While recitations generally serve as a place for students to get their questions answered about the week’s lecture, Engineering sophomore Geoffrey Vedernikoff did not find this to be the case.
In a theoretical computer science course that Vedernikoff is taking, he found his teaching assistant’s accent to be difficult — if not impossible — to comprehend.
“I stopped going to recitations because I could not understand him,” he said.
At Penn, Vedernikoff’s story is not unique, despite the regulations that Penn has in place for hiring international teaching assistants.
Foreign TA’s, as well as other non-native speakers of English who have not lived in an English-speaking country or studied at an English-speaking school, are subject to be tested under the Test of English as a Foreign Language. Additionally, Penn tests most of these international students on their English proficiency in an oral interview.
Graduate students who do not pass one of the English tests are required to take a seven-week-long International Teaching Assistants Training Program over the summer, or a semester-long course during the academic year. This past summer, approximately 40 students were enrolled in this course, according to Nora Lewis, vice dean of professional and liberal education at the School of Arts and Sciences.
However, in spite of these training programs, some students say they have had difficulty learning from their foreign TA’s.
One Engineering sophomore, who preferred to remain anonymous because he personally knows another TA for the same class, recalled his experience in his Computer Science 262 recitation this semester.
“I went the first time and half of the second time,” he said. However, like Vedernikoff, he also stopped attending recitation.
“Regardless of the TOEFL results, it’s pretty obvious that my TA doesn’t speak English that well,” he added.
Nevertheless, this student noted that the struggles that TA’s have with English are “not really their fault.”
Some of Penn’s administration does acknowledge that there may be a problem.
“We do take this issue very seriously, and we have a plan that helps our graduate students if they are struggling with language skills,” Susan Lindee, associate dean for the social sciences at the School of Arts and Sciences, said in an email.
Foreign language instruction requirements first came about in 1990, when Pennsylvania enacted legislation requiring that instructors at any institution of higher learning must be certified as fluent in English. Penn, however, had a certification program in place many years before this, according to Lewis.
Other administrators at Penn, however, have not heard any complaints.
“Penn is an extremely selective university,” Kostas Daniilidis, the School of Engineering and Applied Science associate dean of graduate education said. “We can afford to get students with excellent technical skills who are also very very good at English. I think other universities have some problems, but I don’t think Penn has a problem.”
For undergraduates who are also non-native speakers of English, the challenge of understanding another non-native speaker of English can be especially difficult.
For example, College freshman Bryan Hoang said that he asked his professor to be transferred into a different recitation because he was struggling in class.
“[My TA is] smart and I can see that, but he doesn’t have adequate English speaking proficiency to really explain the concepts for students to get it the first time. He speaks really fast,” he said. “The new TA is more proficient, and she can explain the concepts really well,” he added, and combined with a different study strategy this helped him raise his test scores by 20 points.
According to Lindee, while some TA’s may have difficulty with English, they also bring much to the Penn community.
“As you know, Penn attracts the best and the brightest from around the world, and in an increasingly global economy, these Ph.D.’s are an asset to our community,” Lindee said.
Lewis also sees a benefit for studying in learning to negotiate through intercultural communication.
“I think [many of our students] develop a greater sensitivity as they go through their studies,” she said.
Some TA’s are aware themselves of the limitations of teaching in a second language. Yang Liu, an international graduate student from China who is a TA in the Economics Department, spoke of his own difficulty with teaching in English.
“Sometimes I cannot provide information very efficiently, [or] maybe it takes a while for [my students] to understand. Even for a native speaker … there’s a challenge [to deliver] the material,” Liu said. “With the obstacle of the language it makes communication very difficult.”
According to Sunghye Cho, a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics, international graduate students do have strong support from the University, but juggle other responsibilities that might make them less likely to seek extra English help at Penn.
“Penn still provides a good support system for international TA’s. TA’s are just too busy to take that opportunity, and some of them might think English is less important than their research,” she said.
Lewis offered some recommendations for how students can respond to situations like these.
“It’s very important for undergraduates if they are struggling to understand a TA [that] they should speak to the TA, number one, but they should talk to the professor of the course and let them know,” Lewis said. “As an international TA, it’s very helpful to get feedback that perhaps students aren’t understanding as well as [the TA] thinks they’re understanding.”
Christos Theodoropulos, associate director of curriculum and staff development at the English Language Program, added that TA’s themselves can also be proactive in anticipation of possible communication lapses.
“I think it’s a shared responsibility, and one of the strategies … is when international students are assigned as TA’s to let students know that, ‘Hey, I have a funny accent … and if you do have a problem with certain things, just let me know,’” he said. “It’s just [important] to be open and transparent about that.”
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