TAs overcome language barriers

Posted on 07 November 2007 by Abbi Ott

In large classes with lab components, students must rely on Teaching Assistants to teach and assist them through their studies. The Graduate School actively recruits these TAs from all around the world, leaving students with a teacher who is not a native English speaker. Oftentimes this leads to frustration.

“It was a terrible experience [at first],” describes Joe Flask, a sophomore in the College of Health Sciences, about his international TAs, “I couldn’t ask them any questions and if I did, I couldn’t understand what they were saying back to me.”

Dr. Stephen Merrill, the Chair of the Department of Mathematics, explains how his department recruits international graduate students, with over one hundred applicants for the four to ten open TA spots. “Overseas TAs are more experienced teachers than United States TAs. They may need help slowing down their speech, but they are highly qualified,” says Merrill.

International TAs must meet strict requirements. First, they must be qualified for the graduate program for which they are applying. Second, the potential TA must have a high Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) score. This high score weeds out any “marginally fluent” candidates, says Merrill.

Despite their qualification, students still complain about their ability to understand their TAs. To try and bridge the language gap, the Office of International Education offers a weeklong training seminar when the new international TAs arrive in the fall. At this seminar, professors evaluate the TAs on their skills and help them to assimilate to life at Marquette.

The TAs also take a placement test on writing, speaking and listening in English. If the TA does not pass this test, they are required to sign up for a two credit class called American Language and Communication Skills for Teaching Assistants. The instructor, Jean Czaja, an English as a Second Language Lecturer, works with these TAs to try and improve pronunciation and listening skills.

Czaja, whose class consists of six TAs this semester, describes, “Many TAs are happy to be placed in the class so that they can get the extra help that they need.”

Merrill also works with his department to improve communication but also describes, “The problem tends to be with accents and students who have little exposure to foreign accents.”

Czaja agrees, “Communication is a two-way street.” She even hands out brochures to the departments listing ways that students may better interact with their TA.

“I like the language barrier because it keeps me awake in class,” said Nate Cinefro, a junior in the College of Engineering. “All you have to do is be patient.”

Flask says, “I just learned how to prepare better and asked other people in my labs if I had problems.”

Merrill contends that this adjustment is part of college. He says, “Foreign TAs are part of the college experience—learning to deal with people whose cultures and languages are from all around the world.”

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