I am assisting a statistics course in a university, and my main job in the course is conducting problem solving sessions. The course is taught in English, and students interact with me in English. However, there is one particular student who keeps using their native language. Whenever he does that, I reply in English, hoping that he would start using English. But he doesn't.

I am sure that everybody does understand what he says because all the students are from the same part of the country. But I find it quite awkward. On the other hand, I feel that if I request him to use English, he might take it offensively, or he might not be able to express what he wants to say clearly. Should I simply ignore this particular case and move on? Or should I tell him somehow? If yes, what is the best way to convey this?

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    What is the native language of the country this course is being taught? English? – Mandrill Oct 26 at 17:26
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    Perhaps it is good to be aware that some universities have a policy that students can ask questions in the native language. I attended courses in Norway which were taught in English, but students were allowed to ask questions in Scandinavian languages. This was a university policy. The professor would translate the question to English when some foreign students did not understand it, then proceeded to answer in English. – Szabolcs Oct 26 at 21:43
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    It would be useful, perhaps, to know in which country you are teaching, since the answer could be somewhat country-specific. – Lorenzo Donati Oct 27 at 8:50
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    I don't understand this oversensitivity towards kindness, offensiveness, rudeness and the like in the academic environments. Just be direct and explicit face to face. Efficient and effective. The type of person I find offensive is who tries to communicate indirectly and fake being nice so that I won't find them offensive. I am not joking. I'd prefer someone very rudely, but directly, telling me in person the same thing than someone faking being nice. – Haggra Oct 27 at 18:36
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    I think @Szabolcs gave an easy and reasonable solution. Whenever any student asks you in a language different than the course language, repeat what the question was in English, and answer in English. However just as a side note, I wouldn't think it rude to ask the student to talk in English - after all, if courses are in English, students would be expected to have a proper command of the language. – xyz Oct 29 at 9:40

13 Answers 13

up vote 57 down vote accepted

My suggestion is that you either let it go, if everyone understands what the student has said, or that you explore the situation with the student during office hours. Perhaps it is just easier for this student to say subtle things as needed in his/her native language than in English. It is fine if you make an explicit request, but be prepared to yield if the student has good reasons.

It is fine that you continue to reply in English, but it wouldn't be fine if you somehow embarrass the student about language use.

Be thankful, actually, that the student is willing to participate and ask questions no matter the language. Too many students leave questions unasked when other students have the same questions but also don't ask them. That makes education less efficient.

If this is the US, by the way, we are a multilingual country already, in spite of what some "nativists" want you to believe and want to impose on you and me.

Of course the answer would be different if this were a language course, rather than statistics.

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    I don't think the country is relevant if "the course is taught in English". IMO, all interactions in a given course should be conducted in that course's language -- in this case, English -- because while this specific case all the students (are ashamed to admit they don't) know the native language, it's entirely possible that in another English course, people who don't know the native language could be enrolled. – Nic Hartley Oct 25 at 18:07
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    @NicHartley I beg to differ. One thing is to impose the native language of a country even though many people in the class are foreigns, another totally different thing is to impose a foreign language in course taught to native tax payers that are being taught in their native homeland. When that is done in a foreign language course that is just fine (because it will improve learning that foreign language). Maybe the OP question should be: How to deal with people that don't accept pointless and random impositions? Human nature explains the later quite well. – Mandrill Oct 26 at 17:34
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    @Mandrill Your conspiracy theories are amusing but irrelevant. Does anything in the question say (a) the official language of the country isn't English? (b) that this course is only offered in English, as opposed to this section being in English? (c) that it's an issue for any of the students, including the one insisting on using their native language? (d) that there's absolutely no demand whatsoever for a course in English? (e) that "tax payers" are paying in any way for the education? No? i didn't think so. – Nic Hartley Oct 26 at 20:15
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    I've participated in university level classes taught in English in a non English speaking country. This had a purpose: to help people get fluent in the English terms used in this particular field of study. – zundi Oct 26 at 21:40
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    @Mandrill You still have b-e to answer for, and as noted by zundi, (f) is the field of study primarily in English, and is it therefore beneficial for the course to happen in that language, so people don't try to go into it and find themselves hitting a wall of extra-incomprehensible jargon? – Nic Hartley Oct 26 at 21:51

If you want a non-confrontation approach, simply repeat the question in English before answering it.

Hearing the translation may help the student in question see how to phrase their questions in English. It also give a polite hint that the question should have been asked in English.

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    Unfortunately this sort of implicit approach assumes that, somehow, the student will just "get it". I don't see any mechanism for that. If you want a change in behavior, be explicit. But you can do so in private rather than in public and avoid the confrontational aspects. Repeating the question may have other benefits, of course, to assure the student that you really understand it. But this isn't a solution to the stated problem. – Buffy Oct 24 at 18:57
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    This answer can be seen as a solution to the stated problem. One way to deal with the problem is to say that the reason why this is a problem is that other students might not understand since the course is taught in english, and repeating the posed question in english helps with that. (tbh, I don't fully understand why this is a problem, since OP assumes everybody understands this person) @Buffy – lucidbrot Oct 24 at 19:13
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    @Buffy I agree with you. I hate trying to guess other people's "hints". It's extremely subjective what an "hint" is or what's the meaning behind the hint. If you need to tell me something just say so, or I'll keep going down my road no batter how hard you get at hinting. At some point I'll just continue for pettiness, because I find disrespectful that adults are unable to talk to other people and have to resolve to "hinting" for long periods of time when just talking once could have solved the issue. – Bakuriu Oct 24 at 19:16
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    I would suggest repeating what the student said in English, and then wait for the student to repeat your English translation. (If he doesn't do that at first, prompt him to do so: "Now you.") This way he can learn by doing, he will be expressing in English the thing he had been trying to say, and that should build familiarity, confidence and habit. – joeytwiddle Oct 25 at 8:04
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    you got to sit him down and talk to him. People don't take hints. – user32882 Oct 25 at 10:32

I am assuming that learning how to discuss statistics in English is not specifically part of the course syllabus. If it is, you should simply tell the student to speak English.

If the students' questions are otherwise good, assume the best - that the student simply does not feel confident asking in English.

I have had similar situations in courses before. My approach has been to tell the students that I prefer that they ask questions in the language the course is given, but if they cannot, just ask in another language I can understand, and I will translate the question and answer in English.

Most likely the student is patiently waiting for you to realize that there's no reason to speak in a language that's foreign to everybody in the room if they all share a native language.

Possibly he's worried about the native language suffering "domain loss" where eventually nobody uses it to talk about technical things because everybody has been socialized to use English for that, and he is deliberately trying to counter that tendency. He may actually be spending extra mental effort translating his question from the textbook's English vocabulary into the vernacular, in support of that worthy cause.

So the course description says the course is taught in English -- but you need to ask yourself what is the purpose of that? Back in my university days there were plenty of courses that were announced as being taught in English; this was a way to say it is okay for international students to sign up for this course. If any international students did show up, we'd stick to English for their sake, of course. But if they didn't and the lecturer happened to be native too, everyone would naturally switch back to our own language. Why wouldn't we?

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    One possible reason for teaching in English is to improve the student's language skills by theaching them the appropiate words, phrases, etc. – aqua Oct 25 at 13:45
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    @aqua: If the course was announced in English, then it's presumably using a textbook in English too, which will provide all the words. Where will students learn the appropriate words and phrases in their own language if they are shamed into thinking it is some kind of second-class gibberish cannot be used for technical communication between all native speakers? – Henning Makholm Oct 25 at 13:47
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    Not necessarily, for many of our courses, we did not have textbook only the presentation slides and our notes. In our country, second language (mainly English) teaching is often very poor, thus courses in English definitely improve the student's language skills and their further chances for (academic) career, applying to degrees in foreign countries, etc. – aqua Oct 25 at 14:06
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    For better or worse, English is often the de facto communication language for many industries and accademia internationally. This is likely a significant reason that the class is taught in English, so that the graduates are well equipped for the real world. Allowing the students to use their native language is good for heritage and local communication reasons but not for vocational training. – Daniel Oct 25 at 16:34
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    I don't think this is something an individual student should try to change, no matter how justified or unjustified. – David Thornley Oct 25 at 20:44

I used to be a student in a very similar situation. As I remember, the professor simply interrupted the question with the phrase: "In English please".

Maybe the student does not have enough confidence to speak in English, otherwise, ignoring such a request seem to be highly disrespectful behavior and you should not worry about being assertive with him.

It sounds like you are not sure why student is not following a language rule, and you ask our opinion. We do not know, too. You can invite student to attend your office and discuss it with them. The purpose of discussion is not to understand student's reasons and let it slide. The purpose is to understand student's reason and work out a strategy to resolve them. If student has poor language ability, you can work out a recommendation to take a crash course in English. If student finds the requirement discriminatory and refuses to follow it, you can suggest them to file a formal complaint and intermit their studies until the complaint is answered. Or perhaps there is no valid reason for this behavior — in which case it has to stop.

tl;dr: talk to the student.

"I'm sorry, but this course is taught in English. Please, ask your question in English."

That's it. If the student struggles with question, eg can't find correct words, help them. But it's their job to ask in English. You should help them do their job, but you can't do their job.

The purpose of teaching something in a foreign language is to improve student's language just as much as understanding of the subject. Or, more precisely: to improve area of language particular to the subject. Otherwise, it would have been taught in local language. Using foreign language sacrifices some understanding in order to teach the language. Accepting non-English question defeats this purpose. Your course is just as much about statistic as it is about English.

Disclaimer: all of the above is written with assumption that learning English is an important part of your course, as it is where I live (Poland). There are 2 other options: that the course was meant for international students, but none had shown up and finally that the whole English thing is just an advertising move to make your uni appear "international-ish". Based on your concerns, I assumed that (in your opinion) the English is actually important part of the course. If you have any doubts about the rationale of using English when all participants share a common mother tongue, you should ask your superiors about it.

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    @HenningMakholm In my university, and others around, the purpose of courses in English is actually to improve students' technical English. – fa__ Oct 25 at 13:11
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    @HenningMakholm If there are people not speaking local language, then using it during the course is even bigger problem, further validating my solution. However, OP stated that everyone speaks local language, hence my conclusion that it's in fact an English lesson piggybacked on statistics course. Another option I haven't mentioned would be a vanity course, just to give the uni an "international" vibe. But if that was the case I doubt OP would have issues with breaking the rules. BTW, OP's uni obviously has different opinion than you. – Agent_L Oct 25 at 13:46
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    @Agent_L: Because the course that teaches what they want to learn happens to be announced as being English-taught? In my experience it would be unusual to offer the same course in two different languages simply because there may be some foreign students who want to take it. But plenty of courses are announced as being English-taught for this reason. – Henning Makholm Oct 25 at 14:14
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    @Agent_L, I dunno. At the university I went to we had pretty big lecture halls, so there was generally no need to offer the same course twice in the same year. It appears that the OP is a teaching assistant for auxiliary sessions with a smaller group of students than the entire course. In that case it makes perfect sense to give the plenary lectures in English if there are some foreign students in the room (or perhaps the main lecturer is foreign!), but use the vernacular for exercise sessions in groups that don't have any of those foreign students. – Henning Makholm Oct 25 at 14:27
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    @HenningMakholm English is taught before university but, generally, the level of the students is pretty low. Therefore, it is indeed interesting for students to learn how to discuss about technical matters in English. Courses in English aim at teaching the subject + improving students technical English. As this is a common setup around here, when I read the question I assumed, as this answer did, that this was the OP's case. However, I do not know if it is case and I do understand that it may not be obvious for everybody. – fa__ Oct 25 at 15:48

I am sure that everybody does understand what he says because all the students are from the same part of the country.

I will be blunt: what is your problem then? It's a statistics course, not an English course. Unless you are following some dogma that your local language is, for some reason, not good enough for statistics or whatever, then I don't understand the problem. The student asks a question that everyone present in the class understands, and you answer in a way that everyone understands.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Oct 30 at 1:16

My professor who spoke French was very clear: ask in French, if you asked in English then she did not hear. If you asked in French about how x compared to y then both languages were acceptable.

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    My French improved dramatically when I did my D.U.T Diplome Universitaire Technique... had no choice :) – Solar Mike Oct 24 at 17:01
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    One could argue that there's a difference between a course whose purpose is to teach a foreign language and a course whose purposes is to teach something else (e.g. statistics), but which happens to be conducted in a foreign language. – R.M. Oct 24 at 19:50
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    @SolarMike You might want to edit your answer to clarify. "My french professor" can be interpreted as "professor of my french class". (Additional information about where and under what conditions this happened might help.) -- Also, in that light I'm not sure I understand your second sentence. Acceptable for what? For asking, for answering, for further responses, for quoting English terms in an otherwise French sentence, ...? – R.M. Oct 24 at 20:17
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    Both my french professors did the same for language: the English one teaching French and the French one teaching French... All the other profs in France stuck to French and technical French is a whole new ball game... Had a boss who insisted she, as bi-lingual, could translate anything... She found out she couldn’t translate a technical passage on hydraulic pumps... – Solar Mike Oct 25 at 4:30
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    @SolarMike: I mis-downvoted you because of what R.M. said. Please rephrase your answer... – einpoklum Oct 25 at 6:51

Is English the language they will be using in the workplace/research/whatever context they will be using statistics in? Are the books in English? The rest of my response is under the assumption that both questions are a "yes".

Teaching in a foreign language is doing a disservice to the majority of the class who already agreed to speak English, possibly for reasons like the ones listed above. While cross language use should be used to clarify definitions or bypass language barriers (that's part of your value as a bilingual teacher), allowing a student to unnecessarily assert the use of a different language is putting that student's social/political agenda above the needs of the rest of the class.

My opinion is rooted in experience with an English-Spanish medical student who was often looking up and asking me about the English names of various medical terms because some of his classes were taught in Spanish, but the medical profession he was pursuing would be English speaking because that's what language the research was in, that's the language where the money was, that's the language the important social connections used. Mixed terminology doubles the workload because they are often definitions for words that didn't exist in either language of the students vocabulary from the start.

It's also rooted in experience with native Alaskans, most of which were under intense cultural pressure to learn and know the native language, but due to the lack of practical applications for it, many of the youngest generation were faking it or just learning the minimum amount to avoid scrutiny. Even if it is widely understood in that region, and they appear to be of the correct ethnicity (if applicable), or are related to native language speakers, that doesn't mean they were raised in the region, that doesn't mean that they are fluent.

At the very least all questions should be translated into English to prevent students from requiring both language's terminology to understand the context of the answers you're giving.

You may ask to the student that helps you to translate the question to English language. I think that's a kind way for help people to start talking in another language.

After a few days he will start to ask in English and your request, won't be necessary.

It wasn't clear from the question whether the use of english was a requirement of the class. If so, then it may well be a requirement of your job as well. And if so, then you need to enforce the requirements if you wish to keep the job. Check with your professor about if (and if so precisely how) you should go about doing that, then you are safe from any fallout if the student gets embarrassed or whatever.

Now as for why you shouldn't simply let students flout rules, there are additional downsides the other answers might have missed:

It can be difficult to accurately translate the nuances of a problem or concept back and forth, causing students to be mistaken on some points on the homework/exam. You will likely make real mistakes in translation too. And they will point the finger of blame at you when they complain about their grade to the prof.

It can just generally be quite a bit harder to use two languages at the same time versus just sticking one, even if it's not your first. It takes effort and a little time to change your thinking back and forth. Some students may not be able to keep up, and will miss things as they reorient to the language switches, thinking you said "A=B", when in fact you had said "given C, A=B". Again, blame will be on you when they write this wrong answer on the exam.

Overall, as the tests are certainly in English, students who have not been practicing doing the problems and understanding the concepts completely in english will have a disadvantage. Unless you are there with them for the tests to help them translate every question to be sure they get its point, they will likely miss every question that has a nuance or "trick" to it, and requires careful reading. (not to mention putting downright scary-looking responses on essay questions).

If it is a course given in English:

All questions should first be posed in English ..

How you handle this depends on some factors regarding this Student:

1: Why does this one student not pose questions in English ?

  • A: If the student is unable to have a discourse in English then the student should not be enrolled in the course, if another person was in charge of enrolling the student - the student can't help that - so try to accommodate them.

  • B: If the student is merely asking because of a social issue - every one speaks Chinese here but I need to speak English - (it is silly to them therefore they refuse to speak English) - That is an attitude problem. In this case ignore the question and move on.

From experience :

I had worked for an International company and in certain locations around the world the courses were taught in English - even though the native language (of Instructor and other students) was not English. For the benefit of those who do not know the native language ALL questions should be asked and answered in the Course Language. This is not only courteous, but holds true to the course description and guidelines.

If the student is unable to express their question in English, the instructor should request the student to ask the question in the native language and then interpret the question back into English for the rest of the class , If need be answer the asking student in the native tongue and then also provide the answer to all students in English.

In one class the course description was English, the English speaking students were outnumbered 8 to 2, so the instructor decided to teach in the native tongue and have other students translate .. This SHOULD never be done. The course guideline stated English - the English speakers did not signup for the course to have it translated to them. This is akin to having a statistics class as the guideline but ending up taking a calculus course instead. The English speaking students were offended, because the guideline said English - if it had said Chinese they would not have enrolled in that offering.

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