Lost in Translation: Supporting Bilingual Students
When freshman Karina Aserraf walked into her first class at Tufts, she didn’t expect her language to be the hardest part. After her first quiz in Introduction to Child Development, she noticed that close to none of the points she lost were related to the material, but to the confusing fill-in-the-blank format of the quiz.
Aserraf, who is from Venezuela, grew up with Spanish as her first language, only learning English later. “For the quiz you need to have a sense of grammatical rules that I only have the basics of,” Aserraf explained, “I learned English by hearing. I can’t infer the meaning of fill in the blanks when they’re all complex sentences.”
International students face a wide spectrum of factors to adjust to when transitioning into a new culture in the United States. In this period of immense change, they shouldn’t have to worry about professor support being a hurdle, too.
Taking charge, Karina spoke to her professor about the problem, who reminded her how language based the assessments are before referring her to the class’ TA. “She told me to reread everything multiple times, but it’s over 100 pages. It’s impossible and time consuming.” Even if Aserraf could find the time to reread the textbook, it wouldn’t be enough. “No matter how well I know the chapters, it doesn’t mean I’ll understand.”
While she does believe her professor understood her problem, he hasn’t done anything about it. Refusing to not give up, Aserraf tried the International Center where she found herself confronted with similar advice. “I went seeing if they had tips for me, frequent words on tests, anything,” she recounted. “They told me again to reread.” Aserraf recalls that they told her to bring a dictionary to exams to look up words she didn’t know, “but I would look up every word and never finish the test.”
The issue doesn’t stop after freshman year. Junior Maureen Kalimba Isimbi, 20, is from a tight knit community in rural Rwanda, a place she calls everyone is proud to belong to. She studies Human Factors Engineering. According to her, the routine has been set in stone for decades: professors come in, give their lecture, pack up their things, and leave. “Of course there have been challenges socially to being international,” she says, “but the real challenges are in the classroom.”
Isimbi recalls being in the classroom “a system you’re not used to. It’s your first time writing a paper in English… you’re expected to do well. That’s where you’re like ‘oh my God, I wish I was not an international student.’”
This was not a one-time experience for students like Isimbi and Aserraf; it’s most of the time. “Professors should know [that] in their classes, there are international students. Be ready to be asked those questions and provide the answers. They just give you things and expect you to do well. Especially technical stuff like engineering, professors will just be like “that’s the way it is,’” Isimbi says.
It’s no secret that the support of professors and faculty are vital to all students’ experiences, international or domestic. In 2017, the American Council on Education summarized the importance of caring educators and student outcomes. The more engaged and cared for a student feels in the classroom, the more likely they are to learn and further their education.
Some—if not most— professors are supportive, understanding, and encouraging. But despite the plethora of strong educators, a single experience with the wrong professor can leave a student discouraged and struggling. “[Professors] should be actively knowing these social things that people experience that can actually ruin the whole college experience,” Isimbi says, reflecting on her past Tufts professors.
This problem is only destined to increase if action isn’t taken. With international students rising—over one million in the 2016 – 2017 school year compared to 700,000 in 2009 – 2010 according to US News—professors will need to adapt their instruction to meet the needs of significant portions of their classes. From the Tufts Class of 2022 alone, there are 162 foreign citizens. Furthermore, over 37 percent of students at Tufts are students of color, many of whom did not learn English as their first language.
Despite the numbers, Aserraf still feels alone in the process. “Tufts has percentages of how many people are international. It’s just to seem like a diverse college. They’re not actually helping international students do well.” While Aserraf has found friends in other international students, namely the Latin American club, she still feels like an international outsider. Of Tufts’ non-international students, she said, “They grew up in American schools. They speak English; they’re used to this.”
Isimbi also noted that the barrier is not only in language, but also in culture. “I remember in my first year I had a physics class, and they used to ask us questions about American movies and I’d be like, ‘I’ve never seen that. How am I supposed to know?’” While American professors should not have to cut out references to American history and popular culture, the grade shouldn’t be tied to something some of their students have never had access to.
At a liberal arts institution, especially one that prides itself on its diversity and international population, it is important to ensure all students feel equally secure in their education and care. Professors need to have a stronger, more empathetic understanding of the students in their class if they care about the well-being and academic success of their students. Aserraf believes this is possible with some work, offering solutions that would aid students in her position: create an international advisor to check in with students. Check in on essays, on tests, “all those things that can be difficult in the beginning.” Workshops. Or maybe it’s as simple as just listening to students when they ask for help.