They sit in the classroom, quiet and polite, waiting for you to speak. They look at you attentively when you do speak, but you have no idea if they understood anything you just said. Then, after a slight pause, your interpreter steps in. He/she does his/her best to explain to the class what your thoughts, comments, and ideas consist of, however, you are not sure communication really occurred. This is the challenge of teaching to non-English speaking students.
Typically these students are young adults learning English as a second language who have already attended some college in their home country. Here are some techniques that have helped me to successfully penetrate the cultural barrier and make the classroom experience more enjoyable and meaningful for all parties:
Rely on Your Interpreter
I have found it helpful to establish a relationship with the interpreter by allowing him or her to elaborate on your lecture. He/she can advise you when you give an example the students cannot relate to and suggest a better one. The students can ask the interpreter for clarification if they do not feel comfortable speaking directly to the instructor. He/she can also explain cultural differences and thus avoid confusion and misunderstandings. It also works well to speak in simple words with short thought blocks rather than collegiate-level sentences. The goal is to communicate, hot to confuse your students or your interpreter. One trick is to prepare your lecture notes a week ahead of schedule and share them with the interpreter. This gives him/her time to review the material and anticipate any trouble spots. Many topics and concepts in English do not have a direct translation, so the interpreter must use English which further slows the rate of understanding. Once I asked a student about how minorities were treated in his country. The interpreter explained that the student had difficulty understanding the question, not because it was difficult, but because the class did not understand the concept of minorities.
Language Barrier Is the Small Issue. Cultural Barrier Is the Big Issue.
Although the language barrier can seem huge, the real barrier is cultural. Student names may be hard to remember and pronounce, but making the effort to do so, as well as learning a few words of their language, will help your relationship tremendously. The class can be easily side-tracked due to a lack of cultural understanding. There will be times when the entire class must stop to discuss a cultural difference or misunderstanding before the actual lecture can continue. Traditions, food, clothing, religion, minority and women's roles, and laws are the most common points of confusion. Unfortunately, many individuals' concept of U.S. culture is formed from watching old television shows like "Happy Days" or "The Dukes of Hazard." Often, this only serves to further exacerbate the cultural confusion. One student kept asking where he could purchase an American hat. Thinking he might mean a baseball cap, I suggested a sporting goods store. After further discussion, I realized he wanted a cowboy hat "just like John Wayne wears."
Classroom Pace and Feel
One lesson I learned is to adjust my presentations to a slower classroom pace when working with non-English speaking students. When working with an interpreter, everything takes twice as long. It is important to be concise and precise, so as not to compromise content. However, it is still necessary to teach the entire subject. One solution is to arrive for class early and/or stay late after class, so students can ask questions one-on-one rather than using precious class time. Another approach is to use diagrams and pictures to …