Language, culture barriers between students and TAs

By Elisabeth Loeck, NewsNetNebraska

When Megan Pinches goes to her product development lab, she knows it will be a struggle.

“The TA is Chinese, I think,” said Pinches, a senior food science major. “Her English is quite poor.”

Grad school is competitive — much moreso for international students. Still, international students have the added challenge of communicating with students in their non-native language as teaching assistants (TAs).

In the food science department, being a TA is a requirement to earn a master’s degree or Ph.D.

Dr. Devin Rose, a professor in the food science department, recently worked with two TAs who spoke English as a second language.

“It boils down to the students being reluctant to talk to the TA,” Rose said. “I’ve had some cases where the students will ask me questions and say, ‘I know I’m supposed to ask the TA, but I’m afraid they won’t understand’.”

For Pinches, the greater issue was the misunderstandings of the materials the students worked with during their labs. In her course, students create their own food product. Students tell the TA what ingredients they need and she will then go to the store and purchase them.

“She does not understand the foods we work with,” Pinches said. “The ingredients seemed simple to most – powdered sugar and baking powder, but she didn’t understand the differences in products and got regular sugar and baking soda instead.”

This mistake set some students back in the lab, Pinches said, because two of the groups couldn’t work that day without the correct ingredients.

Rose worked alongside international students throughout graduate school, and said he barely notices their accents now. But he did notice cultural differences that could affect communication with students.

“Some people say they [understand an instruction] when they don’t – which can be frustrating if they then do a task wrong,” Rose said. “Others will tell you when they don’t understand, and you might just have to explain it to them a few times.”

These miscommunications can negatively affect a student’s experience and success in class.

“The class seems really unorganized because the teacher left a lot of the lab up to the TA,” Pinches said. “I believe that if a student is going to be a TA for a class then he or she should know exactly what they are getting into.”