Wednesday, September 18

Bruins deal with language barriers


During lectures, he speaks very slowly and often stops to ask
students if they understand what he says. He also pays careful
attention to how well he enunciates each syllable.

English was not German Professor Wolfgang Nehring’s first
language, and he understands that many students may have a
difficult time understanding him.

Many students say they have had a difficult time understanding
some of their professors because of language barriers and thick
accents.

And as finals week approaches, students are especially aware of
these language barriers and hope to overcome them to grasp the
information their professors present so they can do well on their
exams.

“My professor can speak English, but he has a difficult
time expressing himself. For my final, I am confused about what to
do because the professor talks about different requirements than
what the TA has discussed with us in class. Many other students
have this same problem,” said Sarah Hersey, a first-year art
student.

Nehring believes that if he speaks slowly and loudly and
enunciates his words, students will understand his lecture
better.

“I speak slowly on purpose and also try to repeat myself.
I make it a point so that students feel comfortable asking
questions in class if they don’t understand what I said
during the lecture,” Nehring said.

Some professors believe that the most important aspect of
overcoming a language barrier is understanding that they have an
accent and that students may not understand them.

“Being aware of one’s accent is very important. It
makes me try to express my ideas much more clearly, and students
definitely notice this attempt,” said Design | Media Arts
Professor Erkki Huhtamo.

Both students and professors believe that the language barrier
can be overcome through extra meetings and conversations with each
other.

“I encourage e-mail exchange and conversation, but I
don’t think this is the solution. Students and professors
need to meet face-to-face and exchange ideas verbally,”
Huhtamo said.

Natasha Pushkarna, a first-year microbiology, immunology and
molecular genetics student, agreed that the face-to-face approach
often worked.

“One of my professors made it known that he was available
to students after class. He would always stay so students could ask
him questions,” Pushkarna said.

Pushkarna deals with the communication barrier with one of her
professors by attending office hours as well as asking questions
through e-mail.

When hiring new professors, many department heads consider good
communication skills as a necessity for the position.

In many departments, candidates applying for open professor
positions are required to come and present a paper or topic to an
audience of students and faculty.

The audience is encouraged to submit evaluations of the
candidates to the selection committee within the department.

“We want our professors to be scholars as well as good and
caring teachers. If someone is incapable of communicating, we
definitely won’t be keen on selecting them as a
professor,” said history department Chairman Teofilo
Ruiz.

Some professors who did not speak English as their first
language and are new to Los Angeles say they experience similar
communication barriers that their students do.

“I come from a country that is very homogeneous, and there
are very few ethnicities. Coming to L.A. has been a very large
challenge for me, and when I first got here I had a hard time
understanding students,” Huhtamo said.

“Talking with students from every different background has
been an incredible enrichment for me ““ it has forced me to
speak and break my old ways of thinking,” he added.

To further deal with communication barriers, some students often
rely on the help of their teaching assistants for specific
questions.

“I knew that if I wanted to get a very straightforward
answer, I should go to the TA instead of the professor,”
Hersey said.

Despite the communication barriers sometimes associated with his
accent, both Huhtamo and Nehring say they embrace their styles of
speech as part of their identities.

Huhtamo said he wouldn’t abandon his accent even if it
were possible. He believes that it is part of his personality and
helps define who he is.

“I am very aware that we Scandinavians have an accent and
that we can’t get rid of it. I wouldn’t want to get rid
of mine because it makes me especially aware of this issue ““
it helps me to make an extra effort in explaining myself, and in
some ways, this is an advantage in teaching,” Huhtamo
said.

Nehring agreed that his accent helps him be a better
professor.

“I feel more comfortable teaching in German, but when I
teach in English, I tend to use more notes and stay on topic more.
I have to plan out the lecture in detail when I teach in English,
whereas in German, I know I will get sidetracked,” he
said

Nehring believes his German accent is a bonus for students,
jokingly saying, “I tell myself this is an introduction to
German for students. They experience total immersion with my
accent.”

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