I am a senior postdoc in a research lab mentoring a first-year graduate student from another country, and he has very poor English:
- Would it be rude or unethical or just silly to suggest he improve his English?
- If it is appropriate, what should I suggest he do, and how can I do that without coming off rude or racist?
Person X is bad enough with English that it is holding back our ability to do science. It is very hard to understand what he is saying, and he has trouble understanding very basic (e.g., first grade) level sentences spoken fairly slowly. It is so frustrating at this point that I basically try to communicate via email, which is sort of unfair to him. I am his main source of scientific guidance in the lab, as the PI is not usually around.
If it matters, he is from China and in his 20s (I only bring that up because maybe there are cultural or language issues here I should be sensitive to, but also he isn't a teenager so maybe he will have trouble improving).
I should add that most students, by this time in their tenure as grad students, have improved dramatically in their English (we have a lot of international students). His case is unusual in that he has really not improved at all. My guess is that this is because he speaks his native tongue at home (I have noticed this) and doesn't speak English much outside of lab.
Communication is crucial in science, and this person cannot communicate well (in English). OTOH, I worry about violating all sorts of professional or personal ethical boundaries, and offending him, if I bring the topic up.
Another option is that it is pretty much useless. That is, he is in his 20s, and isn't going to improve significantly, so maybe I should just look for advice on how to make the best of the situation. I'm not saying this is true, just throwing it out there as a possibility.
There has been a related question about students in classrooms. This is different, as I work with this person almost every day in a laboratory setting ( Should we tell students they need to improve their English?).