It is a common misconception that outside of their English classes students need not worry about such skills as interpretation of text and clarity of verbal statement. However, this is far from the truth.
Young Gee, Chair of the English as a Second Language Division, sees first-hand how students struggle across the curriculum to overcome the language barrier. In the worst-case scenario, a student may fail a class multiple times. Sometimes personal issues interfere with a student’s work. But, if communications skills are weak, the student will stumble, whatever his or her accomplishments may be back in his or her home country.
“Language is tied to culture,” said Gee. Even where language is not the only issue, as with a student’s maturity level, non-native speakers “may need more time to assimilate how to study in an American college setting.”
For example, if one’s cultural background includes more passivity or formality in relating to teachers, that is dysfunctional in an educational setting where the teacher demands more vocalization. Students must feel confident as English speakers.
Beth Pfluegger of the music department has observed that less confident students often sit near their friends for help; unfortunately, that can be even more disruptive to learning when it leads to talking in class.
Pfluegger said that there is a misconception that music study is totally universal and intuitive. Music theory and appreciation are academic and require reading comprehension and the verbal statement of original thought. She asks students to select lines of music and analyze their importance in context.
“Talking about music is hard,” Pfluegger said. “Expressing your personal feelings is already [difficult], and then applying them logically to an abstract concept requires sophisticated language ability.”
Even teaching musical performance can be challenging when it comes to talking about all the physical and emotive nuances of playing, Pfluegger said.
Like improper music notation, technical errors in writing, such as leaving off word endings, are evidence that students need help with language skills, said anthropology Professor Eric Johnston.
The primary obstacle he sees among students is reading comprehension. When students are weak in reading skills, the information they attempt to reproduce in essays is fuzzy and they lose time deciphering the wording on exams.
“Anthropology is based on interpretation,” said Johnston. The “fun” of English literature is in how it’s nuanced, and science is no different, he said.
Johnston said that his students who come through English 120 or 101 are more likely to succeed than those who haven’t, but he and other teachers can only recommend English. He expects that if an English prerequisite were mandated for a general level science classes, enrollment would drop off.
Those who do not complete the prerequisite survive, statistically speaking. Nonetheless, he said, “That doesn’t imply they got all they could out of the course.”
To biology Professor Ron Harlan, language proficiency is essential, whatever the discipline.
Even to a native English speaker, biology can seem like another language, Harlan said, rapidly reciting the title of a paper he wrote: “Sperm Storage and Sperm Competition as Determinants of Sexual Dimorphism in the Embiotocid Surf Perch, Micrometris Minimus.”
“People think biology is symbolic,” he said. “Biology is steeped in conceptual material. You have to be both eloquent and precise to talk about [it].” Essays comprise approximately 25 to 40 percent of his exams.
If one of Harlan’s students is struggling, he consults his transcript and often finds that the student has not completed English 101. And if they are concurrently enrolled in ESL classes, they don’t do as well as students who are in English classes and writing essays.
“Don’t tell me this isn’t English class,” he warns his students. “Every class [in every school] in this country is an English class. The ability to communicate.