Language Hurdles in STEM

I had a conversation today with somebody that reminded me of one of the problems there was in my college days.  It was a problem that frequently comes up in science and engineering courses, and that problem is that your professors don’t speak English well.

I don’t mean that they have a mild accent, either.  Having a modest bit of accent adds flair and personality.  On the other hand, if you are trying to learn your vocabulary from someone who doesn’t really speak your language well, will have difficulty learning from them.  I had several classes where the professor wrote on the board and said words that nobody in class could quite understand, and we furiously copied down his numbers and examples to study on our own time.  When we fail to understand our professors, it should come from our need to grow in the field, not the inability to know what words they are saying.

This conversation came up partly because the person told me that they became so frustrated with this specific problem in engineering courses that they changed majors to accounting, where people spoke good English.

Engineering is an extremely hard curriculum.  My major at my alma mater (aerospace) has always had an extremely high failure and transfer rate (to other majors) because “Rocket Scientist” has a certain appeal as a title, but the work is extremely difficult.  The policy seemed to be “Let them all try, and they can sort themselves out”, and I am okay with that policy.  The curriculum was so challenging that the college actually implemented a policy that no course could be repeated more than three times for graduation, and it affected people.  My peers and I used to joke that every class was a weed-out class because so many students were lost each semester.  I really cannot stress the attrition rate enough; some years almost 300 people will start the major as freshmen when only 30 are graduating as seniors.  Those are grim numbers.

Compounding the extremely difficult workload with thick accents and poor English badly undermines the students’ ability to succeed.  Some of the foreign instructors speak very good English, but some of them struggled with the language.  They are brilliant, capable people; but they don’t need to be leading a lecture in a language where they cannot be understood.  I had thought it might have been a problem limited to my own University in its quest for more diversity; but after hearing from somebody from an entirely different state complain about the same problem there, I suspect that problem is more widespread.

This particular problem is straightforward: We need our teachers, especially in the STEM courses, to be speaking good English if we want our students to be successful.  There are too many new ideas to learn to cut the professors some slack on their English communication abilities.

 

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