When Hyeryung Hwang first started work as a teaching assistant at the University of Minnesota, she asked a fellow non-native English speaker how long it would take to speak English fluently.
“She told me, ‘I don’t want to discourage you, but it actually took 10 years,’” said Hwang, who is South Korean and a third-year doctoral candidate in English literature.
One-third of the 4,223 graduate assistants at the University are international students, according to University data. Graduate assistants can be hired to teach, research or perform administrative duties at the University.
Though not all international teaching assistants face language barriers, many share both the challenges and benefits of working in an educational system different from where they grew up.
Language differences, the way classes are taught and the relationship between American students and instructors are all factors that play into that experience — and, international graduate students say, are all reasons to go abroad in the first place.
Before graduate students who are non-native English speakers are allowed to work as teaching assistants, they must pass an English proficiency test.
Options include the Internet-based Test of English as a Foreign Language and the Spoken English Test for Teaching Assistants, which was designed in the University’s Center for Teaching and Learning and implemented two years ago.
If students do not pass one of these two tests, they are placed in one of three CTL courses depending on their score. In turn, this determines the types of TA duties they are allowed to perform. Though, ultimately, individual departments decide whether to hire a TA.
Colleen Meyers, CTL’s education specialist, said courses are designed to follow a three-pronged approach. Students work not just on their English-language skills, but on cross-cultural understanding and teaching skills, too.
When working on English-language skills, Meyers said, coursework focuses on identifying the audience for which students are speaking — in the case of the University, students who speak North American English.
“We don’t try to ‘fix them,’” she said. Rather, the coursework makes students aware of differences in the way they speak — not putting emphasis on certain words, for example, or speaking quickly — and works on strategies to help them compensate.
Building English skills
Hwang passed the TOEFL with a score high enough to qualify her for teaching.
Still, she said, she was very nervous her second semester at the University when she TA-ed her first course.
At that time, Hwang said she understood only about 60 percent of what people were saying. She often compared herself to her fellow TA, a native English speaker.
“I always thought that it was going to be much better for my students to have [her] as their TA,” she said.
Though she was worried her students would find the language barrier problematic, there were no complaints when she received her teaching evaluations.
Elita Poplavska, a fourth-year doctoral candidate originally from Latvia in social and administrative pharmacy, said in the beginning she had trouble expressing herself to students.
Explanations would be met with blank stares and a change of subject, she said.
“At the beginning, everything was hard, even ordering food in the cafeteria,” she said.
But some non-native English speakers like Jewon Woo, a fifth-year English doctoral candidate who is originally from South Korea, are confident in their ability to communicate with students.
Though Woo said she “wrote in English in college but never spoke,” she was unconcerned about the language barrier. She spent some time at the University of Northern Iowa in an exchange program and developed her English-speaking skills there.
She TA-ed at the University for the first time in 2008. The course, Introduction to American Literature, was a big lecture with three other TAs.
“I don’t think my experience is extraordinary because I am an international student,” she said. “I mean, [the other TAs and I] shared the same nervousness.”
Adapting to a new system
Even without the language barrier, international TAs may face adaptation to other aspects of the teaching experience.
For Woo, comprehension issues sometimes arise when students use American slang in class.
“Actually, those moments make a kind of ice breaker, so it makes more conversation,” she said.
The relationship between students and instructors in the U.S. is very different from South Korea, Hwang said.
South Korean college courses are more lecture-based, and students are often too shy to speak in class, she said.
“But here,” she said, “I got to know the importance of getting to know each other. Even though you’re a professor, you are not the one who dominates the class.”
The accessibility of instructors at the University can also be surprising, said Akshya Saxena, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in cultural studies and comparative literature.
“[In India] we used to have big lecture classes, and you only had a certain kind of relationship with the professor because you couldn’t always go chat with that person, and there weren’t any TAs to facilitate that process, either,” she said.
Saxena, like many other graduate students, said she ultimately hopes to work as a professor.
Though Saxena hasn’t decided yet where she wants to teach, she wants to integrate her experiences at the University into her work.
“I think there are definitely merits of the system as we have it here, and that’s also the point of traveling abroad and generally experiencing different systems,” she said.
In Latvia, Poplavska said, there are a lot of Russian students who may not feel comfortable speaking Latvian when they reach college.
Should she teach in Latvia after graduation, she said her experience at the University will influence the way she relates to her students.
“I think I’ll be much more sensitive to my students, no matter what language I use,” she said.
Hwang, who decided to pursue a degree in the U.S. initially because of the career opportunities it would provide, said she plans to apply for professor jobs in the U.S. and South Korea.
“Even if I go back to Korea, I think I will apply what I learned here when it comes to teaching.”
Though Hwang was discouraged when told how long it would take to speak English fluently, it resulted in a piece of teaching advice that she has followed ever since.
“[She said], ‘just do what you can do at this moment,’” Hwang said. “‘You can be pretty frank. You should show yourself as you are to your students, and your students will understand you.’”
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