The effects of accents on an undergraduate education

By Jonathan Perreira, Staff Writer

One of the easiest subjects for students to discuss is a bad professor. But, one of the struggles students have, even with good professors is difficulties with language gaps. Students and staff alike have a hard time articulating the dilemma of something akin to a language gap.  Unless it’s a foreign language class, English-speaking students should expect English-speaking professors.

…UMassD should obviously hire a professor who speaks English proficiently enough to accommodate. But does an accent hinder proficiency, or worse, hinder a student’s education?

A biology student and an engineering student were willing to anonymously speak about this tough topic.  When speaking about taking professors with accents, the biology student said, “Generally, if I can I’ll avoid it.” Websites like Rate My Professor can let students know beforehand whether a professor is commonly understood – not just through their material, but through their speaking. With that tool, and general student gossip, word spreads if a professor should be avoided. 

When speaking about taking professors that they cannot understand, the engineering student said, “You know, it doesn’t happen often, but when it does it really is noticeable.” The complaints are often sourced from STEM students, where learning math and its terminology is hard enough. “Depending on the intensity [of the accent], it could quite literally create a barrier between the student and education,” claimed the engineering student. The concerns are not about the professors, their personality, or their intelligence. Students just want to be able to learn the material they need.

A professor of foreign languages, Sandra River, commented that people having accents is natural and part of being human. “Professors of different cultures and accents enrich the community, not take away from it,” she said. Her explanation was enlightening. When hearing student complaints, it was hard not to feel empathetic by the dilemma. Learning fluid dynamics or physics is extremely difficult, especially in one semester, so it’s imperative the content is delivered as concisely and clearly as possible.

But, the complaints are few and far between. To live on Earth is to live alongside billions of people, thousands of accents, and hundreds of languages. To learn and understand how someone else speaks will be as useful a tool as an engineering or biology degree.

I believe there is a sliver of validity in the student’s complaints, but there exists a much bigger picture. The biology student showed this when they said, “My grades have never suffered because of a professor’s accent, the only reason I do bad in class is because of my poor study habits and lack of motivation.”  

A professor with an accent may certainly be more challenging, but it’s not detrimental or the main cause for failure. Plus, professors have the maturity and patience to listen to the foreign students and students whose first language isn’t English. There is a small educational obstacle for a small pool of people, but  it’s worth the hurdle.


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