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Illinois Fights Back With Fluency Law : Foreign Teachers Create Language Gap in Colleges

September 27, 1987|BOB SECTER | Times Staff Writer

DE KALB, Ill. — Many a confused college student has cursed calculus as if it were a foreign language, but sophomore Joe Blume found the analogy disturbingly real when he stalked out of a recent math class in disgust.

"The regular teacher was sick and there was this foreign graduate student in his place," recalled Blume, a mathematics education major at Northern Illinois University here. "His accent was terrible. I couldn't pick up the words. I'd just grab one here and one there. After five minutes I just got up and left. It was a wasted day."

Blume is not alone in his frustration. A record flood of graduate students from abroad--many doubling as classroom instructors--has produced a growing national outcry from undergraduates who contend that their own schoolwork suffers when they struggle with the accented and broken English of some foreign teachers.

The result is a disturbing communications gap in academia that pits the desire for cultural diversity on campus against a student's basic need to understand his lessons.

Pressed by a storm of complaints from students and parents, Illinois lawmakers last year passed legislation requiring state-run colleges and universities to guarantee that all their teachers are proficient in spoken English.

Gov. James R. Thompson denounced the bill as elitist and isolationist and vetoed it, but the veto was swiftly and decisively overriden by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, and the measure--the only one of its kind in the nation--went into effect as classes opened this month.

The law is vague, failing to define a fluency standard or spell out precise punishment for failing to meet it. But it clearly implies that everyone from graduate teaching assistants to full professors should be made to speak up clearly or get out of the classroom.

In his strongly worded veto message, Thompson argued that, if such a law had been in effect years ago, renowned foreign-born thinkers and scientists such as Albert Einstein and Wernher von Braun would have been barred from Illinois classrooms simply because of thick German accents. Were President James Madison alive today, he too would be ineligible to teach because of a serious speech impediment, Thompson said.

'Cultural Elitism'

"This cultural elitism and isolation has no place in an Illinois which seeks foreign markets and foreign investments," Thompson insisted. "To exclude so many from the ranks of potential teachers, when they have something relevant to offer our Illinois students, is to do our future students a disservice."

But legislators disagreed, reasoning that students were being shortchanged by language barriers with their teachers.

"If you can't understand these people, what good does it do to have them teaching in class?" asked Democratic State Sen. Patrick Welch, author of the fluency bill. "You have to consider the rights of individual students to get a good education. They're paying for it and they shouldn't have to be guinea pigs for foreigners trying to learn English."

Welch, whose rural district 60 miles west of Chicago includes the Northern Illinois University campus, said 2,000 of the school's 25,000 students signed petitions urging passage of his bill.

Many Illinois students say they go to elaborate means to avoid classes conducted by the foreign teaching assistants.

At the University of Illinois in Urbana, senior engineering major Tom Colman said that two years ago he dropped a required math course in differential equations after only the first day because the teacher's German accent was so thick he could not take notes.

Similarly, Kelle Reczek, another Urbana senior majoring in both economics and political science, said her troubles began the first day on campus in her freshman year when she walked into a calculus class at venerable Altgeld Hall and found an Asian graduate student delivering the lecture.

"I sat down and I couldn't understand him," recalled Reczek, a member of a student advisory committee to the Illinois Board of Higher Education. "He had a very strong accent, and it was difficult to make out his pronunciation. We would have to stop and ask him to repeat things four or five times."

Reczek finally got a "B" in the class but said she had to take four hours a week of outside tutoring to decipher the lectures. Since then she has dropped or switched seven classes taught by foreigners she had trouble understanding.

To some extent, the problem can be traced to broad shifts in the professional goals of American students as well as changes in the academic environment at many universities, especially large and prestigious ones, such as the 36,000-student enrollment at the University of Illinois.

It is common practice for universities to supplement their faculties with graduate teaching assistants. Often, an undergraduate signs up for a course with a full professor and finds a graduate student conducting many of the lectures and class sessions.

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