Posted on April 21, 2005

Teach Impediment

John Gravois, Chronicle of Higher Education, Apr. 8

On the phone from Fargo, N.D., State Rep. Bette Grande’s voice rings with clarity. “Colleges are a business,” she says in a starched Midwestern accent. “When we put research as our No. 1 focus, we forgot the student,” she says. “We got ourselves all turned around.”

Ms. Grande could be talking about any of the ills plaguing a modern university — drops in per-student spending, tuition increases, or maybe the lack of face time with professors. But she has something much more contentious in mind.

She wants her state’s university system to do something about the fact that its students can’t understand what the heck their foreign-born instructors are saying.

Late in January, Ms. Grande proposed a bill in the North Dakota legislature to prod public institutions of higher education in precisely that direction. Under her bill, if a student complained in writing that his or her instructor did not “speak English clearly and with good pronunciation,” that student would then be entitled to withdraw from the class with no academic or financial penalty — and would even get a refund.

Further, if 10 percent of the students in a class came forward with such complaints, the university would be obliged to move the instructor into a “nonteaching position,” thus losing that instructor’s classroom labor.

Almost as soon as the bill went public, Ms. Grande realized she had touched a nerve. Calls and e-mail messages poured in from all over North Dakota and from as far away as Florida and Arizona. In nearly a decade as a legislator, Ms. Grande had never attracted such a prodigious and impassioned response.

That’s probably because anyone who has studied mathematics, engineering, computer science, or economics at an American university in the past decade is likely to have harbored the frustrations Ms. Grande’s bill aims to soothe. With rising international enrollments in graduate programs, classroom language barriers have become both a public hobbyhorse and a subject for scholarly study in their own right. In more than a dozen states, legislatures have passed laws to set English-language standards for international teaching assistants. But Ms. Grande’s bill was designed to send a stronger message: If you can’t speak the language clearly, get out of the classroom.


In 2003 just under 41,000 people earned new Ph.D.’s from American universities, according to the federal “Survey of Earned Doctorates.” Of those, about 12,200 — roughly 30 percent — were citizens of other countries. In engineering, foreigners have outnumbered U.S. citizens among new Ph.D.’s for the past 20 years. In the physical sciences, meanwhile, 45 percent of the students are foreign. Among all those who earned doctorates from American universities between 1999 and 2003, the most common source of undergraduates was the University of California at Berkeley. But the second most common was Seoul National University, in Korea.

For Nicholas P. Hacker, a 23-year-old resident of Grand Forks who is both a freshman member of the North Dakota Senate and a senior at the University of North Dakota, those trends have hit home with unhappy results.

Mr. Hacker says he has taken several classes where the instructor’s accented English was difficult to comprehend. “There were days when I would go home and have to study the material that they had taught, for the simple reason that I couldn’t understand the things that came out of their mouth,” he says. “It’s one thing to go home and study a concept, another not to understand what the professor was saying.”


In 2000 Mr. Borjas, who is a Cuban immigrant, published a study of students enrolled in a two-term principles-of-economics course at a large, top-ranked public university. By focusing on the students who had one term of a discussion section taught by an American teaching assistant and the other term taught by a foreign-born teaching assistant, he was able to study the effects of exposure to the different types of teachers while controlling for differences among students.

On balance, he found that undergraduates’ final grades slid by 0.2 points (on a four-point scale) when they had a foreign-born instructor.