Lost in translation

| Staff Columnist
Becky Zhao | Student Life

Becky Zhao | Student Life

In my high school, the only teachers who spoke with accents were the foreign language teachers, as they were native speakers of French or Spanish. They had a slight accent but were otherwise fluent in English.

At Wash. U., it is common to have non-native English speakers either as professors or teaching assistants. I remember that my first day of differential equations was mostly spent learning to understand my professor’s accent. It was not difficult, but there was one time when he was saying “indicial equation,” and I kept hearing “initial equation.” That was a little confusing.

Understanding a professor usually only takes getting used to his accent, and then you are able to communicate for the rest of the course. The professor’s English fluency is rarely an issue that leads to misunderstandings or miscommunications.

While most professors are fluent or nearly fluent in English, many graduate students that I have encountered are not. As anyone who has taken a chemistry lab course can tell you, it is a challenge to overcome this language barrier. So why are graduate students permitted to TA a class when they are unable to communicate effectively with students?

Before going any further, I want to say that I am writing this as objectively as possible. By no means do I mean to say that only native speakers of English should be permitted to TA. I am stating that only people able to communicate effectively in English should TA.

I hate to write such a disclaimer, but I know this is a sensitive topic. One of my friends once brought up how glad she was that her TA for organic chemistry lab was American. She was quick to say that it was not because he was American, but it was because she could understand him when he spoke.

Of course the graduate students are working on their English, but letting them TA without being able to perform all of the necessary duties is wasting both the TA’s time and the student’s time. It is akin to going to a restaurant, ordering your food, and getting the wrong food. When you complain to the waitress, she replies that it’s her first day. While that does inspire sympathy, you also have to wonder why the restaurant did not fully train her.

Similarly, when you have a TA who cannot understand most of what you are saying, you have to wonder why the University did not fully train him. You are sympathetic, but it is frustrating to have to repeat and rephrase questions—or, in some cases, switch to writing things down and pointing.

While it is the University’s responsibility to ensure the TAs can effectively communicate, the burden also rests on the TA himself (or herself). He should take the English classes for graduate students that the University offers. He should make an effort to speak only in English except when calling home.

While it is a pleasure to hear a variety of languages spoken on our campus, sometimes undergraduate and graduate students, stereotypically Asians, speak only their native tongue. Since they isolate themselves from all of the English speakers, their English improves very slowly.

If these students were to speak English when they were together, their English would improve. They would be more likely to make multicultural friends and have a better cultural experience of the United States. It also would result in fewer rude situations in which a whole conversation is going on in the room in a language you cannot understand.

In short, the University should make sure that graduate students are proficient in English before allowing them to TA a class. Otherwise, both the TA and the student are in for a frustrating semester of miscommunications. The class material at Wash. U. is hard enough already without added difficulties. We students came here for an excellent education, and if Wash. U. plans to excel, it should revise the TA English proficiency policy.

  • Alex Lin

    Hey Brent. Interesting article that definitely merits further discussion. As a matter of fact, we will be further discussing this at our November General Body Meeting for the Asian American Association. The GBM will be at 8pm on Tuesday, 11/10/09 at Ursa’s. Please attend, as I feel your thoughts would vastly contribute to the discussion.