Language test fair for students, TAs

The NIU Graduate Council approved a plan Monday for English proficiency testing for foreign graduate students. The final form the proposal has taken should be acceptable to people on both sides of the issue.

A great deal has been said about “kids who grew up in the accentless Midwest” who have no tolerance for teachers with accents. The argument is that many NIU students simply refuse to try to understand the voice inflections of their foreign TAs, and that there really is no actual language barrier.

That might be true of a few students. But by and large, given a class of 200 people, if very few—if any—of the “native Midwesterners” can understand the teacher, it’s hard to argue they’re all just stubborn spoiled brats who don’t want to work to learn anything. Students at NIU never have pushed to get rid of all foreign TAs—a good indicator that complaints of language problems are limited to a few.

The new testing program should help eliminate the difficulties students have experienced with some foreign TAs. At the same time, it should relieve the concerns of the foreign TAs that they are being adjudged incompetent just because they’re different and their accents are unfamiliar.

The test includes testing on comprehension, pronunciation and clarity of speech. The people who will administer the tests and determine the level of English competency of each TA are objective examiners. It’s their job to pay attention, so the determination will not be made by someone who simply isn’t trying to understand—the charge so often made against students.

It isn’t clear what the fate will be of those TAs who do not score high enough on the exam. Hopefully the Graduate School will provide educational resources for them to improve their skills and then retest. The TAs are an invaluable part of the university community—they provide NIU with the extra instructors necessary for adequate staffing. And being a TA is an invaluable part of a future professor’s training.

The Graduate Council has given both the students and the TAs what they wanted. The students will get TAs who have proven their ability to communicate effectively in English, and the TAs will get a fair, objective evaluation of their language skills by people trained to know the difference between an accent and incompetency.