Chia Suan Chong, in her article “5 reasons why native speakers need to learn to speak English internationally,” outlined five very valid reasons that should make many native speakers rethink how they speak with non-native speakers. The advice was generally applicable but still seemed to focus on those who do business internationally, travel abroad, or encounter tourists.
However, there are two perhaps more compelling reasons that I believe this article (and her subsequent related ones, all worth a read) missed. It is my belief that not only should native speakers become more aware of their speaking style and adjust as necessary but that universities should offer courses that include international communication strategies to help domestic students with today’s increasingly multilingual landscape.
Here are the two reasons why:
1. International students are increasing on campuses throughout the United States
In 2014/2015, undergraduate international student enrollment increased by about 10%. Campus populations vary around the country, but the international student population can make up anywhere from 4% to 20% or higher. For example, My own university has an undergraduate international population of 4% and a graduate international population of 13%. MIT‘s undergraduate international population is almost 10%, while their graduate international population is 41%. Indeed, a great majority of international students are graduate students and account for about 50% of the graduate population in certain fields (i.e. STEM). These numbers are likely similar in Canada, the UK, and other traditional native-speaking countries.
All of this means that it is becoming increasingly common for native speaking university students to interact with international students on an almost daily basis. As classmates, members of student organizations, or just hanging out around campus – communicating with non-native speakers is or will soon be an everyday fact of life. Being able to effectively communicate with them is going to be very important for social and academic success.
While some may argue that international students should “learn to speak American” the reality is that international students face numerous obstacles. The fact that they have been admitted to university (typically) means that they are already able to communicate on everyday topics and academic content. They shouldn’t really be expected to master regional and local vernacular; stay up to date with the latest idioms, sayings, and phrases; or have any clue to nuanced pop cultural references. Perhaps this will come with time, if it is seen as necessary. However, in the meantime, domestic students who are adept at speaking English as an international language will have all the advantages international communication bring while at the same time helping international students transition to college life in the US. Furthermore, they will better be able to work with and communicate with their international classmates, enriching the university experience for all involved.
2. International faculty are increasing on campuses throughout the United States
Not only is the student population increasingly multicultural but so are faculty at universities around the US (and, again, likely in other English-speaking countries). In 2008, the percentage of foreign-born faculty was well above 15 percent. In certain fields such as STEM, that percentage could be double. The fact that they have PhDs and perhaps decades of experience does not mean the basic tenets of international communication should be ignored. Clear and effective communication will be of benefit to all who are involved.
What’s more, the very fact that foreign-born faculty have an accent may cause problems in the classroom. A study that looked at comments made about accents on “Rate My Professors” found that faculty with non-native accents, especially Asian accents, were often rated very poorly on “clarity” and “helpfulness” or sometimes received comments about their accent despite it being considered clear. While some of this could be attributed to xenophobia or cultural biases, unconscious cognitive biases may also play a role. Psychologists from the University of Chicago found that the increased difficulty in processing foreign accents leads listeners to doubt the speakers credibility. In other words, foreign accents unconsciously cause us to have negative feelings (e.g. distrust) towards non-native speakers.
Having biases – conscious or otherwise – and distrusting professors does not bode well for a successful university experience. This is more evidence that domestic students should not only learn to speak international English but also have as much experience with international students as possible. The social and cultural benefits are numerous, but there is a cognitive benefit as well. Exposure to accents over time decreases the difficulty of understanding them (ask any ESL teacher this), which may translate to better experiences in the classroom.
A Possible Solution
Nicholas Subtirelu, the author of the “Rate My Professor study, says that his research points to “a need to address linguistic diversity at universities — to find ways to help people accept and work across their differences.” The trend on many campuses nationwide is to foster an environment that respects diversity. This is often framed as racial, gender, or sexual orientation diversity, but it must include linguistic diversity as well.
I think a first great place to start is what many universities term First Year Studies programs. These are typically extended orientation-type programs that include topics of time management, study skills, health care, etc. These are voluntary courses but well-enrolled at most universities. For that reason, these types of courses should teach international communication strategies or mix domestic and international students to foster the type of encounters and understanding necessary to help both groups have mutually successful university experiences.
(Please check out Chia’s article “How to prepare students for international communication“.)