Should Faculty be able to speak English?



By now it is a cliché, the math or science professor whom no one can understand. If one complains one might be accused of being culturally insensitive or racist. Or told to be open-minded and listen more carefully (I suppose the mind and ear are connected). Or worse, and commonly, “Well, we couldn’t find and afford a scientist to come teach who speaks English.”

When I took science as an undergraduate I thought I had gone to heaven, finding myself in a western movie. Two of my science professors spoke English with a Texas twang. At the time I still remembered the old country, Sweden, having lived in Sweden and Austria, before coming to the U.S. when I was a teenager. Of course I had visited the U.S. several times before then, and even seen what I thought were real cowboys, out west, taking in the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Tombstone, Tucson, a series of stations along a pilgrimage compliments of my father who loved anything that had to do with the west.

I on purpose bring the conversation out west, as I know we are dealing with a subject whose frontier surprisingly has not been pushed. We have revolutionized education in just about every way thinkable (though I am glad there are many ways we have not yet thought of), including in the fields of technology, distance education, profit models, even grade inflation.

But if some faculty members teaching at your institution do not speak English very well that is a subject not on the table, or off the table.

One way to solve this problem, and a problem it is if students have a hard time understanding what their teacher is saying while having a hard time understanding the subject even if the teacher spoke with a South Georgia accent, for example, is to administer to all faculty an English test.

That’s right. Just as our students in Spanish have their dreaded oral final, make it part of the faculty finalists’ interviewing process to demonstrate a proficiency in English. I know I had to write an essay, on the spot, when I was hired to teach English (I am surprised my handwriting did not speak to the hiring committee, “Danger, Will Robinson”), as did all the other candidates who went through the gamut of securing a job at the institution. Why not include an oral proficiency test as part of the interview?

Another step in the right direction, and this should follow, if colleges and universities implement testing in English for applicants, would be graduate programs in the sciences and math also offering language training in English and English pronunciation.

We have almost come to expect and so are conditioning science and math faculty whose first language is not English to speak in ways that are difficult to understand. This is a huge disservice and a discriminatory factor on our behalf.

Let’s give our college students science and math professors who speak English as students grapple with the subject. At least then they can’t blame it on their professor, with what now is the all too common, “The guy doesn’t speak English. You can’t understand what he says.”