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Short version
I am a senior postdoc in a research lab mentoring a first-year graduate student from another country, and he has very poor English:

  1. Would it be rude or unethical or just silly to suggest he improve his English?
  2. If it is appropriate, what should I suggest he do, and how can I do that without coming off rude or racist?

Longer version
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?).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion or discussing answers posted as a comment; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please post answers as answers and perform any necessary discussion there. – Wrzlprmft Apr 15 '18 at 7:31
  • "That is, he is in his 20s, and isn't going to improve significantly" That is just a wrong assumption. Sure it gets harder the older you get, but immersion combined with motivation works well for adults and he is still young. I learned most of my English as an adult. My spoken English is not excellent (because I lack practice with native speakers), but I have no problems communicating. – Roland Apr 18 '18 at 8:18
  • @Roland fair enough. I was just asking, trying to cover all the possibilities here, not assuming anything (fwiw, I am awful with learning new natural languages and am ~30) – Robonut Apr 18 '18 at 16:55
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As an adviser or mentor it can be interesting to learn how the person you are advising/mentoring is feeling. Based on the response, you might gain a clearer idea on how to approach finding a solution. It seems that the individual in question understands written English quite well given you mention you have chosen to communicate via email. I would suggest sending them a message asking them how they are feeling with the program so far and with their work in the lab, and what are some challenges he has faced or is facing. You could ask whether he feels his English proficiency has been problematic so far, and add a couple of other items to like working with the equipment and colleagues, for example. This opens a space for conversation that is minimally face-threatening to the individual and invites them to seek advice and guidance to help their better functioning in the lab.

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    This is such a compassionate and thoughtful response to the OP's problem! I would add (as some have pointed out), the student might have problem speaking, but may understand you or can read fairly well. – PandaPants Apr 14 '18 at 16:52
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    It is really hard to read something this long without paragraphs. – Rui F Ribeiro Apr 14 '18 at 18:07
  • He is better with written English, for sure, though definitely not good--I have had to work on this with with him. But your idea is interesting to make this part of a more general discussion. I tend to want to be more focused and direct in my approach. But even if it is wrapped up in a larger context like that, the specifics of this are really what I care about for this particular question. E.g., I'm not that concerned about if his dog is sick. :) – Robonut Apr 16 '18 at 13:50
11

We see this often in high-tech and when I teach both graduate & undergraduate computer engineering.

The thing is: For international students who recently came here (I assume US) usually it is that (from his point of view) you are talking too fast and pronounce words in a weird way... which reminded me of a scene from old British TV show "yes minister": https://youtu.be/sQhgjl9qk2w?t=16m40s

You mention he is in his 1st year so probably he hasn't got used to hearing American spoken language esp if he is not trying to speak English outside the lab.

But: we care about solutions here. So, if you need to directly communicate with him, then use a laptop in between both of you and switch on the voice typing. it is now a standard feature in all operating systems. Typically these students are proficient with written language and "Business English" so that should help him keeping up with what you are saying.

A simple way to justify it to him is to say something like: I noticed you have hard time keeping up with the way I talk and probably I also speak too fast. I think this may help us communicate better.

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    So in your opinion you should support the student no matter what and implement pretty ridiculous measures just to be able to communicate? If english is the language of the course then the students simply need to know enough english to be able to do it and from what OP describes this is just not the case. And yes, if the student is working hard and is actually improving you should help there, but if that's not the case as described here it's imo wrong to waste your time while you could actually teach other students. – DSVA Apr 14 '18 at 0:24
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    @DSVA opinions about what should and should not has no value. The facts are this is a student that was admitted to the university which means he did pass the entry requirements. So, a TA/mentor in a lab has no power to change that or change university policies or even make a stink out of it without tarnishing his reputation. So, we look for solutions.. after all this is why he asked the question here. – Elkady Apr 14 '18 at 1:31
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    Yes, the student has met the formal requirements, that doesn't necessarely mean that his language skills are good enough, we are having this problem all the time. Now if you teach in a way that someone who knows the language at that required level should understand everything and the student isn't able to follow at all then that's not your problem and imo you shouldn't do a lot of extra work to still try to teach those students. Why would letting them fail (after beeing sure that the language level you use to teach isn't too high) not be an option? – DSVA Apr 14 '18 at 9:08
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    @DSVA There may be some confusion here. This doesn't sound like a case of a formal class, where you're teaching 30 students, only one of which is a problem, where if you fail them you'll be rid of them when the semester ends and only they will suffer for it. This is a research lab, where there's only one or two students being taken in per year, each of whom, depending on department/program, are expected to stick around for ~5 years, and whose efforts feed into the larger plans for the lab. The fallout from "just let them fail" is substantially different. – R.M. Apr 14 '18 at 12:23
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    To the points raised here: this is a PhD student working in a lab. If it was a student in a class I wouldn't care that much, frankly. – Robonut Apr 14 '18 at 19:11
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I have taught a few thousand Chinese students by now and observed several common problems.

Most are able to learn English very well, but if they don't, the problem in my experience is one of these:

About 1 in 20 problematic cases there is a learning disability, speech impediment, or some other physiological problem. These cases are very rare at the university level, out of ~3000 students I had about 4 of those.

About 19 out of 20 is they lack motivation. In China there is a habit to do a bare minimum to achieve a goal. Also most students study what they study because their parents chose it for them and they don't really care as long as it makes their parents happy. This applies to adults as much as to teens. Also many use academia to get out of China and move their wealth overseas. Academic goals, including mastering English, may have a distant priority.

With that being said, first you should make sure he is aware that his English is sub-par for the job. Just let him know straight up, it's OK. In fact, it's your obligation to give him feedback on critical issues. Chances are he will improve slowly. Google Translate is very very good nowadays with Chinese translation. Be pragmatic and make the best out of it. Use his math skills or whatever he is strong at and work around his lack of English. If it is not good enough, use the standard legal procedures at your university to deal with it.

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    This person definitely lacks motivation in general, coming off entitled and spoiled when it comes to doing basic lab stuff. Also, it is very unusual to not see drastic improvement in English after a year: I have seen such improvements with the 10 or so other international students I have worked with. – Robonut Apr 14 '18 at 19:13
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First, you should talk to your department head, your HR, and maybe even your school's legal counsel, to see how much authority you have in telling a student to improve his English, or possibly fail out of your Science program.

If it were up to me, I'd designate a person (or preferably a panel) who specializes in teaching English as a Second Language to judge your student's progress in improving his English. These people would also be able to recommend corrective actions and a personal plan for improvement. And alternatively, if the student doesn't improve quickly enough, I would make these people the ones who decide whether he fails out of your Science program for language reasons, or not (although, I would make them take into account your academic experience with him, ultimately, I would want them to have the final say over this issue).

And if it were up to me, I'd also designate a former student (or a current faculty) of the same national origin (or at least foreign-born) who successfully struggled with the same problem to mentor him on this issue and to advocate on his behalf. As an English non-native speaker and as someone with a heavy accent myself, I find it's a lot easier for me to constructively criticize others with worse accents than mine since I have one myself.

And if neither of these options are available to you, I would bring it up myself at the very least. Improving English is a necessary part of passing your Science program. And if he doesn't improve fast enough, he may fail out of your program. He needs to realize that.

As to him speaking Chinese with friends or family members on his cell phone, stay away from mentioning any of this to him or to anyone else. You don't want to micro-manage his learning of English. He's an adult, he should already know that if he speaks English at home, he will improve his English. Besides, as someone who has power over him, you do not want to meddle with his personal life, even with a well-meaning off-hand comment, or you could get yourself into legal trouble.

  • This is very useful stuff, and it sounds like you have thought about it a lot. I see this as a kind of nuclear option, and will explore the possibilities on my campus. There is no way he would be let go, because of sociopolitical reasons in the department. I am curious what his TOEFL score was, though. Great point about micromanaging: I wouldn't do that, and frankly I would not usually notice things like that, but with him I have just noticed he isn't doing as well as the other international students and have been keyed in to possible explanations. – Robonut Apr 16 '18 at 13:40
  • @Robonut, Even if he could never be let go, I'm sure he doesn't know that, and so perhaps, that threat could be used to light a fire under him. Unfortunately, the TOEFL doesn't test for speaking abilities, nor technical language. And to be accepted at your program, he must have had a passing score at the very least. – Stephan Branczyk Apr 17 '18 at 3:09
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I suggest recommending him to attend a language improvement course that emphasizes conversations. It seems he knows English (evidenced by his understanding of emails). There are language centers that teach English all over the world, but it could still be overwhelming for the student to figure out how to register, etc. So I suggest you check out one for him and recommend him directly to book a course there.

That's the easy part, the hard part is to bring this topic up. Maybe a friendly thoughtful email asking him if he can follow up with conversations or if 'we should talk slower' (even if you already do, but just to show him you're also willing to do something to improve the situation). Then later in the email you can suggest the language center. If you want to be extra nice, you can also tell him that there are many dialects of English and even if you speak perfect English it might require some practice to understand all of them.

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