Stony Brook, NY; Stony Brook University: Members of the Multilingual and Intercultural Communication Center (L-R) Agnes He (Professor of Asian Studies), Jiwon Hwang (Research Assistant Professor in Psychology and Lecturer in Asian & Asian-American Studies), Marie Huffman (Professor of Linguistics), and Ellen Broselow (Professor of Linguistics)
Agnes He, Jiwon Hwang, Marie Huffman and Ellen Broselow are all members of the Multilingual and Intercultural Communication Center, which is tackling the challenge of communication between undergraduate students and their instructors. PHOTO CREDIT: STONY BROOK UNIVERSITY.

A three-year study conducted at Stony Brook University will tackle the challenge of communication between native English-speaking undergraduates and their non-native English-speaking instructors.

Launching this year, “Communication in the Global Community: A Longitudinal Study of Language Adaptation at Multiple Timescales in Native and Non-Native Speakers” will analyze communication between more than 1,000 native English-speaking undergraduates and about 150 non-native English-speaking Ph.D. students serving as international teaching assistants, or ITAs, at Stony Brook.

The study is backed by a $1 million National Science Foundation grant.

“Based on our understanding in the public discourse, parents and students in the past have had complaints about teaching assistants, not necessarily their instructors and lecturers,” Agnes He, one of the researchers working on the study said. “That does not mean that those issues of communication are not important, but it’s just not something that has come to public awareness.”

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Six researchers in the psychology, linguistics and Asian-American studies departments in the College of Arts and Sciences are analyzing this nationwide phenomenon: He, Jiwon Hwang, Susan Brennan, Ellen Broselow, Marie Huffman and Arthur Samuel.

Hwang is the principal investigator on the study, while Brennan was the lead grant author of the winning grant-writing team.

The project will gauge changes over time in communication between the undergraduates and ITAs in an attempt to reveal the factors that improve ITAs’ English skills over a two-year period and the factors that help American undergraduates adjust to foreign-accented speech.

Data over conversations, class sessions and semesters will be collected from the same individuals and compared in order to determine what can lead to better communication between native and non-native English speakers.

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Ethnographic observations and interviews and linguistic analyses of spontaneous and elicited speech are among several methods of analysis that will be conducted. Pronunciation and perception of phonetic segments, as well as discourse cues and strategies will also be examined.

He herself arrived in the U.S. as an international student and was asked to teach English composition to freshmen. She observed that the problem was not so much her language skills, but rather how to teach writing because she was taught in a different culture and learned writing differently from American students.

“So the point being, even in the absence of a parent language barrier or difficulties, you will still have this issue of what constitutes normative academic language, academic modes of communication for the new arriving TAs,” He said.

Stony Brook students also voiced their opinions about the new study.

“I think a lot of the frustration is that undergraduates are paying for their education, and it’s kind of tough when you can’t understand your professor,” said Melinda Rucks, a third-year Ph.D. candidate studying geosciences.

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“Some of them are really hard to understand during class time,” said sophomore computer science major Warren Wong, who suggested a training program for ITAs. “They’re really nice — well, some of them are really nice — but a lot of them are also non-responsive when you try to approach them. I think they’re not used to the culture.”

Chris Joseph, a sophomore health science major, noted the number of complaints he received from peers about foreign instructors.

“They can’t get Calculus A, for instance, because one of their professors doesn’t speak English, and they don’t know how to effectively communicate because he goes too fast,” he said. “So, it’s like he’s rushing all this material to them in a language they don’t even understand.”

As a teaching assistant for CSE 101, Introduction to Computers, senior computer science major Anand Patel thwarted the language barrier with his international students by drawing pictures.

“For computer science, we do a lot of drawings, like diagrams and stuff and draw it out for them, maybe write out a few things for them,” Patel said. “It’s much better than verbally communicating. Pictures help a lot because that’s universal in computer science.”

Nevertheless, images are not the only viable solution to communication difficulties resulting from language barriers.

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This longitudinal study plans to improve communication between ITAs and American students. In addition, the results will offer new prospects for scientists to study, including language processing and the development of communicative strategies. Besides providing scientific data related to language and communication, the study will also enhance intercultural interactions beyond the college classroom.

“Me being a TA, I’m hoping people never had a problem with what I was saying, but for the most part, I guess it’s a good study to be done if it’s gonna help future students communicate better with the TAs,” Patel said.

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