I can speak English

13 Jan

Also, I should’ve said this in my last post: a big thank you to Evelyn Lamb for her sweet post featuring Baking and Math on the AMS Blog on Math Blogs!  I’m sure readers from there were surprised to see my mom’s thit kho recipe as the first thing.  Also readers from The neuro blogs daily– I do not understand that website but Evelyn’s post was reposted there too!

Another edition of Yen describes an issue not really related to baking or math and has no solutions for it!

At the end of every term, we get teaching evaluations.  I also ask for feedback from my students throughout the semester.  Over the past three years, I’ve heard this comment in these exact words many times: “It’s so nice that you can speak English.”  And plenty of variations on this theme.

I get it.  Students see my name, and are relieved when I come in on day one and start talking with my clearly American accent (this is universal; I’m curious what their reactions are to my gender).  I was an undergrad once too, and the language barrier is a real thing which is somehow more insurmountable-feeling than cultural barriers and gender barriers (these also exist but are not the topic of this post).  Since English is both of my parents’ (and lots of my extended family’s) second language, I have more practice than a lot of my students at

  1. Parsing grammatical/word choice errors for actual meaning
  2. Understanding accented English.

I also notice this when I speak in French and Vietnamese- people who are used to talking to foreigners are better at figuring out what the heck I’m trying to say, while my fellow undergraduates during my semester abroad struggled at hearing through my accented French to my meaning.


My favorite thing to come up when I googled “language barriers.” By Rebecca Critchley’s deviantart account. Click on image for the original. http://red-wolf7.deviantart.com

That same year that I studied abroad in France, I spent the summer in Vietnam doing an ethnographic research project on women mathematicians.  I have never taken an anthropology course nor a sociology course so I find it incredible (as in not-credible, rather than awe-inspiring) that I did this.  You can read my paper here.  (I never published this; this is the first time anyone but my incredibly supportive undergraduate research advisor has seen it.)  At the end of the summer, I taught a TOEFL class at Can Tho University.

TOEFL (pronounced toe-full) stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language, and as far as I can tell, is required for international students who wish to do graduate work in the US (and probably for other people too).  My classeshad an emphasis on writing and conversation practice- the students had already had years of reading comprehension practice.  By the end of the three weeks, the daily essays had definitely improved grammatically, and I think everyone was more confident with speaking (which is half the battle) but there were still so many things that could improve.  Plus, I was just one native English speaker with however many students- they were lucky to have me, but I still wasn’t enough.

I’m saying that language is hard.  I imagine if I ever went to France or Canada and taught, my teaching reviews would say something like ELLE NE CONNAIT PAS FRANCAIS, LE PIRE ASSISTANT D’ENSEIGNEMENT.  (Case in point: I used google translate to write that).

What do we do as graduate students?  The US has so many research institutions, and if you aren’t staying in your country/region, this seems like a great bet.  It’s not like graduate students actively want to be bad TAs or hate learning languages, but our primary objective is doing research.  Mastering a language takes hundreds of hours that we feel we don’t have if we want to get our Ph.D. in whatever we’re getting it in.  There’s little incentive to do more than the bare minimum (get some particular score on the TOEFL, talk to your advisor), because every minute we spend teaching or learning a language or doing something else with our brains is a minute that we aren’t spending doing research.

So everyone loses.  My students are relieved to hear my English because they’ve had other TAs who they couldn’t understand or learn from.  Graduate students are disheartened by their students’ dislike, which disincentivizes them to get “better” at the language- plus it’s unclear how to do that anyway.  This is the system.

Capybara pictures to feel happy!


From http://gianthamster.com.  These are my favorite animal.


As featured in HuffPo! Click on image for link to story

BONUS: incredible poem linking capybaras and math by Sandra Beasley.  Thanks much to Evelyn Lamb for tweeting this!


2 Responses to “I can speak English”

  1. Evelyn Lamb January 20, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    Capybara high five! I don’t really have anything constructive to add, but I want to sympathize with you on the language thing. When I was looking for jobs, a few well-meaning friends and family members told me it would be easy for me to find a job because I am a native English speaker, and that’s just wrong on so many levels. (For one, it was really hard for me to find a job! Also, some of the best teachers have accents but are good at making themselves understood.) I do understand that a language barrier can be frustrating for students, but in general I think students need to try harder to understand accented English. It must be so frustrating to have your command of English be one of the main things your students comment on.

    • yenergy January 20, 2014 at 3:15 pm #

      Thanks Evelyn! I’m at CIRM right now and just thinking about how sad it is that most people I know are not bilingual, and just about everyone at this huge conference is, since English is the de facto language of math conferences. Americans aren’t used to having to try to understand accented English, but I think we should, because everyone else sure is trying hard to speak that English!

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