Foreigner, stop speaking

Have you taken a course — or a discussion session — with someone whose English was incomprehensible? Say Kenny of South Park? If you have and the experience was traumatic, the New York Times is there for you.

An article on Saturday (Unclear on American Campus: What the Foreign Teacher Said) says the education of America’s undergraduate population is hurting because their lectures are taught by all sorts of foreigners with heavy accents. The Times story says this in the nutgraph:

With a steep rise in the number of foreign graduate students in the last two decades, undergraduates at large research universities often find themselves in classes and laboratories run by graduate teaching assistants whose mastery of English is less than complete.

I don’t doubt there is truth to this, but the way the Times handled the story makes me think of the conspiratorial newspaper article which came about because an editor’s son or daughter was complaining at home. A lot of foreign teaching assistants have strong accents and for many — like the doctoral students in their late thirties — it’s too late to polish their English. But to portray this is as a handicap is almost like saying: “What’s the point of learning a foreign language, when I can’t understand what you’re saying?”

To me, speaking English in America was frustrating at first. I never realized I had a heavy accent, and I never knew how many words I misused. “Pilot” for a race car driver, “recipient” for container or “recipe” for prescription were just some of my Englished Romanian words.

My English was excellent in Romania, where Americans were more than happy with what they got. But in America I tried hard to drown my accent, less because it made me self-conscious (and it did) and more because I wanted to push the conversation away from that. Being a journalist, I didn’t want to spend the first few minutes on the phone placing my accent and giving my source a quick intelligence briefing on Romania. A Missouri police captain once returned my call and told another reported someone with a Middle Eastern accent had called him.

Last year I recorded a radio commentary (right click and choose “save target” to download) on accents and being called on them. It was meant to be ironic and funny, but now it sounds sad and ambiguous. It’s sad because I have no regrets for losing most of my accent and it’s ambiguous because I can’t tell if my decision to get rid of the accent driven by fear or by desire to master the language.

It’s suprising that the Times tackled the subject with such vigor. The “balance” in the story is artificial and the conclusion jumping out at me is that undergraduates are worse off being taught by foreigners. What the Times didn’t ask is why there were so many foreigners in those teaching jobs. If they had asked this, they would have realized nowadays foreigners are the ones who excel in engineering and science. And they are willing to improve their English, but people think it’s not enough.

But interviews with dozens of undergraduates at six universities over the last few weeks indicate that the problem remains acute, in some cases even influencing decisions about what majors to pursue.

I don’t know if I would take it that far. I could say “Euro Trip” is a movie which heavily influences European perception of American students: a horde of imbeciles. But that is not true. And neither is the Times’ statement. If a student decides to assign blame for changing majors to foreign instructors, he/she is a coward. But when Times prints that, the paper looks stupid.

I met a lot of students who had no appreciation for the fact that foreigners on their campus tried to speak their language. It was ironic when they complained to me about it, criticizing their assistants’ English while praising mine, “which is so much better.” Maybe if these students were taught respect for people trying to use a foreign language, they would try to find better solutions than changing majors.

Criticism is one of those solutions. You can work with an instructor and help him. Mocking his heavy accent is not the solution though. Neither is helping the Times do that for you. My friends have offered many tips and advice — but they did it to help me as much as they did it to improve our dynamic.

Recently I was having dinner with a few American graduate students at the University of Missouri, some of whom I had not met before.

– Where are you from? a biology major asked me.
– Romania, I said.
– Really? she asked.
– You weren’t expecting that, were you? a friend chimed in.

I was overcome with pride and guilt. Pride because to her I sounded like an American from some state she’d never been to (I wonder where that might be) and guilt because I realized I had broken the connection to my roots.

I just hope I did it for the right reasons and not for fear of being lectured by the New York Times.

2 Responses to “Foreigner, stop speaking”

  1. Oh, you’re so right. But accents can help too — I wanted to rent an apartment in this nice complex that was booked up and the lady at the office immediately called the manager to ask for an apartment for a potential customer from France (I prefer to think that she was romantic rather than dumb) — I’m from Romania!

  2. The Times has a funny way of not getting it right or all right sometimes. On more than one occasion I told the joke of how someday elements of Western culture will catch dust in the museum of disappeared worlds, that is, if the Chinese will feel like it… but that was among friends. What’s theirs is theirs.

    I live with a Taiwanese student who, when she came to the US four years ago, was told that she would have a research assistantship. By the time she got here, the assistantship had changed to teaching and she was miserable for one year because she was extremely aware of her accent. She is now doing research, investigating Parkinson’s, getting published and receiving research grants.

    I remember the first paper I had to turn in. It was pretty good, I thought. When the professor returned the papers, he couldn’t stop expressing his stupor at how remarkably well I write in English.

    Imagine my surprise. Dude, isn’t that part of why they accepted me in the first place? I am after all a journalist, I should be able to express myself in English if I want to activate in the United States, right?
    “Right,” said the professor.

    It’s cool for you as a prestigious university to enroll international students. It has a ring to it, I guess. The problem is evaluating your applicants. There’s no question about science and engineering – Asian students are extremely qualified.

    But say you’re the English Literature department and the majority of your assistantships involve teaching. Are you going to admit the Chinese student based on his GRE score or are you going to refine your criteria?!

    I just don’t buy the idea of undergrads complaining of their TA’s accent. Felix, my German house mate teaches Chemistry to a class of 200. I don’t think he would have gotten the job had he not been worthy of it. His English is excellent except for his deep German accent that kind of makes you say every other minute, “I’m sorry, what?”

    Yet his students adore him. They com to the parties we throw, they never bail out on his class, his evaluations are fantastic and the next semester Felix will supervise a gang of TAs, mostly American.

    I just didn’t hear the complaints. What I have heard however, was the emergency faculty meeting last semester in my department, to discuss undergrads’ complaints of their American TAs not showing up for class.

    It could go either way, but the generalization for both camps just doesn’t dance.

    “We could always tell,” said a friend of mine a few months ago. One of my sources told me last October, quite matter-of-factly, that he thinks girls with a South-Eastern European accent are cute.

    It annoyed the daylights out of me each time a source would start the conversation by asking me where am I from (and then having to wait for them to exhibit some knowledge of Romania) and each time a professor would outburst with the joy of seeing how articulate I am.

    To my amusement, this sort of stopped. For the past month I’ve been interviewing political activists, campus radicals and underground protesters. Naturally, most of them believe Marx’s Manifesto is the shit (bad capitalism) and they do their best to convince me of it. Towards the end of interviews I usually bring up Romania and have fun with their reactions.

    Losing your accent doesn’t mean losing your roots (that’s why they’re roots). Thinking ill thoughts of Romania in its absence is way more serious.

    now that’s a long comment.

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