Kent State students, faculty weigh in on possible language barriers


Assistant physical education professor Takahiro Sato teaches a class in the M.A.C. Annex, Thursday, April 10, 2014.

Marissa Barnhart

The only reason junior business management major Jewel Debevec stayed in a class taught by a professor she didn’t understand was because she knew the material. She has only had one international professor at Kent State.  

“If [the name] looks foreign enough, and I think that they’re not going to be able to speak English well enough for me to understand it, learn it and pass with a good grade, then I don’t want to take that chance,” Debevec said about scheduling classes taught by foreign professors.

Some students think language barriers can hinder their ability to learn in the classroom, but Provost Todd Diacon said students should keep an open mind when they have professors from different countries. He said some students might be struggling in the classroom because of a language barrier, but they might also struggle because it is the first time they are experiencing meeting someone who doesn’t speak English well.

“I grew up in a town of 7,000 people in the middle of Kansas, and I don’t think I heard a foreign accent until I went to college,” Diacon said. “In 20 years of schooling, the first time I had a professor instructing me who didn’t speak English the way I spoke it was when I was a 20-year-old.”

He said having a foreign professor is part of the learning process, and it is great exposure to other people around the world.

Junior marketing major Christian Brown said he thinks classes would be easier if professors could speak English first and build off of it to make the course material more understandable.

“I feel like I’m teaching myself the material,” Brown said about his classes taught by international professors. “I don’t know what he says. I feel like I’m lost in the lectures. I just go home and try to teach it to myself.”

While Brown has had difficulty learning material, he also said he has had international professors who tried their best to connect with students.

Assistant physical education professor Takahiro Sato said he tries to cater to all learning styles so his students can fully understand his lessons.

“My teaching philosophy is that I don’t do only lecture, but lecture, theory and practice,” Sato said. “I’ll take students down to the gym — the experience is what they learn from the class.”

Sato’s native language is Japanese. He said he tells his students he uses English as a second language and asks them to let him know if they don’t understand something so he can slow down and better explain.

“I tend to talk faster when I get really excited,” he said. “But sometimes a student won’t get it.”

Sato said that while there is a language barrier, another barrier is cultural adjustment or personal assimilation issues.

“If I have a student who has a similar background to me, I can bring my own heritage or origins to aid teaching competencies,” he said.

Sato has been teaching for seven years, four of which have been at Kent State. He said he still feels nervous in front of the class, especially on the first day of a semester.

“I still remember the first day,” Sato said. “Every time I step into the classroom, my nervous levels are almost maxed. Sometimes I get really nervous when a student never responds. And sometimes students really are shy. It’s about class chemistry.”

Oindrila Roy, political science grad appointee, has been away from India for five years, and she has been teaching at Kent State since Fall 2012. She said her favorite class to teach is Political Methods.

“Many students came to this class really apprehensive of the math part of it and the statistics part of it, but as the semester progressed, I witnessed their ‘aha’ moments — them overcoming their fear and settling down and becoming really — if not very — comfortable,” Roy said. “They are no longer afraid of statistics.”

Roy said her approach to connecting with students is through class participation, and while she gives lectures, her teaching style is student-oriented.

“It’s a very democratic process,” Roy said. “It’s not autocratic lectures. Once they’ve shown what they did, I wrap it up, rephrasing, repeating, but when they do it on their own, they feel a lot more confident about themselves.”

Though her native language is Bengali, Roy said she has been speaking British English since she was in kindergarten and has never experienced struggling with a language barrier in the classroom. She did say she thinks being in a class with international professors makes students conscious of diversity.

“If students get more exposure, I don’t think there’s any wrong way of speaking English,” Roy said. “I think as instructors of social science, we also have the responsibility to make students aware of the diversity and to be respectful of the diversity.”

Junior accounting major Jeffrey Trzaska said there are two factors that determine how effective a professor is: if the professor is a good teacher and communication.

Trzaska said if a professor is understandable, then the material becomes the only issue. But when both factors come into play, the class becomes tougher.

“Most people are not good at math in general, so it makes it doubly difficult to learn it in a foreign language,” he said.

Trzaska said he had a Brazilian professor for Intuitive Calculus who had a moderate accent, which Trzaska said was helpful.

“He was actually a really cool guy, and it was a good class, and he did his best to teach in a way that you would understand,” he said.

Trzaska also said he understands the difficulty of trying to communicate with people who have a different first language.

“I’ve been in Spanish-speaking countries, and I don’t speak a lick of Spanish,” he said. “It’s not fun to stand in front of people who are naturally good at something and try and match them.”

Debevec said that she relates to international professors who have difficulty speaking multiple languages, but she would not put herself in a situation where she can’t teach another person in her native tongue.

“I know how hard it is to speak another language — I’m minoring in German, and it’s really rough sometimes — but I would never want to go teach somebody that speaks German in German,” Debevec said.

Dan Mahony, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Services, said the college’s international diversity is increasing among faculty.

He said when deciding who to bring into the faculty, there are a few different things he looks for.

“You certainly want someone who will be a good colleague, work well with others — they’ll contribute to the program in some way,” Mahony said.

“You want someone who will be effective as a researcher, scholar. That’s critical to getting tenure. If they’re not able to do that, ultimately they won’t succeed here. And you want somebody who’s going to be an effective teacher.”

Diacon said that while accents can become a problem, people can still figure out speech patterns in a short amount of time. He also said in extreme cases, students should contact their department chair.     

He also said that professors who are struggling with the English language can take English as a second language or meet with the Faculty Professional Development Center for more help.

“In previous institutions, I have sat in on courses where I also didn’t understand the professor,” Diacon said. “And I’m not sure that even if I had sat in on 15 of those lectures I would have understood. When it’s that situation, I think we want to help the professor improve her or his English.”

Roy said it’s important to teach students that it takes exposure to multiple kinds of people to really learn about diversity. She said making fun of someone for speaking English differently is the same as making fun of the way a person looks or his or her sexual orientation.

“I think a big part of our pedagogy should be grounded in making the classroom culturally sensitive,” Roy said. “I think professors, regardless of their national origin, should work on this.”

Contact Marissa Barnhart at [email protected].