Foreign Tas and Potential Language Barriers

The Language Barrier: Dividing Minds in the Classroom?

It was my first day of college. I was sitting in an Introduction to Economics class with more than 400 other people. I looked around and saw a pretty diverse crowd. Yay! This is how college should be! Minus about 300 people of course. Then our instructor started introducing our TAs. Most of the TAs looked American, with the exception of an Indian guy.

“O geez, I hope I get one that speaks English.”


I know those white girls did not just assume that the Indian guy didn’t know English.

Well, it turns out that the Indian guy knew perfect English, and it was the other TAs who were not native English speakers.

Sowho was the one with the wrong perception? Me? For thinking that the other girls were talking about the Indian guy when they could’ve been talking about everyone? Them? For assuming that the Indian guy didn’t know English?

I’ll admit that I get pretty defensive when I think people are discriminating or belittling instructors whose native language isn’t English. After all, my own mother was a TA when her English wasn’t at its best form. But I’ll also admit that the language barrier is problematic to learning.

One of my other classes is a special Asian focus social science class. Our teacher is Korean and has only been in the United States for 5 years. Most of the students are undergrads and though there is an Asian majority in the class, the students are pretty diverse. Needless to say, there is a language barrier. I asked some of my classmates to see what they thought about the language barrier and how it affects their learning

Amy P. is a freshman this year. She was born in India and has lived there for three years. For Amy, the language barrier isn’t detrimental to her learning. She says that the instructor provides enough supplemental material to balance out the language barrier and that he is available to help. But Amy does believe that “the class would be a lot more interesting if it didn’t exist.”

Vernon C. is a junior Sociology major. He has had experience with instructors whose native languages aren’t English and has traveled outside the country on various occasions. For Vernon the language barrier does exist but is “minimal since he [the instructor] speaks so slowly.” Vernon points out that the language barrier makes it difficult for students to understand what the instructor expects of them on a one to one basis.

Ryan J., also a freshman, reaffirms that the instructor’s language barrier makes it hard for students to understand exactly what is expected of them when the instructor asks a question. Ryan has difficulty focusing on class due to the language barrier. He also points out that the instructor isn’t very clear in answering on the spot questions.

Our instructor is a graduate student who has been teaching for three semesters now. To prepare for teaching, he attended classes given by the department and had discussions with other TAs. Our instructor maintains that a lot of the potential and actual problems that he encounters are the same for any new teacher.

However, as an Asian Social Science TA, our instructor faces certain disadvantages. For an international TA it is difficult to hide unprepared-ness, therefore they must spend more time prepping for classes. Math and the natural sciences generally can use formulas and postulates as a form of communication. Math and Natural science courses are also more lecture based while social science courses are more discussion based.

Although discussions are easier to lead, it is not always the case for international TAs. Some students might find it hard to understand exactly what the instructor is asking or where the TA is trying to lead the discussion.
As Ryan says “communication is the key in learning.” So what can be done to ensure that all students in the class are learning?

International TAs are generally aware of the potential difficulties brought on by the language barrier and are willing to make the extra effort to make things clearer for students. Don’t hesitate to ask questions. Discuss topics with classmates, perhaps they understood a part of it you didn’t. Also, as with any instructor, use office hours!

For most people college means learning about new and different things, and experiencing new perspectives. Even in the old days, college graduates were though to be more worldly than regular people. In today’s world of globalization, it is even more important to develop an understanding of different cultures.

Learning under an international TA could potentially be a great way to learn something new or gain a new perspective on something you already know. Before you drop a class due to the language barrier, try to see if you can work through it, it might not be as hard as it looks.