Should Faculty Be Able to Speak English?

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By now it is a cliché, the math or science professor whom no one can understand.  If one complains one might be accused of being culturally insensitive or racist.  Or told to be open-minded and listen more carefully (I suppose the mind and ear are connected).  Or worse, and commonly, “Well, we couldn’t find and afford a scientist to come teach who speaks English.”

When I took science as an undergraduate I thought I had gone to heaven, finding myself in a western movie.  Two of my science professors spoke English with a Texas twang.  At the time I still remembered the old country, Sweden, having lived in Sweden and Austria, before coming to the U.S. when I was a teenager.  Of course I had visited the U.S. several times before then, and even seen what I thought were real cowboys, out west, taking in the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Tombstone, Tucson, a series of stations along a pilgrimage compliments of my father who loved anything that had to do with the west.

I on purpose bring the conversation out west, as I know we are dealing with a subject whose frontier surprisingly has not been pushed.  We have revolutionized education in just about every way thinkable (though I am glad there are many ways we have not yet thought of), including in the fields of technology, distance education, profit models, even grade inflation.

But if some faculty members teaching at your institution do not speak English very well that is a subject not on the table, or off the table.

One way to solve this problem, and a problem it is if students have a hard time understanding what their teacher is saying while having a hard time understanding the subject even if the teacher spoke with a South Georgia accent, for example, is to administer to all faculty an English test.

That’s right.  Just as our students in Spanish have their dreaded oral final, make it part of the faculty finalists’ interviewing process to demonstrate a proficiency in English.  I know I had to write an essay, on the spot, when I was hired to teach English (I am surprised my handwriting did not speak to the hiring committee, “Danger, Will Robinson”), as did all the other candidates who went through the gamut of securing a job at the institution.  Why not include an oral proficiency test as part of the interview?

Another step in the right direction, and this should follow, if colleges and universities implement testing in English for applicants, would be graduate programs in the sciences and math also offering language training in English and English pronunciation.  

We have almost come to expect and so are conditioning science and math faculty whose first language is not English to speak in ways that are difficult to understand.  This is a huge disservice and a discriminatory factor on our behalf.

Let’s give our college students science and math professors who speak English as students grapple with the subject.  At least then they can’t blame it on their professor, with what now is the all too common, “The guy doesn’t speak English.  You can’t understand what he says.”

7 thoughts on “Should Faculty Be Able to Speak English?

  1. Unfortunately the Lingua Franca magazine online mirror doesn’t seem to have the November/December 1991 issue available wherein an article appeared entitled “Acute Accents”* — here are some excerpts from a paper copy of that issue:

    “According to a study done by a University of Georgia professor, the communication gap may have less to do with fractured vowels than with how their students feel about foreigners.

    “Donald Rubin, professor of language education and speech communication, tape-recorded a four-minute lecture given by an Ohio-born white woman, then played the tape back to two separate groups of undergraduates in two different rooms. In each room he projected a slide of a woman he identified as the lecturer; in one room the woman pictured was white, in the other she was Chinese. ‘To avoid confounding ethnicity with physical attractiveness,’ Rubin wrote in his report, ‘both models were similarly dressed, were of similar size and hairstyle, and were photographed in the same setting and pose (standing at a lectern in front of a chalkboard).’

    “The students who thought the lecture was being given by the Chinese woman scored lower on a listening-comprehension test than those who thought the lecture was given by a Caucasian. The first group scored about the same as a third group that had listened to a lecture actually given by a Chinese t.a. with a heavy accent. The students who thought the speaker was foreign also rated her teaching skills lower than those who thought she was American.”

    Get it?

    The article ends with a quote from Rubin: “There’s no point in trying to teach the t.a.’s to sound like Tom Brokaw […]. “Try to improve students’ attitudes about being taught by foreigners.”

    *Sue Young Wilson, “Acute Accents,” Lingua Franca, November/December 1991 p. 6-7.

    • Maybe in some specific cases this could be a factor, but sometimes people with thick accents are just plain hard to understand. I have had TAs before who literally just arrived in the United States and, try as I might, I cannot understand about half of what they say.

      Let’s stop accusing the kids of being racists and actually try to solve this problem. It doesn’t matter how brilliant a teacher is if he or she can’t effectively communicate his or her ideas to the students.

  2. I immediately thought of the very same study mentioned in the first comment. I’m deeply troubled by the idea of an English test, especially because many difficult-to-understand people speak perfectly good English. The problem is that many Americans (including me) have difficulty understanding foreign accents. It’s a real problem, but not one that we can solve by bigotry. The fact is, students need to learn to function in a global economy where not everyone talks like a news anchor. We should hire faculty based upon merit, not accent. There’s already plenty of discrimination against foreigners in academic hiring without adding an English test to the mix.

    • It’s not bigotry to require people instructing English speaking kids to be able to speak understandable English. People pay a lot of money to attend college and they expect to be able to understand the lectures. You can hire someone with excellent research credentials and teaching credentials in their mother tongue but that doesn’t mean they are capable of teaching in a different language. I took Spanish when I was in school but I would’t think for a second about applying for a job where I had to teach Spanish speaking kids. It would be performing a huge disservice to the dozens of them for my own benefit.

  3. One of the reasons that the very best TESOL education programs require the study of a foreign language other than English is because the ear can be trained to consider the sound stream in a more plastic manner, as a skill that is learned.

    Only in America do major television news programs put subtitles under the speech of native speakers of English from other countries (e.g. India). This is a testament to the unwillingness of American elites — and American education — to recognize that the human condition is neither monolingual nor mono-accented.

  4. At my university, all faculty recruits are required to give a research talk and are interviewed individually by many faculty. Some departments also require a pedagogy talk of some sort. I can’t imagine a difficult accent not getting noted and discussed. For most departments, research quality trumps teaching quality, and I don’t see how an oral proficiency test would make any difference in that.

    I’ve had more problems understanding faculty who speak too quietly to be heard in the back row than those with foreign accents (I’m getting a little deaf). Is Ulf proposing that we add sound meters to all faculty interviews to check that? What about faculty too short to be seen behind a podium? Or those whose hair length or body shape causes students to claim they have trouble concentrating?

    Adding rigid requirements seems like a bureaucratic way of say “We don’t trust our faculty to choose wisely who should join them as colleagues.”

    Certainly new faculty should be able to speak clearly enough to be understood—that is a big part of their job—but the methods already in use for checking this are more than adequate.

    • “Or those whose hair length or body shape causes students to claim they have trouble concentrating?”

      Good idea. Let’s use the slippery slope fallacy to discredit and minimize a legitimate issue. “The kids are bigots. If we allow them a voice on this subject the next thing you know they won’t want blue-eyed people as teachers.” Ivory tower nonsense.

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