Speak to Me: Students, TAs Battle Language Deficiencies

Daily Texan
September 29, 1998
Melissa Mason
Daily Texan Staff

Yvonne Wubben, a teaching assistant for upper-division Germanic language courses who moved to Austin from Germany this year, went through training at the University to bridge the language gap between herself and her students.

When international graduate students who wish to be TAs come to the University, They must go through the International Teaching Assistants Program, which trains them to work in UT classrooms.

The practical skills offered in the training program were very helpful, Wubben said, noting that she has not had many problems with the language barrier this semester.

The first phase of the program includes an English oral assessment and a course to improve prospective TAs' language skills. The second phase orients the them to teaching at the University, familiarizing them with grading on curves or terms such as "make-up exam."

The final part gives the participants a chance to practice teaching, and undergraduate volunteers give them suggestions on how they can improve their skills.

Last year 665 international teaching assistants and assistant instructors taught at the University, making up about 25 percent of the 2,717 total TAs and AIs at the University.

"ITAs are highly qualified, the cream of the international crop, and that's why they were chosen to come here and accepted as graduate students," said Ghislaine Kozuh, director of the International Teaching Assistants Program.

But students who have dealt with international TAs said that at times it could be difficult.

"Sometimes the accents make them hard to understand," said Tony Hall, a mechanical engineering junior. "There's no advantage to having an international TA, but there's no reason for them to be excluded."

Some students said that more should be done to help students and TAs understand each other.

"I think there should be a [higher] minimum English equivalency," said Russell Baird, a mechanical engineering senior, "I have nothing against international TAs, but when they can't speak well enough to get the point across it hinders their ability to teach."

The International Teaching Assistants Program also offers a new student orientation program that helps teach students to be sensitive to international TAs.

"There's a need there for undergraduates to get strategies to deal with international professors and teaching assistants," Kozuh added, "There are more and more international professors and TAs these days."

Kozuh said that if a student is having trouble with the language barrier personal Contact with TAs could be very beneficial.

"The undergraduate can give the TA suggestions about how they could improve, and that would be helpful to the ITA," Kozuh said.

But, Kozuh added that the when students don't do well in class it is not always the result of a bad TA.

"On rare occasions it has come to our attention that an undergraduate or their parents complained," she said. "In most cases the problem was a student that did not come to class, so they were already struggling with the material, and the fact that there was a person speaking with a foreign accent exacerbated the problem," Kozuh said.

The Department of Mathematics employs 85 teaching assistants and assistant instructors, 29 of whom are international graduate students, said Chris Marcin, administrative associate in the department.

"We are not having the language difficulties we have had in the past," Marcin said, "Our international instructors cannot be conditionally certified. They must have full ITA certification."

Gary Hamrick, an undergraduate coordinator in the department of mathematics, Agreed and said if students do poorly, it may be because they do not understand the material, rather than due to communication problems.

"When students have problems it is more often because of the mathematics than the language barrier," Hamrick said.