Why complaining about your GSI's accent is a waste of time (and racist)

BY GABE NELSON
Daily News Editor
Published March 7, 2007

CORRECTION APPENDED: This story said Business School sophomore Eric Brackman found his economics GSI's accent difficult to understand. Brackman was speaking about his physics lab GSI.
The same story omitted English Language Institute lecturer Elizabeth Axelson's first name and the photo caption gave the wrong name to the English Language Institute.

Jessica Boullion
English Language Institute tutor Carson Maynard (right) practices tongue-twisters at an informal pronunciation session with graduate students working on minimizing their foreign accents. (ALLISON GHAMAN/Daily)

Like many students at the University, Business sophomore Eric Brackmann can't understand his graduate student instructor.

Brackmann tried to understand his physics lab GSI's accent, but he found communication "impossible."

"I just gave up," Brackmann said.

Now Brackmann lets his mind wander during class.

"I tend to zone out for about the first 10 minutes as the GSI speaks," he said.

Experiences like Brackmann's have become increasingly common in the new, global world of higher education. With an increase in the number of international graduate student instructors at the University, administrators have dealt with an upswing in complaints from students saying their GSIs don't speak English fluently.

Scott Kassner, a student advisor for the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, said at least one student per semester asks him for advice about a GSI the student can't understand. But unrest about accents is more significant than that number indicates, he said.

"They might not be bringing it to our office, but we hear it and it happens," he said.

Many students will drop out of a class or switch to another section of the same class if they find the GSI too hard to understand. Some stay in the class. Some mock the GSI's speech and treat the experience as an unpleasant rite of passage. And some actually learn more than they signed up for.

In a world where many occupations require employees to be able to understand people from other countries, understanding people from different areas is increasingly important. While a student might be able to avoid taking a class with an international GSI now, they might regret that decision when they're working for a Chinese-owned company with co-workers who didn't grow up in the Midwest.

For many, however, the prospect of sitting in a corporate board room trying to figure out what everyone else is saying isn't as frightening as failing calculus.

One solution would be to forbid non-native English speakers from teaching classes, or on an individual level, to make sure all your GSIs speak English well. To quite a few students, that doesn't seem like a terrible idea.

It is.

Those who stay will be champions

While some students give up when confronted with a hard-to-understand GSI, others learned from the struggle. Although it made the class harder, it taught them how to communicate with people who don't speak English clearly.

LSA sophomore Corinne Charlton said she had trouble understanding her foreign economics and calculus GSIs at first but eventually learned to communicate with them.

"It forced me to pay attention, so it could be seen as a good thing," Charlton said. "Eventually, I could figure out what they were saying."

Many intro-level science and math courses at the University are taught by GSIs rather than by professors because it allows for smaller, more intimate classes where students can interact with their teachers, said mathematics lecturer Karen Rhea.

All six GSIs currently teaching recitation sections for Mathematics 216 are international GSIs.

Science and math classes tend to elicit the most complaints about hard-to-understand GSIs because the classes are more difficult. Students will often blame their problems on an international GSI to avoid blaming themselves, Kassner said.

"Let's say a student is having trouble in calculus," the LSA student advisor said. "Is that difficulty in calculus because of the way the GSI is speaking or is that because calculus is tough?"

Kassner said international GSIs are an important element of a modern undergraduate education because they expose students to diverse cultures and accents.

"One of the great advantages of being at a university like the University of Michigan is that you get to encounter people from all over the world," Kassner said. "Students should ask themselves, 'What can I learn from this person?"

Not trying can be a form of racism.

Soft Racism

Mocking international GSIs and blaming them for communication problems remains seen as largely acceptable on campus, even though other forms of discrimination are increasingly taboo.

The Every Three Weekly, a campus satire publication, published an article making fun of foreign professors called "North Campus Adopts Bloken Engrish As Official Language" last month.

"Engineers, we all in same boat, and boat take you across watel, and watel is ranguage," the article read. "Is a metaphol. Okay? Metaphol?"

Linguistics Prof. Kathryn Campbell-Kibler said articles like that draw on old stereotypes but use them in a new way.

Asian language stereotypes have traditionally been used to depict Asian characters as stupid or inept. Although the characteristics of the mock language have remained the same - for example, an inability to distinguish between the letters "l" and "r" - it is now used to say Asians are good at math and science and bad at language skills, Campbell-Kibler said.

Research shows that college students react differently to teachers from different national backgrounds.

In a 1990 experiment by sociolinguists D.L. Rubin and K.A. Smith, undergraduates said a recorded lecture was easier to understand when played alongside a picture of a white woman than alongside a picture of an Asian woman.

A 2005 experiment by Stephanie Lindemann showed that the average student college student has a more negative impression of Chinese, Russian and Mexican accents than of standard American English. The students in Lindemann's study ranked Chinese accents as the least prestigious.

Complaints by students about hard-to-understand GSIs might be a kind of hidden racism, Campbell-Kibler said.

English Language Institute lecturer Elizabeth Axelson said she spoke to an Italian economics GSI who experienced discrimination based on his accent. The GSI, who was white and dressed like an American, had already lived in the United States for two years and was fluent in English.

"He was pretty at home here," Axelson said. "Based on his looks, you could easily think he was American."

As the GSI entered the classroom and prepared for the beginning of class, he felt positive vibes, Axelson said. When he spoke with his Italian accent, though, everything changed.

"People's faces closed off and they became hostile," Axelson said. "That whole friendly atmosphere disappeared, and he then had to win them back."

Some students misbehave in the classroom out of contempt for international GSIs, Axelson said.

"I've seen students just do their e-mail in class," she said. "They'll hang out at the back of the room, talk to their friends, snicker about the GSI. That's really demoralizing and undermining."

Perhaps American students don't understand the importance of understanding different accents because they're lucky enough to grow up speaking English, the international language of business.

The international graduate students understand, though that's one reason many of them study in the U.S. in the first place.

New slang

Nine international graduate students watched movie trailers in a Modern Languages Building classroom last month. The students, from different University departments and schools, listened carefully to the dialogue from movies like "Welcome to Mooseport," "50 First Dates" and "Shrek," silently mouthing the words. They used the trailers to learn American slang and colloquial English.

In the class, English Language Institute 338, called Pronunciation in Context, ELI Lecturer Brenda Imber teaches international students to speak like Americans so they can communicate effectively with students and faculty.

Some will become GSIs down the line. Others will stick to research.

One graduate student spent 10 minutes before class writing e-mails to College of Engineering faculty in impeccable English. When the class started, though, he struggled to distinguish "they're" from "they are" and "we're" from "we are."

It's the little things that are hard for non-native English speakers to master, Imber said. She told her students to mentally replace the word "they're" with "there."

"Nobody can tell the difference," Imber said.

That is, nobody besides their students. The University has an extensive program in place to ensure that GSIs speak good English, but for some it's not good enough. Are the little things really a substantial setback to communication?

To study at the University, international students must pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language. Although all international graduate students have proven proficient in English, many have little experience speaking English in a classroom context, Axelson said. In ELI classes, GSIs learn what sort of language is expected in interactions with students and faculty, she said.

"It's finding out what people actually do in an actual context," Axelson said. "If I want to establish a rapport by having small talk, what kinds of things constitute small talk?"

Many international students have to relearn greetings because the ones taught in textbooks are rarely followed in practice, Axelson said.

"Textbooks teach you a certain kind of greeting - the 'hello, how are you' sequence," Axelson said. "It may come as a surprise to hear interactions where people don't respond to 'how are you?' That's a weird one to hear if you've learned a pattern, which is 'fine, thank you, and you?' "

Teaching the teachers

In 1984, the University had no training program for GSIs.

Faced with an increasing number of international graduate students who struggled with English in the classroom, the University began to require that all the international graduate students take tests to gauge their command of academic English. The English Language Institute stepped in to become the primary form of English instruction for graduate students.

"GSIs are better teachers than they used to be," Axelson said.

All international students must now pass ELI's Academic English Evaluation to become GSIs. They take the two-hour test at the beginning of each semester.

Based on the results of the test, students are assigned to various English for Academic Purposes courses taught by the ELI. Courses for GSIs include Spoken and Written Grammar in Academic Contexts, Academic Speaking and Graduate Student Instructor Communication Skills.

No matter how much English a GSI knows, terms like "electronic override" are going to be baffling at first, said assistant mathematics professor Dale Winter. That's why GSIs need to practice common classroom conversations before teaching classes, he said.

International students taking ELI courses make presentations and hold simulated office hours as part of their training.

ELI lecturers also teach graduate students about American educational culture. There are major differences between the way teachers and students interact in the United States and other countries, Rhea said.

One Chinese GSI teaching Math 115 was popular even though he struggled to speak English because he made it clear that he cared about his students, she said.

When a handful of administrators from Chinese universities visited the University's mathematics department and spoke with the graduate student, they asked him why American students liked him so much. His answer cracked up the administrators.

"In America, you have to care about the student," Rhea said, imitating the graduate student's Chinese accent. "The administrators laughed like that was a real bizarre idea."

Many departments at the University - including the math department - train their GSIs beyond the courses taught by the ELI. After receiving certification, math GSIs must take a month-long department-specific course before they can teach a course.

They also "shadow" GSIs already teaching courses to learn how to grade assignments and interact with students, Rhea said.

"We truly do not want to put someone in the classroom that we know we're going to get complaints on," she said.

Granted, it can be difficult to understand an international GSI unfamiliar with American classroom culture, who speaks accented or poor English. The experience, however, is what students make of it.

The Internet and increasingly free trade have made English a lingua franca that allows people from different countries and native speakers of different languages to communicate.

Students have in international GSIs an opportunity to gain exposure to the myriad varieties of English that cross the telephone lines and fill the boardrooms of today's international world. All they have to do is listen.