Language barrier in the classroom
January 26, 2011 11:01 AM   Subscribe

Professors with subpar English skills are making it very difficult for me to learn. What can I do?

This is my second semester at college and 3 of my (4) professors have serious issues with English.

I'm talking about very thick accents and seriously poor command of correct sentence structure and vocabulary. This makes understanding what they are saying during lectures/class time very difficult and trying to make sense of their examples/analogies often impossible for me.

What can I do to mitigate this language barrier? I would like to have some supplementary resources to learn the material and topics we will be covering in class. Just a note, this school has no TAs or anything of that nature, its just you and the professor. Also worth noting, this is a pretty small school and it seems like the vast majority of professors are not native English speakers so taking these classes at a different time or with another professor isn't an option.

I need to learn this material and do well in these courses, I had a mini panic attack in the middle of my first math lecture as I realized how little I could understand of what my math professor was saying(he is by far the worse, in addition to the aforementioned English issues he has an old and mumbly voice).

What would you do?
posted by Funky Claude to Education (41 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Have you not got a reading list/class text? Ask them at the end of every class what reading they recommend for the next class and read that.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:05 AM on January 26, 2011

Rise to the challenge and learn their dialect - right or wrong, they know the subject material and you need to learn it from them. The onus is on you.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:06 AM on January 26, 2011 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I need to learn this material and do well in these courses, I had a mini panic attack in the middle of my first math lecture as I realized how little I could understand of what my math professor was saying

I understood little in my math lectures in college, and English was the professors' first language.

Read the chapter of the textbook the lecture was based on. Read it again. Take notes on the chapter in your own words. Then do the problem sets. Get a study partner to work on the problem sets with.

And try to train yourself to cut through the accents and poor sentence structure of your professors. Eventually you'll figure it out, as it can't be that the entire class doesn't understand anything in the lectures.
posted by deanc at 11:08 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Assuming your college has a similar structure to most colleges, then you should have an academic advisor of some sort. Can you speak to this person about your concerns to see if there is help you can get outside of class? Also, maybe speak to the other students in your class. They might be having the same problem, and you could all form a study group to help each other fill in the gaps. Last, talk to your profs about it. I once had an Economics professor who had an incredibly thick Boston accent - seriously, the first time he said the word 'market', I had no idea what he was talking about. At any rate, myself and a few other students emailed him about our difficulties in understanding his accent, and he started writing a lot more things on the board. And, he started creating a lot of handouts for us. It made things a million times better.
posted by AlliKat75 at 11:09 AM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is tough; I have had professors and teachers with very thick accents (I had a Korean-born calculus teacher in the US who I could barely understand - and I grew up in a family that spoke only Korean at home). They are in a position of authority over you, though, and presumably if the school sees fit to hire them, they're confident of their ability to pass the subject on to you. It's dicey to raise it.

Listening carefully will make a difference; you'll get used to their speech patterns and understand the meaning better. Or you may find that it's not actually that bad. I find that a lot of native English speakers assume flawed grammar as soon as they hear an accent when the grammar is actually exact and even idiomatic. Have these professors provided any written material to you? What does that look like?

What do your fellow students think?
posted by peachfuzz at 11:14 AM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: Sounds like you have a bunch of bad lecturers, even putting their accents aside. This is just one of many reasons why the lecture-based pedagogy used most in math, the hard sciences, and engineering is a problem. Probably the most important thing you can do to make these lectures work better for yourself is to de-emphasize the lectures: try to pre-prepare yourself on the material that's scheduled to be covered from the textbook, rather than letting the lecture be your first exposure to the material. Do your homework a week in advance, and think of the lecture as a place to brush up on it and fill in the gaps in your understanding.
posted by RogerB at 11:14 AM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: Reading the chapter/pages that relate to the lecture (your course syllabus will usually list these) before the lecture will make the terminology more familiar and therefore easier to understand. With time you will understand your professors' accents with greater ease but having some familiarity the terms themselves makes any lecture easier to follow/absorb.
posted by estronaut at 11:16 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

This happened to me all the time in undergrad. You learn to take the best notes you can, and rely on the textbook to fill in the blanks. Not relying on lectures is actually a pretty good skill to learn anyways.

Also, these profs are well aware that they have shaky English, and they probably wonder why no one ever asks them for clarification in lecture. So put up your hand in class if you aren't following, and take advantage during office hours. They're probably a lot better at communicating in their office than they are in a lecture room.
posted by auto-correct at 11:16 AM on January 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

See whether your school, even though it's small, has some kind of support system for non-native English speakers, even if it's a class, tutoring, a workshop, anything. It may or may not help you right now, but who knows? It's probably worth asking about.
posted by amtho at 11:17 AM on January 26, 2011

Apologies in advance if I'm incorrectly projecting based on experiences with my own students, but have you tried: (a) moving closer to the front, if possible? being able to see a person's lips move can often make it much easier to understand an unfamiliar accent; (b) turning off your laptop or at least not checking-the-damn-Facebook-every-two-point-thirty-seven-seconds-oh-my-god-kids-these-days?
posted by wreckingball at 11:24 AM on January 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

If the lecture isn't amplified (or even if it is) and you're not already doing it, sit as close to the lecturn/lecturer as possible.
Our ears/brains are so good at filling in the blanks (bits we didn't hear) when listening to speech that we're generally aware of the gaps. But those gaps will have a big effect on whether you can understand someone under these conditions - when it's a struggle just to understand the words, this process won't work or will misfire. You need to be able to hear every sound that comes out of their mouth while learning to decypher their speech.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:28 AM on January 26, 2011

generally aware of the gaps = generally unaware of the gaps
posted by -harlequin- at 11:29 AM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: Just a note, this school has no TAs or anything of that nature

Damn, I was going to suggest going to the TA, especially for a science or math course. In the alternative, I remember from college math class that the professor seemed to just repeat what was in the textbook, so it was essentially teach your self from the book. That may be what you need to do here.

Rise to the challenge and learn their dialect - right or wrong, they know the subject material and you need to learn it from them. The onus is on you.

I respectfully disagree with this. The school should be working just as hard to make sure that the profs that it provides are capable to communicating effectively to students. It benefits everyone when students do well in their courses because they understand what the prof is saying.

It may not help you immediately, but does the course offer student evaluation opportunities? In all of my classes, we had to fill out an evaluation of the professor and I used it a few times to point out serious problems with the prof. The profs should read these (or at least their superiors should) so this might be the place to address the issue, at least for future generations of students.
posted by Leezie at 11:37 AM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: Building on auto-correct's suggestion, ask some of your fellow students if they are also struggling. If they feel similarly panicked, then form a secret society.

The mission of this secret society, is that all secret members know that all other members are struggling to understand the speech, and therefore, it is required of all members that when they did not understand something that seems to be key, they raise their hand and ask for clarification.

This is not to gang up on the poor guy, or to Make A Statement, or any other such passive aggressive bullshit, it's to give first year students (you mentioned second semester) the confidence to ask for clarification in front of a hall of people - by learning they're not alone - and to spread that sometimes-daunting task around, so that it doesn't end up with one person feeling they are the dumb one, constantly holding up the class, while everyone else secretly ends up relying on them and never developing their own confidence.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:37 AM on January 26, 2011 [7 favorites]

How are their e-mail and writing skills? Can you follow up with questions via e-mail, and see if that improves some of the communication that is lost through your difficulty in understanding their accents?
posted by raztaj at 11:38 AM on January 26, 2011

When I had a calculus class like this in college, the only thing that got me through it with a C+ or some such grade was turning to other students for help. I had friends who were strong enough at math that they could make sense of the lectures (mostly) even though the prof's terribly hard-to-understand accent; and, if not, they could get it from the textbook. They were the ones who pulled me through with a passing grade.
posted by not that girl at 11:42 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

IMHO the math class is the best class to have this happen, because the way to do well in math is to do problems, as many of them as you can. Having things explained to you in lecture is a lot less important because the way you will really understand is by doing. The goal is to do as many of the chapter's problems as you have time for. And many people do this *before* the lecture.

If you get stuck, you can follow up with the professor via email, where you won't have the deal with the accent issue. And although there are no TAs, isn't there a tutoring center at your school?

You should also form study/homework groups with other students. If everyone brings their notes, chances are that between you, you will have caught everything the professor was trying to say. If not, the group of you can go to the professor's office hours and have him/her explain the section you didn't get again.

Also -- if you find yourself needing the professor to repeat things several times and get embarrassed, you can just tell him/her that your hearing isn't very good, that way you won't have to worry about offending.
posted by Ashley801 at 11:43 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, if your school does evaluations at the end of the class make sure to mention it then. Doesn't have to be mean, something as simple as saying the class would have been better if you could understand the teacher better but it was still a good/worthwhile class will work.
posted by theichibun at 11:47 AM on January 26, 2011

nthing a study group. The only way I made it through (and understood) some of my engineering classes was because of the group of people I worked with on problem sets.

And seconding emailing professors. Though, that isn't always the best result, even when they speak English.

Is there a well spoken prof. in the department? Buddy up with him/her.
posted by chiefthe at 11:50 AM on January 26, 2011

Study groups will really help. It's so frustrating when you can't understand a professor, either because of language barriers or because the person just isn't good at explaining themselves.

The thing is that there's nothing the school is going to do about this, as professors (especially in the sciences) are generally hired for their excellence in research rather than their ability to give informative or easy-to-understand lectures. Definitely mention it on your evaluations, and perhaps the school will invest in some communications training for the professors if there are enough complaints.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:52 AM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: Well, I left banking a couple of years ago, now teach finance part time at the Masters level and I'm going to make a suggestion from the other side of the podium: complain.

Look at it this way: you're paying for a product. Why do you have to put up with poor delivery? You're there to learn math not your lecturer's idiosyncratic pronunciation! English is the required language here in London and if I can't read someone's dissertation or exam scripts because of language issues, well this will sound harsh, but I don't hesitate to fail them. Its that simple.

You're not doing this guy any favours by not raising the issue. The University has an obligation to put a lecturer in front of the class who 1) is a subject matter expert and 2) has both spoken and written communication skills (among others). In response to complaints my department has sent lecturers to English classes as its easier to teach an Economist English than it is to teach a native English speaker Economics. That lecturer will keep those English skills for the rest of their lives. I'd submit you're actually helping both the lecturer as well as yourself.

So find out if this is a shared problem. If it is don't wait - get a petition in front of the Dean ASAP. Honest feedback never hurts.
posted by Mutant at 11:55 AM on January 26, 2011 [14 favorites]

1. Religiously attend office hours
2. Study group with other students
posted by Cuke at 12:00 PM on January 26, 2011

One of the best TAs I ever had spoke with a really (REALLY) thick Eastern European accent. (No prof for the course - TA taught the whole thing.) But he cared a lot about how well his students did in his class. The work he put in to ensuring we understood the concepts made calculus a course I could actually enjoy, amazingly enough. Even if none of us could ever pronounce his name correctly, which he teased us about.

If your school is as small as you make it out to be, odds are your prof wouldn't be teaching there unless he/she cared about how his/her students did, too. Have you tried office hours? Explaining your difficulty? I am positive that your prof has heard this before - it's not like the accent developed overnight or something.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:07 PM on January 26, 2011

1. Religiously attend office hours
Yes, go and get to know your prof so you can access the material easier, get to learn the approach, and to get used to understanding and/or asking for clarification.
posted by sockraticpielogue at 12:12 PM on January 26, 2011

When I was in college, I took Real Analysis with the head of Mathematics Department. Sounds great, right? Well, he was in advanced stages of Parkinsons, that not made his speech incomprehensible but also made turned his handwriting into scribble. What saved me was recording the lectures (and listening to them, many-many times) as well as e-mailing him after almost every class clarifying things covered and then researching them exhaustively on my own.

Whoever said college is not fun was crazy.
posted by mooselini at 12:17 PM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: This is how I flunked college algebra! I could not understand a lick of what the professor was saying. And the TA had a thick thick accent of another kind. Math was hard for me to begin with but this made it near impossible. I ended up not attending the class and flunked it. Looking back on it now there was a lot I could have done.

1. Do not miss a class - even if you don't understand what the professor is saying. Just keep going.

2. Get a group together of other students from the class to study with. There will be a few students who understand the material and can at least point you in the right direction.

3. Get an outline of your class/syllabus and use it! Read ahead of time what is going to be covered in class. Learn the vocabulary so that it's not so foreign, even if it sounds foreign when the professor speaks.

4. Sit in the front of class.

5. Get a tutor.
posted by Sassyfras at 12:18 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

-harlequin-'s idea that you form a "secret society" to share the burden of speaking up when you don't understand things is a really great one. I just want to be sure you understand, too, that although it can feel embarrassing, it doesn't make you look bad at all (to any good professor) if you raise a hand in the middle of lecture and ask for clarification of something you didn't hear or can't follow. Quite the reverse: it makes you look better, since it demonstrates that you're engaged with the material and thinking actively about it as you hear the lecture. The only remotely embarrassing questions are those that are much, much too basic, questions about prerequisite skills rather than the course material itself (say, asking a basic algebra question in a calculus class, or a pure facts-and-dates question in a history class about broader interpretations, or asking for the dictionary definition of a word in an English class) — apart from that caveat, asking questions about the course material itself almost always makes you look smarter, more engaged, and more awake than your silent peers. This is a good thing to remember in all college courses, not just ones with lectures delivered in difficult accents.
posted by RogerB at 12:19 PM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: The bright side to this situation is that the courses that (in my experience) are most likely to be taught by non-native speakers are generally pretty objective-- math, science, etc. This means that tons of resources to help exist online and elsewhere.

For example, Khan Academy offers short video lessons on a wide variety of topics in mathematics and science. It's free, bite sized, and great to reinforce your reading and lecture attendance.

I also agree with the suggestion to record lectures and play them back as you study. I have difficulty holding concentration for extended periods of time in non-discussion classes, and recording (when permitted) has really helped me make better use of my notes and study time. It was particularly helpful in classes where the professor liked to go off on random tangents, which, while entertaining, were not useful and incredibly distracting to me. I could just fast-forward through them when I was studying.
posted by charmcityblues at 12:27 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

cf Mutant - I think honest feedback should be delivered to the lecturer in the first place, not their manager.

Don't complain direct to the dean as a group until you've pointed out the problem directly to the prof concerned: a well-managed school might send lecturer support and training, a poorly-managed school could well just terminate a teaching contract next semester after a class complaint to management, especially if the guy's an adjunct.

If he doesn't improve after you tell him his class has problems, sure - he may not be qualified for the job, but be aware he almost certainly doesn't know how bad it is: he'll be able to do a lot by slowing down and speaking louder.
posted by cromagnon at 12:29 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing asking for clarification in class. I had several professors teaching in English, where English was their second language. Their accents were such that they sounded like they were saying the darndest things in class. Raising my hand and asking for clarification was the only thing that saved me in those classes.
posted by LN at 12:30 PM on January 26, 2011

This is why I'm sad YouTube and iTunesU weren't around when I was getting my BA. You have the power! Khan Academy not only has videos, it has exercise modules for a lot of the math content.

I also like the secret society thing. I was known around campus as The Girl Who Asks Questions In Big Lecture Halls and it was REALLY annoying that no one else ever spoke up.

(By "known" I mean that History 151 had 180 students in it, my university had something like 40,000 undergraduates, and yet, if I was sick I got random "you weren't in class" comments in the cafeteria. Raise your hands, people; it's not that hard.)
posted by SMPA at 12:42 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Having conversations with people whose accents you may not initially understand (or, conversely, who don't understand your accent) is a really useful skill. Because it happens off-campus a lot. Or, if you haven't run into this before - it is something that WILL happen a lot, at some point.

Consider this an opportunity to practice your active listening skills and to break away from the traditional lecture model of "Instructor pontificates, Student absorbs." Ask questions. Get clarification. Analyze whether your confusion comes from the conversation, or your own (mis)understanding of the material. Admit when you need further instruction and then go out and get it.

And once you're done with that, do the exact same thing in your other, native-speaking classes. You may be pleasantly surprised by what happens...
posted by vivid postcard at 12:48 PM on January 26, 2011

My sister had this problem with college chemistry classes, and worked with other students to great success. She had one professor who refused to take any questions from the class, on any topic - my sister once sat through an entire lecture with her hand raised, as an experiment - and didn't reply to emails. For that class, a group of students from the class brought the issue to the head of the department, who sat in on one class and then co-taught for the rest of the semester.
posted by SeedStitch at 12:51 PM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh! Forgot to add: MIT's Open Course Ware literally saved me in college. I have tried my best to keep up with assignments/exams they posted and then check myself with the answers sheet the professors have uploaded.
posted by mooselini at 12:52 PM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Check if there is a second section of the class with a different instructor and sit in on that section as well.
posted by procrastination at 1:19 PM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: I feel your pain. A sad fact of college education is that you will often have to teach yourself instead of being able to rely on the people who are being paid to teach you. Fortunately, learning how to learn new subjects on your own is a skill that will serve you very well for the rest of your life.

My answer is long, but hopefully the useful advice:words ratio is high enough to make it worth reading:

A) Print Supplements: Make maximum use of your textbooks, as well as any good supplementary study guides you can find (Schaum's outlines, those laminated subject summaries, Cliff Notes, etc. -- your college bookstore and other bookstores in your college's neighborhood should have them available for sale).

Please post an update with a list of the specific classes you're taking and anticipate taking in the future so everyone can suggest the best resources for those topics.

B) Recorded Lectures: Find better professors online and watch their lectures. There are a bazillion recorded academic lectures on YouTube and elsewhere on the internet.

Khan Academy is probably the best resource for math, and Salman Khan is a super-wonderful guy who really loves to teach and help people (he gave up a lucrative career in finance to do this!) so if he hasn't covered your class's material yet or you're confused about any of his lectures then I encourage you to email him because he makes new videos based on viewer feedback.

For other subjects, Academic Earth organizes links to recorded lectures from some of the best professors at some of the best universities around the world.

If you're willing to spend some money, The Teaching Company recruits and records the top-rated instructors for various fields. It's possible that your librarian can get you their courses for free via interlibrary loan, but if not, you can often find Teaching Company DVDs and CDs for cheap on secondary markets like eBay, so shop around. Also, every one of the Teaching Company's courses goes on sale at least once a year. So don't let their list prices give you sticker shock because you can almost always find it for a fraction of the full price. (And if you need one of their programs *right now*, I've heard that most of their stuff is available on torrent sites, but morally you should commit yourself to paying for a copy of anything you torrent as soon as you can afford to.)

C) Tutoring: Find out about any tutoring resources available for your classes. Often there is a math center, writing center, general tutoring center, etc. on campus, and sometimes other subject-specific tutoring is available through the department or through academic honor societies (many honor societies have minimum service hour requirements for their members and tutoring is one way to fulfill these requirements).

Also, please note that while some math centers may advertise that they only provide tutoring specific low-level classes, I've found that if you show up when they're not busy that the bored tutors are usually more than happy to help with your homework from other classes not on the center's official list -- especially if you gush your profuse gratitude and bring the occasional bribe of $5 coffee gift cards or their favorite candy.

If free tutoring resources are limited at your school, ask the department for referrals to a good senior-level or graduate student (who speaks clear English!) who might be interested in making a little extra money as a tutor. There are also often signs around campus advertising paid tutoring but make sure to ask for references of past satisfied clients before you hire someone. You can defray the cost of hiring a tutor by combining it with the study group suggestion below.

D) Study Groups: Form a study group with other students from your class. Chances are that you are each confused about different things, so you can take turns explaining the parts you do understand to the rest of the group.

Here are the steps for quickly and effectively organizing a study group:

Step 1: Take a piece of paper and write on the top, "Who wants to join a study group? Please sign up below!" On the next line, remind people to "PLEASE PRINT LEGIBLY! Thanks!" Then write column headers of "Name" "E-mail" "Phone" "Available to Meet" (the latter means the days and times the students could meet). Write in your own information on the first line as a model for how other students should fill it out.

Step 2: Show up a few minutes before class and ask/tell the professor that you'd like to make a brief announcement at the beginning of class about forming a study group. Don't be shy about this -- every professor whose class I've done this in has been completely thrilled about the idea and it tends to win you major brownie points.

Step 3: Make an announcement at the beginning of class that you are forming a study group and for people to please write their information on the sign-up sheet you are passing around. Tell them that you will email the list to everyone who signs up to facilitate group formation.

Step 4: Collect the sheet after class and type up all the information. I recommend rearranging the order to group people by when they are available to meet, moving from the most specific (e.g. "Tuesdays at 10pm") to the least specific (e.g. "Anytime") because putting those weirdos who can only meet at really odd times at the top increases the likelihood they'll actually find someone to meet with.

Email this out to everyone who signed up ASAP (suggested subject line: "[Class Name] Study Group List"), with a note at the top saying, "I'm still working on scheduling a room and time but meanwhile here is everyone's info if some of you would like to get in touch with each other sooner."

Some of the emails will probably bounce because you misread someone's horrible handwriting. Call those people, get them to carefully spell out their actual email addresses, and then send out a second email, "CORRECTIONS: [Class Name] Study Group List" noting the corrections. You'll need to update the emails in three places: The "To" field on the email, the body of the list, and a note at the top saying something like, "Please note that [so-and-so]'s correct email address is [whatever]. If you're going to Reply All, please Reply All to *this* email and not the original."

Step 5: Decide on a regular day and time that both works for your own schedule and seems like it would work for most of your classmates. If this time is during the hours that a tutoring center for your subject is open and there is adequate space for your group to take over its own table, plan to meet there.

Otherwise, talk to the library, department, or whomever is responsible for scheduling rooms and find out if you can schedule a group study room or classroom for regular weekly (or more frequently, but at least weekly!) study group meetings as well as review sessions the day before exams. You really want a room with a whiteboard.

If students aren't allowed to schedule rooms, try to enlist your professor's help, because professors often have classroom or meeting room reservation privileges. It's a lot easier to get people to show up if it's always at the same place every week.

If you absolutely cannot schedule a room, pick a good meeting place near the group-study areas (e.g. "The chairs at the main entrance of the library" or "In front of the Starbucks in the student union"). If you're going to meet in one place and then relocate to another location, it's good to give everyone at least one cell phone contact number to call or text so that stragglers can find you.

Step 6: Email an announcement to your study group list about what you've scheduled. Note something like, "If this time doesn't work for you, please feel free to organize additional meetings at other times and email that information to this list." Let the weirdo who can only meet on Tuesday at 10pm form his/her own group. :)

Step 7: Next class, show up a few minutes early and write the study group schedule in a corner on the whiteboard. E.g. "[Class Name] Study Group: Every Tuesday at 4pm in library group study room 103." Then draw a box border around it. There is something magical about drawing a box border around something that not only calls attention to it but also makes professors loathe to erase it.

Make additional in-class announcements / whiteboard notices / emails before each exam review session. If you're going to have a tutor, pizza, etc. and any associated costs (see below), make sure to include that information as both an incentive to attend and a reminder to bring some cash.

Step 8: If you and your classmates are still confused about stuff even after meeting together for study groups, talk to the appropriate tutoring centers/services/honor societies on campus and find out if they can provide your group with a regular tutor. If your group is big enough, they might. (My summer math study group of 5-to-10 people was considered big enough by my university's Academic Success Center that they gave us our own classroom and paid a tutor to meet with us for 2 hours after class every Monday-Thursday!)

If you can't get a free tutor, broach the idea of all chipping in a little money to hire a tutor for the group, at least for the pre-exam review sessions. Even if you get a free tutor for your regular study group sessions, you may need to pay him/her extra to put in a long, late-night session. My math study groups have usually been able to hire a good tutor for $15-$20/hour plus dinner (we also all chip in for pizza for the review sessions right before exams). It usually ended up costing only $5 to $10 per person.

If you end up with a regular tutor and he/she is helpful, it is nice at the end of the semester to get everyone in the study group to sign a thank you card for the tutor and a reference letter to the tutor's current or future supervisors effusing about how great he/she was and how you never would have passed without his/her help, etc. If the tutor was particularly exceptional, everyone chipping in for a small gift would also be appropriate. (We got our kick-all math tutor a mug that read "Calculus: the agony and dx/dt.") These tangible expressions of gratitude are especially important if you anticipate that you'll form more study groups and need more tutoring in future semesters. Even if you don't end up working with that particular tutor again, word will get around to the other upperclassmen, graduate students, professors, etc. about what a joy it is to work with you and your study groups and this will facilitate getting extra help throughout the rest of your time at that college.

Step 9: Use the study group email list to send out links supplemental resources that you find helpful, scans of lecture notes, etc. Modeling this sort of helpful and generous behavior will encourage others to do the same. Unless your classes are graded on a curve there's no reason not to help each other as much as possible.

E) Office Hours: Finally, some professors who are incomprehensible in the classroom can be much easier to understand when you meet with them during their office hours. Prepare in advance by going through your lecture notes and textbooks and sticking Post-Its with your questions on the specific things you're confused about or otherwise having problems with. Your organization will not only be appreciated by your professor but will also ensure that you don't forget to cover anything. Then, as you're talking with the professor, stop him/her if you don't understand a word and ask him to write the word down.

Unless your professor is a psycho jerk with a delusional ego (sadly, an occupational hazard of academia), he/she already knows that his/her accent is sometimes hard to understand and thus he/she shouldn't be offended by your requests for clarification. But if you do start to get the impression that your inability to understand his/her accent is pissing him/her off, then you might want to quit going to office hours.

You can try to get a feel for how "safe" it is to approach the professor in this way by looking up reviews of the professor on and note any comments about his/her reasonableness and approachability. If you've befriended any upper-level students or faculty in that department they might also be a good resource for advice on the optimal way to approach a difficult-to-understand professor. Departmental politics might make them wary of giving you straight answers, but one *nudge nudge wink wink* way around this is to phrase your questions in such a way that you can both pretend that the conversation is actually about you -- i.e., "Let me put it this way... given what [you know / I've told you] about *my* learning style, how do you think *I* should approach Professor X ['s class]?" This gives them plausible deniability against being accused of bad-mouthing Professor X behind his/her back.

Good luck!
posted by Jacqueline at 1:45 PM on January 26, 2011 [19 favorites]

Best answer: One thing I've found in situations where I'm suddenly thrust in with a bunch of people whose accents I don't understand is that developing good listening skills really helps. Really listen. Go to Every. Single. Class. Really LISTEN to the lecture Every. Time. No distractions. If possible, make it a point to talk to the professor after or outside of lectures. Go to their office hours. Listen to this person's way of speaking as closely as possible, and as often as possible.

If you have texts, readings, homework, or any other supplemental materials, use them to give yourself background familiarity with important terms you might not be getting (it is really hard to glean new vocabulary from someone whose accent you don't understand very well) and other aspects of the material, so that attending lecture isn't your first point of contact with the subject matter.

Soon, patterns will begin to emerge. In a few more weeks, you will find that you fully understand the person. The great thing about taking this approach is that it makes you better at listening to accents in general. After working in production on a Bollywood film, not only do I almost never even hear Indian accents, but I find other accents easier to follow. My brain is a little more flexible about grammar and pronunciation, and I have a better time of communicating with people whose first language isn't my own, in any situation. This is a universally good skill to have, even if it means a few weeks of grasping in the dark.
posted by Sara C. at 2:25 PM on January 26, 2011

Best answer: I've been in this situation and it sucks!! Lots of good suggestions already.

But even if you do try harder to learn the material more on your own, I encourage you to keep going and trying to listen. I don't know what your plans for the future are, but you'll likely spend the rest of your life encountering people with accents. You'll probably encounter the same ones over and over in fact. This may also be kind of a weird suggestion, but just try branching out and just conversing with people with the same accent but in a lower-stakes situation. Or going into office hours and just talking to your prof about, you know, whatever. I've heard lots of professors say that people rarely come to their office hours and wish more would because they are bored! Anyway, point is, the more you talk to someone with said accent, the more used to it you get and you understand it better. I had a terrible time understanding my Chinese program director (who also taught lots of my classes.) His accent was so thick and his grammar was . . . hard to deal with. But I ended up in a lab on the same floor as his, and after shooting the shit with him over the course of a few months I barely even noticed it anymore and could understand him (and all my subsequent Chinese-accented professors) perfectly well. And after making friends with an Indian girl and hanging out with her family all the time, I barely noticed their accents either. And now I have no problem with professors who have the same accent. Over the years I've been exposed to so many, and it's always difficult at first. But the same accent will sound pretty much the same, at least very similar, from people of the same background. So once you've encountered it enough times you get used to it. Now some of my favorite lecturers in my courses happen to be ones with really thick accents, but I barely notice it, because I'm so relieved at the clear way their lectures are organized and presented. Ahh, nothing better than a well-organized lecture!

So: go to office hours. If you don't understand what he says, ask for him to slow down. You'll get used to his way of speaking. And try to make friends of different nationalities! People from other places are fascinating. Learning to understand accents will only help you.

Of course, it's possible that he is just a crappy lecturer AND has a thick accent. But still, I'd keep trying.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 4:44 PM on January 26, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the wonderful suggestions and comments! I definitely feel better about this whole situation now.

I just ordered some supplementary 'study guide' books that correspond to the textbooks I'm using. Khan Academy and MIT Open Courseware look amazing! Forming a study group is also an excellent idea as I know other students are struggling.
posted by Funky Claude at 7:34 PM on January 26, 2011

I haven't read the thread so apologies if this has already been suggested/rejected: I started taking a lot of my classes online or off-campus because I was finding lecture/classtime worse than useless, for a variety of reasons including poor English and crappy lecturing skills from some of my professors. I completed a poli sci class online a couple of years ago... I only met the professor in person once to go over the syllabus, and from then on we communicated by email. I did a business math class off-campus too, in this case I met with the instructor twice at a satellite center.

I also tend to use a lot of supplementary materials to help me get through classes. Reference books, study guides, "for dummies" books, popular books, websites. Depending on the course you may even be able to find some books & websites aimed at children or teens which can be really useful for getting things explained simply. I'm already collecting resources for my current class as it is becoming painfully apparent that I'm not going to get anything out of the incredibly disjointed lectures.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:51 PM on January 26, 2011

I'm from the US and spent a year studying abroad in London, and for the first 7 months of school my class notes were filled with huge, gaping blanks. I couldn't understand ANYTHING. These were in fact native English speakers, but the accents were so different (from what I was used to, and from each other!) that I couldn't grasp more than 60% of what they were saying. They rattled off names of people whose work would illuminate the topic, and I couldn't even understand the names so that I could do outside research easily. It was excruciating at first. But in the end, I just did a lot of constant outside research, following all kinds of interesting tangents and searching out new aspects of the topics all the time, and I learned much more in that year than I had in my other years of school combined! I'd take it as an opportunity to stretch your autodidactic skills. Good luck!
posted by asimplemouse at 7:22 AM on February 11, 2011

« Older "Hey Shorty, how’s the coffee today?"   |   Half Gentlemen/Not Beasts Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.