Sometimes, Learning Can Get Lost in the Translation

Lou Michel, Buffalo News, October 19, 2009

Patrick Flatley was eager to study math when he enrolled at the University at Buffalo.

But he says he encountered an unexpected obstacle that had nothing to do with complex formulas.

The Elma resident could not figure out what his math instructor was saying–because of the teacher’s heavy foreign accent.

“I couldn’t understand the teacher, so I dropped the course before the first exam so I wouldn’t be penalized,” Flatley said. “It was very upsetting.”

A year later, the 19-year-old, who aspires to become an accountant, says he is taking the same calculus and statistics course and getting high marks.

“I have a teacher with a New York City accent, and I have an “A’ so far,” Flatley said. “Don’t tell me there aren’t teachers out there who can’t speak English.”

Flatley’s situation illustrates a language barrier that sometimes occurs at UB, which welcomes students and instructors from all over the world.

But the global perspective comes at a price for some students who struggle to understand international professors and teaching assistants whose accents, pronunciation and, in some cases, misuse of words result in knowledge getting lost in the translation.

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“It is our intention to internationalize the campus. In their future careers, students will have to interact with people from all over the world and be able to understand their background and even their accents,” said John T. Ho, interim vice provost for graduate education.

Attracting high-caliber educators from around the world, Ho added, benefits the United States economically and competitively, noting that several of the 2009 American recipients of the Nobel prizes in medicine, physics and chemistry were immigrants.

But inside the classrooms and lecture halls, students told The Buffalo News, they face linguistic challenges.

“If you’re in a lecture hall with 300 people and you’re not sitting up close, it’s hard to understand,” said Tony Scrace, a senior from Lockport majoring in international business and world trade. “I have two international teachers, one is from Haiti and the other is Asian. They speak broken English. The words are not the same and sometimes their presentations have grammatical errors in them.”

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Other universities and colleges find it necessary to turn to the global labor pool because Americans with advanced degrees often seek better paying jobs in private industry rather than education, according to a spokesman for the American Association of University Professors in Washington, D.C.

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As a result, he said, universities have long grappled for long periods with complaints that faculty who speak English as a second language sometimes have difficulty communicating.

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For more than two decades, classes have been provided at UB for teaching assistants who need to improve their language skills, according to Keith E. Otto, who heads UB’s English-as-a-second-language program, one of the first in the country.

Those unable to clearly speak English, Otto said, are given duties outside the classroom, such as grading papers.

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Mohan’s experiences

Satish Mohan, the Amherst town supervisor who plans to return to his post as a professor in UB’s Engineering Department in January, says he is not without sympathy for students who say they have difficulty understanding what’s being taught.

A native of India, he said he has encountered international educators at UB who have struggled with their English.

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Mohan is not alone in recognizing that difficulties exist in getting concepts across when there is a language barrier.

“There is a loss, I will admit that,” said Qi Dong, a UB economics doctoral student from China who works as a teaching assistant. “For me, some questions are very abrupt, and I’m not perfectly prepared for that.”

Aaron Hargrave, a UB nuclear medicine technology graduate, said teaching assistants are often responsible for helping students grasp complicated information.

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Teaching assistants, Dong says, have an obligation to thoroughly familiarize themselves with course material in order to get the main points across to students who seek their help.

“I do think that 80 to 90 percent of the information can be transferred,” he said, adding that students should make use of office hours and study groups to succeed.

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American-born students, Snyder [Martin D. Snyder, spokesman for the American Association of University Professors in Washington, D.C.] added, need to embrace diverse education environments, if they want to be successful.

“Even though the students sometimes deny it, they are resistant to someone from a different culture, someone from a different educational background,” Snyder said. “They are so narrow and parochial that they can’t open up to that person.”

Spinoff benefits

Scrace, the international business student, says non-American professors do enrich course material.

“They bring a lot to the table in respect to business aspects from other parts of the world. Some have worked for years outside the United States and travel two or three times or more a year,” he said. “They definitely know what is going on in their home regions.”

An unintended benefit, Snyder says, is that students who seek each other’s help in study groups often do better than those who go it alone.

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Ernesto J. Alvarado, acting president of UB’s undergraduate Student Association, says he is aware of the language difficulties but says there is no question the university’s professors are top notch in their academic fields.

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Providing another perspective, UB engineering student Robert G. Urtel questioned why he has to pay tuition if he is expected to teach himself when a professor can’t speak English clearly.

“It makes me feel like I’m being personally cheated out of my tuition money,” said Urtel, a junior. “You have to read the book, try and learn it on your own and work with other students going through the same thing.”

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