April 05, 2005

Speaking in Tongues

Got this article sent to me by a fellow over at the Chronicle, on legislation aimed at making sure that the foreign TAs and professors who teach in America can, you know, speak English.

Frankly, I'm torn. I've spoken with scientists here who hail from Italy, India, Pakistan and China, and I'll admit that understanding the concepts they're articulating--concepts that I have to really pay attention to understand, as they tend to be high level hard sciences stuff--is made more difficult when I have to concentrate not only on what they're saying, but how it's being said. I can imagine that a student in a "weeder" course would have the same problem.

But the article also implies that physical perception of a teacher as "foreign" also plays a role in understanding, and my personal experience would seem to back that up. One of my dear friends and fellow TAs in grad school originally hailed from Puerto Rico. Her english, however, was excellent--she had the barest trace of an accent--Rosie Perez sounds more "ethnic" than she did. However, my friend had a horrible time as a TA--students didn't repect her, and complained bitterly in the end-of-term evaluations that she "couldn't speak english." This wasn't true! Hell, most of her students had regional accents that were harder to understand than hers was. I've often wondered if the lack of respect stemmed from the perception of her as a foreigner.

And for what it's worth, regional accents are sometimes just as confusing. I had a history prof in undergrad, an elderly southern gentleman who insisted on addressing his students as Miss and Mister, and whose drawl was quite pronounced. I spent a full 3 class periods taking notes on the Great War for Empah, without knowing where the hell this "Empah" was. My friends were in a similar situation, and we were trying to figure out how to spell Empah correctly when Dr. Lester finally wrote the topic he was speaking about on the board:

The Great War for Empire.

And I'm a southerner!

It appears that the original legislation has been watered down somewhat. I understand the "paying customer" argument, but I'm also down with the "getting the best folks for the job and dealing with the accents" folks. It's called middle ground, people. And it's out there, I promise.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at April 5, 2005 03:22 PM

It was pretty bad back when I was a TA: there were a lot of Chinese TAs with incomprehensible accents. OTOH, most of the worst TAs were assigned to lab sections (as opposed to recitations on homework problem-solving), where pantomime and demonstration were acceptable alternative methods of communication.

I currently work in industry. The meetings where fewer than 5 cultures / nationalities are represented in a 12-person team are few and far between. If you major in a technical discipline, you must either learn to deal with the accents in college, or learn to deal with them later. I’d rather learn to deal with them when the only thing at stake is a grade, not my paycheck.

When I was in (Chemistry) grad school, there were 6 Chinese, 2 Taiwanese, 3 Indians, 3 Russians, an Albanian, and one Hungarian in my advisor’s group. The remaining 3 people were Americans. When I went to business school, the student body was about 40% international. The MBA candidates who had non-science undergrad degrees were stuck by the large number of foreigners in the student body. The other science Ph.D. and I, on the other hand, were struck by the large number of Americans. Guess who had an easier time on the mixed-nationality teamwork assignments (the teams were assigned by the administration to prevent stratification by nationality)?

And someone needs to bring back the foreign language requirement for almost every major. When I was a TA, my Big State U allowed American Sign Language to fill that requirement for the relatively few majors that required a foreign language. Sorry folks, that dog don’t hunt. Ability in a real foreign language is an asset to an employer, plus it makes you more sympathetic to someone struggling in your native tongue. It also makes you a more careful listener and a more educated guesser when listening to a foreigner.

Posted by: John at April 5, 2005 04:18 PM

The Egyptologist at Emory with the plummy Oxbridge accent always got the "we can't understand her" reviews. WE would say to them "but she talks just like the BBC." They'd sit there blankly.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at April 5, 2005 04:51 PM

John, your dismissal of American Sign Language as a legitimate foreign language is misguided.

ASL is a complex language and is the primary language of more people in the U.S. than any language other than English. I work with a lot of ASL users and I've spent the last two years learning the language. I'm still far from proficient at it.

I see one big difference between ASL and other foreign languages. The people of other nationalities coming to the U.S. have the option to learn English. Most people in this country who use ASL as their primary communications medium don't have English as a viable option.

Posted by: dhanson at April 5, 2005 05:22 PM

At my university, all "foreign" students need to take a reading and speaking test of English (can't remember what it's called just now) before they can teach. One of my colleagues, who's from New Zealand, actually failed this test. Yow.

The problem wasn't really his spoken English per se (esp. as clearly he was speaking English), but that he was extremely soft-spoken and very shy, so that he never made eye contact. Overall, the strong accent + quiet + constant looking down made him very difficult to understand. He passed the test basically by speaking more loudly the second time around.

Posted by: marisa at April 5, 2005 07:32 PM

Some years ago, I had occasion to be in England to support one of our subcontractors (British Aerospace). As luck would have it, almost all the people I dealt with were Scots (with fairly thick brogues). At least half of my understanding was due to very careful lip-reading; fortunately for me, the language was nominally English. As an aside, when I prepared documents in Microsoft Word and I typed (for example) "aluminum", the (British MS Word) spell-checker corrected that to "aluminium." (But they were consistent; they pronounced it "al-you-mini-yum").

Posted by: Bruce Lagasse at April 5, 2005 07:48 PM

I once had an Iranian professor who spoke marvelous English, save for punctuating every sentence with "OK".
Every. Single. Sentence.
Most of us got little out of Sociology that semester, except amusement at the phenomenal growth of the "OK Tally".
Completely off topic, Tweetsie Railroad is hosting Day Out With Thomas this coming June. As mom of a former Thomas addict, I know how important these things are. We went to both Dillsboro/Bryson City and Chattanooga. I would have loved to have Tweetsie Railroad as a viable option.

Posted by: Sally at April 5, 2005 08:28 PM

I remember presenting a paper at a graduate student history conference, and being on a panel with a student whose topic was some aspect of German history. He'd had no education in the language, however, and I (my German was then fairly fluent), my then girlfriend (who spoke German), and my sister (visiting from her home in Austria) were unable to understand what he was trying to say. I can usually figure out what word and American is mangling, and I had absolutely no idea. None of us did.

My point is that too many Americans are parochial when it comes to foreign languages, and undergraduates in particular seem hostile to it, whether they're learning them or trying to understand non-native speakers of English.

Posted by: Michael at April 5, 2005 08:46 PM

Somehow, call centers in India and other places manage to get people who speak English in a form intelligible to most callers. I have read that some of them have "boot camp" for employees to work on their accents.

Maybe the same for instructors?

Posted by: David Foster at April 5, 2005 09:07 PM

dhanson, my dismissal of ASL was very carefully considered. Aside from getting the student to think in a non-native cultural context (which studying ASL will do), a foreign language requirement, especially for technical majors, is supposed to develop other skills. ASL does not develop those skills for two reasons:

1. English is the primary written language for speakers of ASL. The development of proficiency in a non-native format in both written and spoken communication is one of the reasons for requiring a foreign language in the first place. Writing in a foreign language forces the learner to be more aware of the differences between spoken and written language in both the native and non-native formats (an especially valuable skill for freshmen and sophomores in technical disciplines).

2. No scientific literature is written in ASL. Acquiring a foreign language allows the student to unlock a larger portion of the literature in his or her major field.

Both of those reasons (among others) were cited by my undergraduate department when requiring a foreign language. Most chemists took German for reason #2: Beilstien and several other reference works were still only available in German even up to the mid 1990s. A student of ASL accrued neither of these benefits. Really, a student of French or Spanish would not acquire much benefit over an English monolingual in understanding the majority of technical literature. I’d dismiss those two languages, just as I would ASL, for a student who intended to get the maximum bang for their buck in studying a foreign language. Added to that, at my graduate institution ASL was a gut course, but even a rigorous course would not have accomplished the secondary goals of a foreign language requirement.

Back on topic, the tertiary goal of allowing the student to become accustomed to hearing foreign accents, and attempting to mimic them, is also not accomplished by ASL. I hadn’t thought of that when I was advising my students not to take the easy road, but it is a rather good additional reason to take a traditional foreign language. I’d go so far as to say the best use of time for a science or engineering major would be to study Hindi, Russian, Japanese, Mandarin, or Cantonese, since these are the most common accents they will encounter, and there is a good deal of useful scientific information locked in the scientific periodicals of Japan, Russia, China, and India. To expand on Michael's point about undergraduate hostility, none of those languages share an orthography with English, and for that reason alone most undergraduate students avoid them like the plague.

Posted by: John at April 5, 2005 11:14 PM

I used to tutor college algebra for walking-around money, and all my students had the same professor: a Chinese lady they all agreed was very nice, but they absolutely could not understand her. What good is it to sit in a classroom when you can't understand the lecture?

Posted by: Laura at April 5, 2005 11:19 PM

John makes a good point about ASL not meeting requirements for certain technical degrees, but I would argue that for a university, as opposed to a disciplinary, requirement, ASL works well, and is actually more practical than any other language, with the exception of Spanish.

Posted by: Michael at April 6, 2005 06:52 AM

1. I had a Southern (Tidewater Virginia, if I remember properly) prof for Paleobotany in college. For several weeks I was wondering why the "Salophyton" plant was never referred to in the assigned readings, until the day he wrote "Psilophyton" on the board, while simultaneously pronouncing it.

2. I'm native born American (from Ohio) and occassionally got complaints on my TA evaluations that I'm hard to understand. Further investigation revealed that I probably used too many multi-syllable words. Like, ones with more than two.

3. I now teach in the South and I will say that some of the Southern drawls take more effort on my part to understand, than a clipped British-influenced African English or East Indian English accent. Or, for that matter, than some East Asian accents. Part of the problem is that a lot of young men where I teach tend to mumble and talk into their chests (heads down) and so I don't have the advantage of lip-reading.

4. I do think there should be a balance - we shouldn't expect to always only listen to people who talk "just like us" but it shouldn't be an undue hardship to learn from someone whose speech you cannot understand. I think having some sort of oral test would help. I think when I was a TA they did that with the foreign students, and tried to assign those with the thickest accents to grading, computer-lab, or lab assistant duties, where they didn't have to do as much direct conveyance of verbal information to students. And they had ESL classes.

Posted by: ricki at April 6, 2005 08:32 AM

Loved "Speaking in Tongues." I thought it was going to be about religion (which is why I clicked it). Yours was much better.

Reminded me of a religion class in college where the professor, a short Japanese guy, kept talking about the search for "a shinless man." We figured he was speaking about himself, being only 4-foot something. But he was talking about "sinless" man.

Finding your blog was a happy accident, the result of stepping stone links from other blogs.

Posted by: Larry Moffitt at April 6, 2005 08:55 AM


While I agree that ASL is not a good choice for a primary foreign language for students in technical and scientific fields, ASL is not signed English. It is a different language with its own unique syntax, composed from handshapes, gestures and facial expressions. When ASL users learn English for written communication, they are learning a foreign language which is constructed entirely differently than their own.

One of the first obstacles an English speaker (like me) faces when learning ASL is the need to drop English sentence structure and try to sign as a native ASL user would--rather than try to convert English to ASL word for word. That just won't work.

As Michael said, ASL may not be helpful for students pursuing some technical degrees, but it may well be a benefit to many other university students.

Posted by: dhanson at April 6, 2005 11:45 AM

As an undergraduate electrical engineer we had a prof, Dr. Wang, who is Chinese (duh) and was fairly incomprehensible. This was for a required sophmore class that everyone had to take. We eventually came up with a "Wang to English Dictionary".

Some examples:
"In a gray circus" = integrated circuits
"Dioish swish" = diode switch

This was passed down to the next class and so forth. Finally Dr. Wang caught on to what was going on. Rather than be insulted, he started photocopying it and handing it out the first day of class!!

Posted by: Locomotive Breath at April 6, 2005 12:58 PM

dhanson, since ASL is a topic - context language like Japanese, rather than a subject-verb-object language like English, it certainly does get the student to think outside the native paradigm. If that is the major criterion for requiring a foreign language, then it should be included in options for languages. American social scientists and social workers mighht benefit more from that than any other language, except perhaps Spanish. However, outside those disciplines, I still see going for ASL as a cop-out.

I'm still suspicious that a lot of students at my school went for ASL because there was no writing involved in the course. Most especially there was no writing involved that did not involve a Latin-based orthography. I had several students tell me they would never consider Russian because of the Cyrillic alphabet. For heaven's sake, it's an alphabet of 33 leters that takes about 2 weeks to learn, if you are slow and had no introduction to Greek in high school physics. Michael is right about the overt hostility of most undergrads to foreign languages.

I'd still recommend that a student majoring in anything except the social sciences take Japanese long before considering ASL, if the student wants to get into a totally non-Indo-European topic-based language. The utility of Japanese or Chinese (which has an English-like SVO structure, but makes up for that in complexity by having tones) in business and science is just too great, despite the ridiculous orthography they share.

Posted by: John at April 6, 2005 01:36 PM

John, they're hostile to foreign language, but they tend to be resigned to it. If you really want to see hostile, tell humanities majors they have to take math (I advise 300 history majors). It's not that they're incapable of doing math--well, not most of them--but I'm beginning to wonder what high school math teachers are doing. Math phobia is real, and I would love to know where it comes from.

Posted by: Michael at April 6, 2005 02:38 PM