Your professor does speak English: Competence and cooperation in classroom communication

Recently, I’ve been engaged with a research project looking at the discourse of RateMyProfessors.com, a website where students rate and comment on their university or college instructors.  I’ve been paying special attention to how students talk about instructors who are not first language (L1) speakers of English. Unsurprisingly, students have a lot of complaints about instructors who are second language (L2) speakers of English.  In applied linguistics, we use the term “L2 (English) speaker” for second language (English) speaker and “L1 (English) speaker” for first language (English) speaker; I’m going to use these terms in this post, since they’re more efficient.

Before trying to address students’ complaints about L2 speakers as instructors, let’s think about communication at a very abstract level.

A model of communication

Communication is a process in which one person (the speaker) transmits an intended message to another person (the listener).  For the communication to be successful, we need three things.  First, both people communicating need to be competent communicators for the situation.  If you don’t speak Kiswahili, then you cannot be a competent communicator in a Kiswahili conversation.  Likewise, if you know nothing about quantum physics, you cannot be a competent communicator at a professional symposium on quantum physics.

Second, both people need to be cooperative in the communication.  Obviously, the speaker cannot just say nonsense words or intentionally use vocabulary that is not familiar to the listener.  Likewise, the listener needs to put forth effort and pay attention.  In addition, s/he is never just a silent listener.  The listener should give feedback letting the speaker know that s/he understands.  When a problem arises, a good listener lets the speaker know, since the speaker may otherwise assume that communication has been successful.

Third, the context needs to provide conditions for good communication.  For example, if you’re in a noisy dance club, then you probably cannot communicate well even if you and your partner are both competent and cooperative.

The university or college classroom context

We can apply the same concepts to any communicative situation, including the classroom.  Before we get into competence and cooperation, let’s address the context of the situation.  University and college classrooms are often not optimal environments for communication.  It’s commonplace for classes to have over 100 students enrolled in them.  Although we should work to remedy this situation (since it is clearly bad for learning), it puts quite the strain on communication and requires the participants in the communication to work together to help communication progress as smoothly as possible.  I mentioned before that the speaker needs to receive feedback from the listener, so that s/he knows the listener understands.  In a classroom full of 100 people, it is difficult or impossible to rely on ordinary, subtle reactions like facial expressions.  If you’re a student sitting in the back of a lecture hall, and you’re confused, the instructor most likely can’t see your non-verbal cues of confusion.  Unfortunately you probably don’t want to raise your hand, because no one who wants to be the one student in the huge room that stops the lecture.  The social pressure to remain quiet and confused is immense.  This is a difficult and demanding communicative context regardless of whether the instructor is an L1 or L2 speaker.

Competence

Now let’s go back to the first requirement for good communication: all participants must be competent.  I think we can agree that if you’re an L1 English speaker or an experienced L2 English speaker (particularly if you have passed the language requirements of your university) at an English-speaking university, then you’re probably a competent enough communicator to be taking entry level university classes.  Of course, you need to consider also that you need certain prerequisite knowledge to take any course (including entry-level courses).  Hopefully, you’ve had a  strong education; the admissions process has been thorough (and ensured that you were prepared to receive further education at your chosen school); and you’ve received good advice on what classes you should take.  It’s likely that these things are true for many students in entry level college or university courses.

The other half of the equation is the instructor, who could easily be an L2 speaker of English.  Obviously, many students’ complaints about their L2 speaking instructors are accompanied by accusations that these instructors are not competent speakers of English.  Many of the comments I looked at on RateMyProfessors.com, said things like “he doesn’t speak English” or “her accent is so thick that you can’t understand a word she says”.  It is true that beginning learners of a language may not be ready to communicate in their L2.  However, There’s ample reason to believe that these claims about L2 English-speaking instructors’ English competence are inaccurate and that L2 speaking instructors don’t fit into this category.

I’ll start with the evidence suggesting that instructors who are L2 speakers do in fact speak English quite well.   I’ll just provide a (non-exhaustive) bulleted list:

  • Most English speaking instructors were educated (or are currently being educated) in the United States or other English-speaking countries.  They have used written and spoken English to communicate complex ideas about their fields and also to make a life for themselves.
  • In order to start their education at an English-speaking institution, nearly all L2 English speakers have to demonstrate English speaking, listening, reading, and writing proficiency through a test such as the TOEFL.   
  • L2 English speakers who are faculty members were hired through interview processes that were often multifaceted and involved intense amounts of both written and spoken communication.
  • Many L2 English speakers who are graduate teaching assistants have to take an additional test of spoken English.  For example, here’s a link to the policy at the University of Arizona.  Sometimes, they are even required or recommended to take extra teaching preparation courses (as an example, check out the course at Georgia State University).

All of this evidence suggests that L2 speakers teaching courses at English-speaking universities can communicate in English even if they are self-conscious about or not confident in their L2.

Why then are there so many complaints that L2 speakers who are instructors at colleges or universities “cannot speak English” or “are incomprehensible”?

Well, one possibility is that some instructors (whether they are L1 or L2 speakers), especially those with limited experience, are not competent communicators when it comes to their role in the classroom.  For example, they may not make active efforts to ensure that students understand the material.  Instructors who are competent classroom communicators create many opportunities for questions and even check to ensure that a question has been adequately addressed before moving on (of course, constraints of context like extremely large class sizes may make this more difficult).  These are not static characteristics of course, and both L1- and L2-speaking instructors can be encouraged to use more successful communication strategies in the classroom.

However, in some cases, L2 speakers are competent instructors and yet still receive student complaints about their language.  Research in social psychology can offer one suggestion about what might be happening in these cases.  Social psychological studies have shown that many people are not good at judging the language competence of L2 speakers.  In fact, many people rely on stereotypes when making these judgments.  Don Rubin and Okim Kang have explored this issue using innovative experiments.  They recorded a White woman from Ohio reading a lecture.  They had two groups of undergraduate students listen to this lecture.  Both groups listened and then answered questions about the lecture material and the speaker.  While they were listening, the first  group saw a picture of a White woman who was apparently “the lecturer”; the second group saw a picture of an Asian woman who was apparently “the lecturer”.  Surprisingly, even though both groups heard the same lecture, the second group who saw the picture of an Asian woman reported that she had “a foreign accent” and answered fewer questions about the lecture material correctly.  Therefore, it’s clear that sometimes students are not responding to an instructors’ language as much as they are some other aspect of the instructor such as their ethnicity.

However, in many cases, students accurately notice that their instructor speaks differently than they do; I’ll refer to this as having an L2 accent (as opposed to having an L1 accent).  Most L2 speakers do speak with an L2 accent (for example, you can tell when someone is French when they speak English based on their pronunciation).  Even though instructors may speak with an L2 accent, research by Murray Munro and Tracey Derwing has shown that L2 accents are not necessarily unintelligible.  Their research shows that, in many cases, the degree to which a person’s L2 accent is noticeable has little impact on your ability to understand it.  However, even though many students probably are capable of understanding what their instructors are saying, Munro and Derwing’s research does show that often more effort is necessary to understand L2 speakers than to understand L1 speakers.

However, our ability to understand other people’s accents (whether L1 or L2 speakers’) is not static.  Because competent L2 speakers have accents that are regular or rule-governed (this means speakers use the same sound patterns consistently, even though these patterns differ from L1 speakers’ patterns; for example, German speakers may pronounce English “th” sounds with “s” or “z” in a predictable fashion), research in speech perception has shown that your brain has the amazing ability to make sense of the patterns often very rapidly.  In other words, if you can’t understand someone’s accent at first, if you continue to listen and try to make sense of their speech, you will most likely succeed.

To summarize this part then, almost all L2 English speakers who teach at English-speaking universities and colleges are reasonably competent users of English.  Nonetheless, students frequently seem quite certain that their instructors are not competent users of English.  There are a few reasons for this.  The first is that some L2 speakers (like L1 speakers) may be competent English users in some contexts but may lack competence in their classroom roles as instructors.  However, in other cases, the problem might be the human tendency to not be very good judges of language differences and to rely on stereotypes to reach judgments.  Another explanation is that it may genuinely be more difficult to understand the speech of an L2 speaking instructor, whose accent we are unfamiliar with, than it would be to understand an L1 speaking instructor (with a familiar accent).  Of course, we often fail to realize that we can understand anyway as long as we’re willing to put in a little more effort.  Finally, we often forget that the problem may be our lack of familiarity with the speaker’s accent.  If we give it time (often this may be merely a few minutes) and we put in some effort, we can understand.   Of course, a major issue here is effort, which is the last issue we need to talk about.

Cooperation

I said at the beginning of this post, that you need three things for good communication.  First, you need a context that is conducive to communicating.  Second, both participants need to be competent communicators in the language being used, and they need to have the necessary background knowledge to understand what is happening.  The final condition for good communication is that all parties have to cooperate.

In a classroom, it’s possible for both the instructor or the students not to cooperate.  An instructor could, for example, refuse or ignore questions.  In such a case, we could say that the instructor is not cooperative.  Of course, this doesn’t seem to be a frequent occurrence.

However, while reading through comments on RateMyProfessors.com, I noticed a number of ways that students were showing that they were not cooperating in communication with L2 English-speaking instructors.  I list some of these here.  Any of these behaviors would be problematic in any class whether the instructor is an L1 or L2 speaker:

  • Students do not ask questions – The instructor like any other speaker is relying on the listener to provide feedback when s/he doesn’t understand.  If students don’t ask questions when they haven’t understood something, it’s reasonable for the instructor to assume they understood. (Of course, the instructor should make efforts to allow for questions.)
  • Students stop attending class (or stop paying attention in class) – This is quite simple.  If you are removing yourself from the communication, you are not being cooperative.
  • Students do not visit office hours – Due to the less than optimal context of classroom communication, often communication does not go smoothly whether for L1 or L2 speaking instructors.  This means that additional clarification might be necessary outside of class.  Instructors should make themselves available to students, and students need to take advantage of this opportunity.
  • Students do not do assigned readings – I’m not suggesting that reading a textbook should replace classroom communication.  However, readings are often given to enhance students’ abilities to engage with material during class.  This is because if you’ve read something about the topic in preparation for class, you will be mentally prepared to hear about this topic.  Your comprehension of what you hear in class will increase.

The things I list above are problems for most university and college instructors, whether they are L1 or L2 speakers.  However, judging from many comments on RateMyProfessors.com some students seem to feel especially justified in engaging in these things with L2 speaking instructors.  For example, some students suggest to other students that they shouldn’t “bother asking questions” since the instructor “can’t speak English”.  Some students proudly announce that they have quit attending a class since the instructor’s “lectures are useless” because “you can’t understand a word” the instructor says, and they recommend that other students do the same.  These assessments of instructors’ language competence can only be exaggerations, which in and of itself is not necessarily wrong.  However, when a person engages in exaggeration about the other person’s communicative competence, it becomes clear that the exaggerator is not interested in solving the communication problem through continued cooperation and effort.  Instead, exaggeration shows that the person is looking to justify their uncooperative behavior by portraying the other person as incompetent.

Given that nearly all instructors who happen to be L2 English speakers are competent users of English, it should be possible for successful communication to occur especially if the instructor is also competent in his/her classroom roles.  Of course, it may require more effort and cooperation from students, who will have to pay close attention at first to understand or even ask questions more frequently when they have not understood something.  L2 English speakers and the lingusitic diversity that they bring are, however, a reality.  Most estimates suggest that they outnumber L1 English speakers.  Becoming a competent and cooperative communicator with L2 English speakers is not only a useful skill for succeeding at the university or college, it’s also a useful skill for a rapidly globalizing world.

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Posted in Human migration, Linguistic diversity, Miscommunication and communication difficulties
2 comments on “Your professor does speak English: Competence and cooperation in classroom communication
  1. Alon says:

    Neil Millar, of the University of Birmingham, presented some interesting computational data on RateMyProfessors.com evaluations at the last Corpus Linguistics conference. You may want to have a look at them.

  2. nsubtirelu says:

    Thanks for the heads up on this Alon! I’ll take a look at Millar’s work!

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