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Academic Careers ,

Helping Teaching Assistants with Thick Accents (and Their Students!)

Progress has been made in recent decades on ensuring that foreign graduate students at American universities have sufficient facility in the language–English, in the case of the United States–that they’re likely to be teaching in. The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), or the comparable IELTS exam, has long been required for most international students. But with the old paper-based test, which is still in use, a person could ace the test and still be unintelligible in the classroom.

There’s good news for future U.S. science undergrads, whose lab courses
will almost certainly be taught (in at least a few cases) by foreign
graduate students: The new, Internet-based version of the TOEFL has an
oral component. Ohio University–one of the pioneers in accent
mitigation, due to a state law requiring university-level instructors to
be proficient in English–looks at “the overall score for university
admission and the Speaking score to clear international teaching
assistants,” writes Dawn Bikowski, Director of the university’s English
Language Improvement Program, in an e-mail interview with Science
Careers.  The university has a backup plan for those who take the old
version of the test: Upon arrival, they must pass a standardized test to
measure their speaking proficiency.  Many pass with ease–but those
that struggle are restricted from teaching classes until their spoken
English rises to meet certain standards.

According to a recent New York Times article
Ohio University students who fail the oral test must practice in
computer labs using speech-analysis software. They record audio or video
of themselves then transcribe those recordings verbatim–an exercise
one hopes their future undergraduate students will consequently be

The article says that Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Washington already have laws requiring that instructors be intelligible, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and similar bills have been introduced in many other states. So we may see
similar programs popping up at other universities with large international
graduate student populations. That should be music to the ears of
prospective American science undergraduates.