In the ear of the beholder

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In North Dakota, a state representative and substitute teacher, Bette Grande (R-Fargo), introduced a bill to ensure English proficiency in the state's universities and offer refunds to students who couldn't understand their instructors.

It passed, but only after being significantly weakened and having the refund clause removed, according to the April 8 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Grande could not be reached for comment.

When Marquette Student Government passed a recommendation in late February calling for a special task force to evaluate the English proficiency of non-native-speaker teaching assistants and professors, they were met with controversy.

But experts say not only do instructors have work to do in being understood, but students also must work at understanding their instructors.

Steven Long, an associate professor of speech pathology and audiology, said many students are not aware of the difficulties in learning a complex language such as English. Most students who learn English are able to learn the words and phrases with little difficulty.

But the phonology, or sound system of a language, in Hindi or Chinese, for example, is quite different from an English phonology.

"You can't simply take the vowel and consonant (pronunciations) from a native language and take it into English," Long said. But non-native speakers may unintentionally do so, making them harder to understand.

The set-up of English can also cause difficulty, according to Steven Hartman Keiser, assistant professor of linguistics in the English department. For example, some English words, such as "desks," have consonant clusters not found in many other languages, thus creating a challenge for non-native speakers.

Also, intonation, or the rise and fall of voice pitch, can confuse students. For example, a teaching assistant may move from one topic to the next, but if his voice pitch doesn't change, students may miss the change of topic, according to Donald Rubin, professor in the departments of speech communication and language education at the University of Georgia. Rubin also said an instructor could put the stress on the wrong syllable when pronouncing a word, causing confusion.

Thus, instructors have to work hard to learn English and pronounce it correctly.

"It takes practice, but they're physically capable," Long said.

But the onus of understanding does not lie with only the instructors. Students must work at understanding their instructors, Rubin said.

"A lot of comprehension depends on the attitudes of the listeners," Rubin said. If the students know the instructor is a non-native speaker and "go in with an open mind, their comprehension rate of a non-native speaker is higher. If they go in with a negative attitude, their comprehension rate is lower."

And for many students, the right attitude will eliminate problems.

The right attitude "would take care of a great deal of difficulties," Hartman Keiser said.

Rubin agreed, saying students normally would need two to three weeks to become accustomed to a teaching assistant's speaking style.

But for a person who has an open-mind and still can't understand an instructor, there are few listening techniques suggested for students.

"There's been so much research done on the speakers," Hartman Keiser said. "More attention needs to be paid to the listeners."

Marquette requires potential graduate instructors to take the "Test of English as a Foreign Language," or TOEFL, and be interviewed for English proficiency, according to Provost Madeline Wake.

She said in an e-mail that in response to the MUSG resolution, a group had formed to investigate "the question of English proficiency of graduate teaching assistants."

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on April 7, 2005.

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