How can I help my master's student improve his English communication skills?
May 17, 2011 5:55 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes I supervise graduate students who are not native speakers of English and their written and oral communication abilities are not that great. I can comment on drafts for things to be sent elsewhere, but the worst thing is that grammatical problems mean that it is sometimes impossible or difficult for me to understand one of these students. I think usually they don't understand the problem when I try to explain it. Are there any books I could suggest that they read? Can you suggest other things that I can do to improve this?

Some of the specific issues (sorted with those most detrimental to communication at the top) include:
  1. Beginning a discussion of some complex technical problem without any context
  2. Using pronouns without antecedents
  3. Incorrect use of definite and indefinite articles
  4. Non-idiomatic expressions (example: "I have a doubt")
  5. Problems with verb agreement
  6. Use of plural when singular should be used and vice versa
  7. Multiple spaces in the middle of sentences
  8. Capitalization issues
posted by grouse to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Does your university have a writing center or an international students' center? If so, those places tend to have people that specialize in this.

Additionally, I'm under the strong impression that many non-native speaking grad students pay people to edit their stuff for them.

(Commentary: is this person TAing?)
posted by k8t at 6:09 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Surely your university offers ESL classes. Can you suggest that your students take these lessons?
posted by AlliKat75 at 6:09 PM on May 17, 2011

As a writing tutor in one of the aforementioned university writing labs, I can say that the issues you mention are both incredibly common and absolutely fixable. It's amazing how fast the ESL students improve once given good one-on-one feedback with a focus on patterns of errors.

The progress that the ESL students exhibited made the poor performance of many native speakers even more unbearable. It really goes to show that you can certainly help someone learn a new language, but you can't fix stupid.
posted by charmcityblues at 6:13 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

It doesn't sound like they need a book about why things like antecedents need pronouns. It sounds like they need English as a Second Language lessons.
posted by Kololo at 6:20 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding k8t, charmcityblues. Writing centers are great resources and I refer students to them all the time. Depending on the students' personalities, though, I find it important to emphasize that going to the writing center is not a "remedial" thing but rather a useful part of the writing process. When I refer them to my institution's writing center, I often tell students that I occasionally make use of their services as well (which is true); that can help make them less reluctant to go themselves.
posted by a small part of the world at 6:37 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

There are different sorts of problems in your list and so the students need different sorts of solutions. #1 for example is not only a non-native speaker issue. It's the sort of feedback that many native speakers also need, and is about writing style and audience.

#2, 3 and 4 are definitely ESL issues, but are really quite hard to fix. Not only does the student need to read about correct usage, but also just needs to read a lot of writing IN correct English to get a good sense of idiom, article usage, etc. Recommend that they read more journal papers written by others, which they should be doing anyway.

#5-8 are really easily solvable. The student just needs to be told what not to do ("don't put multiple spaces in a sentence", or "this is how verb agreement in English works") and then told to use searches or auto-correction to find errors in the future. A search and replace for double spaces, would solve #7. And even crappy grammar correction software like the inbuilt one in MS Word will get verb agreement and capitalisation right more often than not.
posted by lollusc at 8:36 PM on May 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Good ideas. I used to use my institution's writing center as an undergrad so I think they are pretty great. Unfortunately this student is actually visiting from another institution so he doesn't have access to the same resources that an enrolled student would have.
posted by grouse at 8:42 PM on May 17, 2011

I work for a company where native speaking PhDs edit pre-publication manuscripts for non-native speakers. All of the things you're discussing are really common, and we get paid to solve those problems and make the articles read like they were written by a native speaker. Your school's writing center may definitely help, but it may be that ultimately the best thing for your student to do is to work with you (or their advisors, etc.) to get the content as well done as possible and then to pay somebody like me to edit their final copy. I hope that many of our clients look at the changes made to the final version and learn things, but, for example, idioms are very hard for non-native speakers of any language to ever get comfortable using fluently.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:16 AM on May 18, 2011

Incorrect use of definite and indefinite articles

This one is not a good hill to die on. I spent a year teaching ESL to people whose native language doesn't have articles, and no matter how good their general English was they just couldn't get this one right consistently. It's funny that "a"/"the" confusion is a mistake that native speakers almost never make, no matter how terrible their grammar is in every other way.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:26 AM on May 18, 2011

When I taught composition in China I used to talk to students about how they were taught to organize essays - I was getting tons of essays that seemed to me thesis-less and full of weird platitudes and all wrong in the same way, but once I understood how they had been taught to structure essays, I was able to target my writing advice much better. "You learned that you conclude your essay like X; in US English we are taught to conclude our essay like Y", for example. I also wrote several really simple short essays with notes and handed them out as models.

I did short, targeted lessons on easy-to-fix problems like verb agreement and capitalization.

The idiomatic language thing I only fixed by feedback on individual papers, because each instance was different - although if I saw something across multiple papers I might bring it up in class.

Gosh, I miss teaching composition in China.
posted by Frowner at 6:27 AM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Unfortunately this student is actually visiting from another institution so he doesn't have access to the same resources that an enrolled student would have.

You still might want to check with your writing center. Ours would work with people in these situations quite frequently, especially if they had been given access to other university resources (an email address or ID card) or if someone from their department called and let us know they were legitimately affiliated with the university, even in just a short-term research capacity or something similar.
posted by BlooPen at 10:47 AM on May 18, 2011

I'm coming at this from the side of your student, having recently completed a masters programme in a language I learned to speak as an adult.

My advisor, perhaps like yourself, suffered a lot with my initial work. She helped me (more than it was her place to?), after which I got revisions from friends - most helpful were those who were studying the same subject - and then a final revision from a professional. My thesis finally turned out "well written". But each chapter had at least 2-3 revisions from native speakers before it got there!

The main lesson I took away from that is that I should have taken lessons on writing, and right from the start of my course. Unless you sit down with someone and go through the errors you're actually making, they're not going to get better very fast.

During the process it also seemed to me that myself or others would blame errors on my language, or I would ask people to help me to revise my language, but a lot more than that was at play: my skill in the subject and clearness of thinking and presentation were all improved by revisions. I was learning the subject and the language simultaneously and so they weren't easily distinguishable.
posted by squishles at 9:36 AM on May 20, 2011

Suggest they try keeping a diary on lang-8? I used to tutor non-native speakers and always pointed them to this site. It doesn't have to be a diary. Sometimes they'd post short essays. I'd like to think it weeded out some of the more common mistakes.
posted by pimli at 10:31 AM on May 23, 2011

Response by poster: On closer inspection, the writing center is open to faculty and staff as well, and my student is actually appointed as staff here, so I have sent him there for some help with his thesis.
posted by grouse at 5:34 PM on July 13, 2011

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