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I'm a third year graduate student pursuing a PhD in Europe. My field of work is computational chemistry (mostly involving developing software packages). In addition to that I have a masters in Physics. My professor instructs courses like computational physics and statistical mechanics.

Moreover, these courses are conventional taught in their native European language (I have acquired A1 certification for the same), but the fact that TAs should know the language is not enforced (I have friends who are non-speakers TAing much more interactive courses). Even after repeated requests for 2 semesters, I was let down by one excuse after another.

First time it was the fact that I didn't know the language (which I have subsequently learnt (acquired A1) and proved to him the fact that it's not enforced). Second time, there was no excuse what so ever, a simple "your time would be better spend in other side projects". And the irony is that I need to know the native language to teach python programming which a computer programming language written in english.

How to approach this?

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    A1 in any language, is not enough to effectively communicate in that language, let alone teach. I wouldn’t be comfortable teaching in a language until I’d have reached at least C1.
    – TimRias
    Dec 26, 2023 at 0:48
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    Yet you represent your A1 level of knowledge as some sort of significant factor.
    – TimRias
    Dec 26, 2023 at 0:56
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    If your professor wants the course taught in the native language, then that's a perfectly reasonable thing to want. Native students should not be forced to take the course in a foreign language when the syllabus says that it is in the native language. What other professors do is irrelevant.
    – wimi
    Dec 26, 2023 at 11:28
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    "...I didn't know the language (which I have subsequently learnt (acquired A1)..." Acquiring A1 is not 'knowing the language'. It is the absolute bare minimum to get through brief routine interactions, such as placing an order in a restaurant or asking for directions. Acquire C1 if you want to use the language in any professional capacity towards clients/students.
    – Servaes
    Dec 26, 2023 at 12:29
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    Just because rules are broken does not mean that everyone is willing to break the rules. Dec 26, 2023 at 13:50

2 Answers 2

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It's the professor's job to select the best candidates for the TA positions. reading and grading assignments is never easy. You need to be able to understand nuance of the answer and give the students relevant feedback. This means being able to write clearly in the language of instruction. Even if the task is a programming task, there are other bits of text that will accompany the submission (even if only comments in the code), which will be in the native language.

A1 is nowhere near the level needed for this task.

When I was a postdoc, I was assigned some grading for a course where students could answer in their native language or English. At the time I was around B1-B2 in their native language. I was only given the students who answered in English, as my language skills were not deemed good enough to do this task in their native language. However, some students would answer question 1 in English (and get assigned to me) and then continue to answer later questions in their native language. Even with automatic translation tools, I needed quite a bit of help/support from native speaking colleagues to be able to complete my task.

It is definitely not discrimination for the professor to select people who speak the native language well, just as it wouldn't be discrimination for them to select people who know python over those who only know C (even if have done a few weeks of datacamp, or equivalent, in python). They need to select the best people from the candidates available.

Keep working on your language skills and in a few years, you'll be good enough to be useful in this (and other) tasks. I'm now B2-C1 in the native language where I work, and I'm sent to represent the department in meetings that are conducted in this language, I'm given long reports written in the language to read and comment on and now I can do these tasks without much support from my native speaking colleagues. Learning a language to a high level takes time, but is worth the effort.

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It is not clear what type of class you want to TA. If it is Python, teaching programming is difficult and involves explaining things in terms they can understand. Good language skills are then necessary, independent of the facts that Python uses English language key-words.

Whether the native language is necessary to teach certain classes is a judgment call. Your professor might have higher expectations on the quality of TAing or the students in the classes that you refer to are expected to be already ready to communicate in English only. It might also be the case that there are other reasons why your professor does not think that you are a good TA and uses your lack of language skills as an excuse. Maybe your English is not good enough. For instance, often, TA-ships are given out to the most needy students and you might not fall into this category. Finally, it is possible that the professor has your best interest in mind, as some students can loose themselves in teaching.

There is of course the possibilities that the professor's behavior results from unethical discrimination, but from what you write, it is impossible to tell.

You should approach this situation by eliciting more and better feed-back. Instead of asking whether you can TA ask your professor what you need to do to be able to TA. If you have another person that can mentor you, ask that person for feed-back. Finally, you might find one or two of your colleagues that you trust sufficiently to give you good feed-back.

Keep in mind that being offered an TA-ship is not a right. Only if you are discriminated against because of such things as religion, ethnicity, or nationality (other than citizen / resident) are you suffering from an injustice.

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    +1 I'd suggest a small edit to the last paragraph, though: maybe "ethnicity" would be a better notion than "nationality" here since it seems rather unclear how to distinguish between nationality and citizenship (and as you mention in parenthesis, discrimination based on citizenship is of course legal and very common in many cases). Dec 26, 2023 at 10:02
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    It may not be just a judgment call. Bachelor (but not master) students on our program have the right to be taught in the language their program is accredited in. And that is the native language, not English. Optional parallels in English for those interested in that are certainly possible, though. There is also an option for a program accredited in English, but it is likely to not be for free and would charge some tution. Dec 26, 2023 at 12:21
  • +1 to thinking about other reasons! I was an experienced TA in undergrad (PUI so we TA'd as undergrads), had the highest grades in class, and the was in the lab of the professor. So I was miffed when my friend said she had been asked to TA the next semester. I realized it was because I had been 1-3 min late to class on a couple of occasions (I am not a morning person) and she was always early. The class was going to be at a different time so my timeliness wouldn't be an issue later in the day, but the prof didn't know that and it's a bad look to have your TA slinking in. TAs reflect on profs.
    – GenesRus
    Dec 27, 2023 at 19:24

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