This is the lament of some college students. How should students react when their college professors have an accent?

College Instructors with Accents

The reality is that many college instructors were not born in this country and do not have English as their first language. This remains a small percentage of all college instructors, but it becomes a huge problem for some students.

There is no data to support this claim, but most in higher education would agree that more part-time instructors have accents than their full-time counterparts. The majority of instructors at most colleges are adjuncts. Adjunct instructors are hired based on their education and professional experience. The pool of adjunct instructors is filled with professionals who were born in other countries, instructors with accents. This is particularly true in the areas of engineering, mathematics and science. It is also common in computer related courses.

Students have so much to gain from these professionals who can draw on real-world experience. Often, they have more expertise in the practical or applied aspects of the courses they teach than their full-time counterparts.

Students Complain about College Instructors with Accents

No college would hire an instructor who could not be understood. However, during the interviewing process candidates may not be nervous. When the term commences, that may change. These instructors may speak more rapidly which makes it even more difficult for some students to understand them.

Understanding Your College Instructor

How can college students understand instructors with foreign accents? There are techniques they can and should employ. The in-class techniques include:

  1. Take a seat near the front of the classroom.
  2. Respectfully ask the instructor, “Could you say that again?”
  3. Ask questions if the instructors says, “Are there any questions?”
  4. Ask the instructor for printed handouts.
  5. Ask the instructor to post his/her notes or PowerPoint slides online or to pass out printed copies.

There is much more that students can and should do outside the classroom.  The most important are:

  1. Study the Reading Assignment – Some students learn best by hearing, not by reading.  However, reading and studying are still required and even more important when the instructor has an accent.  Students should pay especially attention to terms in textbooks that are new to them.  Identifying and studying them will increase students’ abilities to understand them when spoken with an accent.  (Note:  This advice applies to any course that exposes students to new terminology, not just those taught by instructors with accents.)
  2. Speak to the Instructor – Students should confront instructors outside the classroom and explain their dilemma.

Making the Most of an Instructor with an Accent

First of all, within a few days, perhaps a couple class sessions, students can learn to understand their instructors.  This is natural.  (If listening was not an effective way to learn to understand spoken language, babies would need to find new techniques. 🙁 ) With no special effort, people learn to understand those with accents.  It simply requires a desire to do so and a little time.

Students need to do a reality check.  There are two issues.  First, in today’s world it is virtually impossible to avoid people with accents.  Learning to work with and understand others with accents is an important skill everyone needs to develop.  A student may find it difficult to learn from an instructor with an accent.  But what will happen when that same student receives critical medical advice from a doctor with a thick accent.  Or what will happen when, as an employee, this individual cannot understand the directions his/her supervisor gave.  In the first case it could mean unnecessary suffering, and in the second case it could mean being fired.

There will be a few situations wherein students have a legitimate complaint.  If these students have done their part in terms of studying and confronting their instructors with their concerns, they should take action.  These are the situations in which students should seek help and advice from others.  They can go to a college counselor for advice, or they can go to the hiring authority for advice.  In the latter case, this might be the dean or associate dean.

© 2011 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

August 24, 2011


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