When Qian Wan GRD ’06, a top physics student in China, arrived at Yale, she failed her first test.
Like hundreds of other Yale graduate and doctoral students whose first day in New Haven was also their first in an English-speaking country, Wan struggled to demonstrate her English proficiency at the Center for Language Studies in a chaotic room bustling with tape recorders and clashing dialects.
As a global university, Yale attracts students like Wan from all over the world. But this asset carries with it a complication: some foreign teaching assistants have difficulty clearly communicating the material that they are responsible for teaching. Some students said this language barrier has led them to factor in issues other than professorial quality when choosing courses and sections during shopping period. But University administrators said the bar for English skills is high enough to limit communication problems.
“All teaching fellows at Yale must pass a test of spoken English, and this requirement has reduced, although not eliminated, questions being raised about the communication skills of graduate student TAs who are not native speakers of English,” Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said.
In Wan’s case, while she had spoken little English prior to her arrival, she could be grading papers and holding office hours for physics students within weeks even if she failed the University-mandated SPEAK test for foreign students who did not graduate from an English-speaking institution. When she finally did pass — on her fourth attempt — she became a candidate to lead a section as a teaching assistant, a role that Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said is essential for the graduate student population and the larger Yale community.
“Part of the experience of the University is that it trains graduate students in teaching and it does that in the classroom, which is a good thing,” he said.
But this language barrier manifests itself differently in every department and every course. The problem, some students say, is more common in natural science and quantitative reasoning disciplines than in the humanities and social sciences, and the result is unequal academic experiences for undergraduates. Some students said they consistently encounter frustrating sections with TAs still adapting to English, while others said they regularly end up in sections with native English speakers or foreign TAs who are able to both provide an international perspective and effectively communicate in English.
Although the Yale College Dean’s Office has acknowledged these concerns, representatives still say that benefits of the teaching assistant program outweigh its drawbacks.
“Sometimes having a TA is a very, very wonderful experience and a marvelous opportunity that really expands what students learn in the course,” Associate Dean Judith Hackman, who oversees the TA program, said. “I think back to elementary school when there was team teaching, and when you have more than one teacher in the course you have different perspectives.”
But since sections are more common in introductory level courses, some undergraduates can see frustration begin during their first semester. Tyler Ibbotson-Sindelar ’09 said he had no choice but to switch sections this year in his introductory economics class because of a language barrier with his TA.
“He was a really nice guy, but it was a matter of syntactical quality,” Ibbotson-Sindelar said. “His explanations weren’t always clear.”
Matthew Doud ’09 said a similar experience in his introductory-level math section discouraged him from taking more math classes. Still, several upperclassmen who have already declared a scientific or quantitative major said they have been generally pleased with their TAs, and Robert Evenson, director of undergraduate studies for economics, said he has rarely heard such complaints.
“It’s something we address very rarely,” he said. “There has been an occasional graduate student who has a foreign accent, but relatively little of that. On the whole, the TAs perform very well.”
With such diverse backgrounds and previous experiences, TAs can themselves be divided by challenges posed by teaching in their second language.
Ana Arjona GRD ’09, a political science TA from Colombia who has worked to master English, said she looked forward to and has enjoyed leading small discussion sections, even if she must occasionally correct herself. But Arjona, unlike many TAs, has experience as a university lector in Spain. She said self-confidence in her teaching ability offset any initial self-doubt in her language skills.
Many other graduate teachers are forced to lead discussions without prior teaching experience, which some said aggravates the language adjustment period.
“It’s a great challenge to me because I’ve never had any teaching experience before, and this semester is my first time,” Xiao-Xiao Pan GRD ’08, a molecular biology TA, said.
Although is may seem that some subjects, such as math, do not demand as great a proficiency in English as others, Alireza Salehi Golsefidy GRD ’06, an Iranian graduate teacher in math, said TAs could choose to just show formulas to a math class, but he believes it is important that they are able to explain the material.
But Andrew Carson, chairman of the Mathematics Department, said the most important qualification is that the TAs can communicate the material, not necessarily elaborate on the concepts at length.