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I have recently enrolled in an elective course from our degree program. There is something that sometimes annoys me, namely the English used by the professor.

He is not a native English speaker, but it is not about his accent or pronunciation. These are decent. The problem is that he keeps applying the grammar rules of his native language to English. Sometimes, things he said in lectures were logically (sometimes, mathematically) nonsensical to everyone. The meaning of what he said was not always what he intended to convey (from a mathematical perspective).

That is also the type of English that we will see in the final exam. I have seen some past exam papers, and there is an inconsistency between the written requirements (in English) and his proposed solutions (mathematical translation of the requirements).

Normally, it is not a big deal for me. However, I occasionally gave him some suggestions in a very polite way instead of accusing him of using incorrect grammar, so it will be easier for students to understand during the lectures (and also during the exam). He always responded with something like "well, it is natural to use this in real life" and suggested that I should familiarize myself with his English instead. It disappointed me.

I want to take the matter further in a polite way (is it even a wise thing to do?). What should I do in this situation?

PS: I feel bad for asking this question as I quite enjoy his lectures

Update: We have reached a temporary solution with the professor. We will try to learn his English (through past exams), but he will also need to explain his "terminology" in detail. During the exam, we can ask him questions if there is anything ambiguous. It is something that we have to deal with.

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    Has he requested your feedback? And is his speech honestly incomprehensible, or just quirky? If ‘no’ to both, do not take the matter further.
    – Eric
    Dec 1, 2022 at 2:26
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    "I feel bad for asking this question" No need to feel bad about being unhappy with your professor's unclear style of communication. Dec 1, 2022 at 11:29
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    It seems difficult to me to offer advice without an example of the sort of grammar that would make something logically nonsense. Language is often implicit among native speakers: that is, background information is needed to understand the logical meaning of almost every sentence in English. I certainly understand if you don't want to provide a specific example, but maybe you can construct a new one that follows the same pattern.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 1, 2022 at 15:23
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    Interestingly, there was a recent post on Linguistics.SE concerning applying the grammar of one language to another. According to the top answer on that post, this behavior is called interference.
    – acvill
    Dec 1, 2022 at 18:50
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    One time I had a Romanian linguistics professor who always said "Let's discuss about this." One day I wrote her a small note saying, "One says: 'Let's discuss X' or 'Let's have a discussion about X,' but not 'Let's discuss about X.' " The next day, early in the lesson, she said very pointedly, "Now let's discuss it. Yes, let's have a discussion about it." She then smiled, shook her head knowingly at how wrong it sounded to her, and went on asking us to "discuss about" things from then on. :/ Dec 3, 2022 at 1:28

5 Answers 5

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Considering that

He is not a native English speaker, but it is not about his accent or pronunciation. These are decent.

the problem is not with understanding his pronunciation, but that

Sometimes, things he said in lectures were logically (sometimes, mathematically) nonsensical to everyone. The meaning of what he said was not always what he intended to convey (from a mathematical perspective).

So the information he conveys is confusing and hard to, conceptually, understand. Since you also mention that

That is also the type of English that we will see in the final exam. I have seen some past exam papers, and there is an inconsistency between the written requirements (in English) and his proposed solutions (mathematical translation of the requirements).

it seems that the communication issues also happen in writing. Now, if the issue with wording in assignments (or even in class) is recurrent and several students agree with your take on it, then it might be worth letting the professor know that you all are having a hard time understanding, without telling him what to do. Simple questions by a few students during class such as "could you explain that again, I'm not quite following?" or "are we supposed to do X or Y in the assignment?" will help you all conceptually understand what he is trying to convey at the same time that no one ".. [gives] him some suggestions ..." and be perceived as nit-picking his phrasing.

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Academia is an international environment, so part of the skills you will learn is dealing with people who speak another language than you do. Remember that you are extremely privileged: you can speak your own native language and expect others to understand you. All you have to deal with is other people not speaking your own language perfectly. Most people around the world have to deal with speaking English as foreign language to other people who also speak English as a foreign language, and try to make sense of the resulting chaos...

So I would just treat this as an exercise of an important skill you will have to have in your later life, and be thankful that the trouble you have is a lot less than the trouble other people around the world have.

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    In academia, you can and should expect others to speak English the same way you expect them to be able to read and use the Internet. Your answer does not, in my opinion, apply. If they are hired to teach in an English-speaking environment, they are required to speak English on a level adequate to the setting. Dec 1, 2022 at 12:05
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    Your answer assumes that the OP's first language is English. Based on the information we have, I'm not sure if that's truly a valid assumption.
    – Schmuddi
    Dec 1, 2022 at 12:34
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    First year students complain they can't understand an Indian instructor's odd grammar. 3rd years have forgotten it was ever a problem and feel sorry for classmates who have never had an Indian instructor. Dec 1, 2022 at 16:36
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    Odd grammar is one thing, and we should just live with it, but when mathematical precision is important the professor must be able to speak with precision.
    – user253751
    Dec 1, 2022 at 17:21
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    Absolutely terrible answer. Clear communication is of great importance in a teaching environment, especially for mathematics.
    – user76284
    Dec 1, 2022 at 20:35
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  1. Find support. Surely you are not the only student in your class with this problem. A request coming from many students has more leverage than one from a single person.

  2. Make practical suggestions. For instance, suggest that he gets the final tests reviewed by a colleague for grammar before giving it to you.

  3. Be polite. Phrase it as something like "Sometimes we have a hard time understanding the requirements", not "your English is weird". And, since you enjoy his lectures, start with a positive word.

  4. If this second attempt fails, escalate the matter: get student union reps involved if you can, and speak to the head of studies.

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    All good points. However, #2 really shouldn't be necessary for a student to suggest. All exams should be subject to mandatory review before being taken. The main point of this is to catch technical errors, but it will also flag language issues. Dec 1, 2022 at 10:15
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    @EspeciallyLime A review is not mandatory everywhere. And, even if there was one, it certainly was not effective in the past finals, so the process needs adjusting. The reviewer could be someone with an even worse command of English, or may have chosen not to focus on the grammar. Dec 1, 2022 at 11:23
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    Actually, I think #2 is excellent advice if you can make it happen.
    – Buffy
    Dec 1, 2022 at 14:43
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    @EspeciallyLime Just curious, where are exams subject to mandatory review? Dec 3, 2022 at 16:25
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    @AzorAhai-him- it has been the case in universities I have worked at in the UK. I got the impression it was completely standard here. Dec 5, 2022 at 10:02
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Like Federico Poloni wrote in their answer, getting more students behind the cause will make it much stronger.

You have attempted to improve their lectures, but failed. Speaking correctly is very hard since you have think about the subject matter and language at the same time. They are not willing to make that effort.

Give up on that and concentrate on what is important:

The Exam

The exam should be clear, unambiguous and correct.

If you have examples from previous exams that have failed any of these goals, that is where you should take the fight. Be very concrete: "This sentence states X, but according to the suggested solution, you actually meant Y."

Make clear that students can actual fail because of the professors incorrect language.

Writing correctly is easier than speaking, since they can first think about the content and then go over a second time and look at the language.

You should suggest that they consult a native speaker to help them.

The exam is very important and should be worth the extra effort.

I am afraid you might have to take this fight twice. First before the exam. Then, when they haven't listened, repeat the fight so that people don't get bad grades because they misunderstood the questions.

After all that, warn the next year students they might have to repeat the fight.

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I occasionally gave him some suggestions in a very polite way

So you have already tried offering him unsolicited advice...

He always responsed with something like "well, it is nature to use this in real life" and suggested me to familiarize myself with his English instead

and he responded poorly.

It disappointed me.

Yes, this is disappointing; you would expect that anyone speaking a foreign language would be pleased to get feedback from native speakers. Still, it is not really your role to provide this feedback, and he has made it clear that he is not open to receiving it. So, you should not broach the subject again unless you are invited to (e.g., in an end-of-course evaluation).

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    Although the feedback was unasked for, since "... some past exam papers, and there is an inconsistency between the written requirements (in English) and his proposed solutions (mathematical translation of the requirements)" the communication issue can and will affect the grades, and affect the overall quality of the class too. If the question was "instructor uses unconventional and inconsistent notation that stops us from correctly comprehending lectures and solving assignments" would you still say that unsolicited feedback from students should be avoided?
    – jDAQ
    Dec 1, 2022 at 5:50
  • Yes, actually. It sounds like OP has already tried offering feedback more than once with negative results. In really serious cases, you could try to insist, or escalate the issue, but that does not seem to be the case here.
    – cag51
    Dec 1, 2022 at 10:26
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    I agree with the gist of your answer (do not broach the subject again). But I don't think that we can know from the question that the OP is a native speaker. If not, it would be one learner offering unsolicited advice to another learner. That's much more sensitive and potentially face-threatening than an interaction between a native speaker and a learner.
    – Schmuddi
    Dec 1, 2022 at 12:49
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    @Schmuddi OP's profile says they are from Adelaide, an English-speaking city, but the language of OP's original post makes me wonder whether English is perhaps OP's 2nd, 3rd, etc. language, e.g. "using wrong grammars" and "He always responsed" and "suggested me to"
    – shoover
    Dec 1, 2022 at 17:33

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