Saturday, December 13, 2003


ESL Woes

I don't want to be too specific in this posting, as I am referring to a real student and a real case here.

I've taught at a number of colleges and universities, and the problems I've had with ESL students have been the same everywhere. Quite simply, universities in the United States do very little to assure that international students have mastered the English language adequately enough to be able to attend courses in English and understand what they are being taught. This seems to me a tremendous disservice to these students, even if they are planning to return to their native countries and never speak a word of English again in their lives (which has been the case for at least three of my own students).

I have had, quite literally, students who could not understand me when I asked them to join a group to work on study questions regarding an essay the class had read. I have had students whom I have asked to see me regarding problems with their writing (I generally ask students to write something in class during the first week, whether it's a composition class or a literature class) not understand what it was I was asking them to do.

Whatever their major is, they cannot be understanding the content of the class, if it is being delivered in English. How much are they really learning?

And when they turn in papers, how much are they actually writing themselves? This term, not for the first time and probably not for the last, I have discovered an ESL student who is having a "tutor" translate his papers for him from his native language into English. Since this is a composition class, the work of the course is being done by someone else. And from questioning the student, it has become clear that it isn't just the language that is being translated, but the phrasing of the essays as well--while some core ideas in the paper may actually belong to the student, the expression of them and the sophistication of that expression belong to someone else.

Obviously, this is a plagiarism issue, but that's not my point. This student has been robbed of part of his education because of the language barrier that exists between him and his professors. Why is this allowed to persist?

I place the blame on two factors.

The first is the greed of the American university system. This student and others like him are paying a premium price to attend public universities in the United States. They are provided with ESL classes that are, frankly, a joke. Every student passes these classes, and is "mainstreamed" as soon as possible. The university doesn't want to slow them down too much, because they might decide that a U.S. education isn't worth it. So they wind up in classes they are linguistically unprepared for. And no one really seems to care. I have actually been instructed at several places to use a different standard to grade these students. Pass them along, give them their piece of paper, collect their extra tuition. There is a serious ethical problem here.

But from the other side of the political fence (sort of) there are those who make the acquisition of the English language a political issue. It is not our place, I have actually been told, to force English upon these students. So when too big a deal is made out of the under-performance of ESL students in English classes, the post-colonialists pop out of the woodwork and start lamenting the terrible conditions in these students' home countries that have forced them to come to the U.S. to seek a "quality" education and that we should not practice linguistic imperialism in forcing these students to learn the English language and possibly lose their culture in so doing. We must respect the "linguistic choices" of these students, and read the papers they submit to us for their ideas alone, regardless of whether those ideas are truly being communicated.

But, regardless of which side you decide to listen to, you wind up with students with whom you cannot communicate.

Isn't this robbing them of at least part of the quality education they came here for in the first place?

I would appreciate thoughts on this matter, regardless of whether you agree with my assessment of the causes or not. How do we solve this problem?

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