern European accent, for example, may be easier to understand than a Vietnamese one, because a student may have relatives from Eastern Europe.

“It is the familiarity with the accent that poses a problem,” he said.

He explained a situation he faced when he moved from New York to Texas and students complained to their director that he talked to fast.

“Everyone has an accent,” he said. “We just have different accents. Not everyone in the world can come from Ohio.”

Chemistry and physics education major Kayla Yackee is in agreement with Carothers.

“As time goes on you get used to their accent by asking more questions, but at the time I was really disappointed at the University,” she said.

According to Carothers, it is that disappointment that all departments of the University strive to prevent in the hiring of all faculty members, including those born in other countries.

“Everyone at the University, all departments have a responsibility to provide good instruction,” he said. “It is top on the list.”

Every faculty member must meet minimum qualifications, he said. They supply letters of recommendation, partake in interviews and submit other credentials.

“We don’t hire someone that we don’t understand,” he said, noting that the faculty member with the thickest accent in the department is also one of the best instructors they have. “He has learned to communicate in spite of this accent.”

There are many graduate students who end up teaching in the classroom as well.

In fact, despite a slight decline in the number of international graduate students enrolling since Sept. 11, 2001, 41 percent in the math and physical sciences are foreign-born, according to a survey done by the 450-strong Council of Graduate Schools.

International Teaching Assistants, as they are called, go through a more rigorous process in preparation for the classroom environment.

According to Dayna Herrington, Assistant Director of the English as a Second Language Program, all international graduate students for whom English is a second language must take a placement test that includes an oral interview.

Following the students’ admission to the University, the ESL program maintains contact with their departments. When it comes time for each ITA to enter the classroom, they are to take English 504, Communication Skills for International Teaching Assistants I.

The course covers how the teaching assistants should stress words and how American students use English.

Another course is offered as well, English 505. It is geared towards ITAs that are already in the classroom. The course tailors itself to each ITA, as they all may require help with a different skill, such as pronunciation.

Some ITAs may also be required to complete an accent reduction course offered by the Speech and Hearing clinic.

Herrington places some responsibility on the student as well. She stressed that students should speak slowly and look directly at the teacher so that he or she can see the student speaking.

Like Carothers, Herrington also suggests asking the instructor to repeat as necessary.

“I can’t imagine any teacher getting upset by that,” she said.

Instructor Xiaojing Lu tells her students right at the beginning of the class that she has an accent and to try to bear with her.

“I never have any complaints with that,” she said. “I am honest with them.”

According to Vice Provost Alberto Gonzalez, who works mainly with admissions, instructors like Lu bring more than their accents.

“I would tell a student that is coming to BG to expect not only different accents, but to try to learn that the more we become accustomed to different accents and different ways of knowing we will have a broader understanding of the world around us,” he said.

Carothers could not agree more.

“Think about how many international companies there are these days,” he said. “Your boss could be someone from India. We need an openness and acceptance of the fact that people are different.”

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