Question: A student gives a presentation. He has a heavy foreign accent and is at times incomprehensible. Overall, the speech seems well researched and on target. What do you do?
a. Give him an A.
b. Subtract points for incomprehensibility and give him a B.
c. Tell him that the presentation was unacceptable and that he should improve his oral communication proficiency.
Instructors cite a variety of reasons (often with a kernel of truth) why they let incomprehensibility slide:
1. “Asking a student to reduce his/her accent is embarrassing and discouraging.” — It is true that accents are windows to our identity, and that a student changing his/her accent may experience a tangible sense of loss or feel repercussions from home culture friends and family.
2. “It’s not possible to reduce accents in adults. Native accents can be achieved only when we learn the language before puberty.” — It is true that, after the brain hemispheres separate at puberty, a native-sounding accent tends to be more difficult to achieve.
3. “People who don’t understand foreign accents are prejudiced. They should try harder to understand.” — It is true that sometimes the problem lies with the listener. Don Rubin (University of Georgia) conducted a study some years back, in which a recording of a native English speaker was played to undergraduate students. They were told that the speaker was a college instructor and asked to rate his comprehensibility. Some groups were shown a photo of a Caucasian, others a photo of an Asian-looking individual while the recording was played. Although the recording was the same, the Asian-looking individual was ranked less comprehensible than the Caucasian.
Despite these valid objections, I believe it is paramount that we encourage students to improve their oral language skills to a level where a benevolent native speaker can understand without straining. We are doing our students a disservice if we don’t.
Our nonnative students are sometimes being ostracized by native-speaking teammates, who don’t want them to participate in presentations for fear that their grade will be jeopardized. And our nonnative Baruch graduates are sometimes dismissed at the early stages of the job interviewing process, due to heavy accents. The first practice often happens under the radar; the second when it’s too late, and students have left the college. In my view, both practices are unethical. We have a responsibility to provide students with an education that promises workplace success.
How to approach the issue? One way would be to adopt a threshhold model by which we evaluate presentations (as well as papers) only if a basic standard has been met? Any student falling below this standard is asked to revise. A threshold model would require a common standards on what constitutes acceptable form (e.g., more than five errors per page or five incomprehensibilities per minutes of speech, and additional work is indicated).
In my experience, most students welcome the opportunity to improve. When I told a Russian student in a public speaking class some years back that he was not going to pass the course unless he worked on his comprehensibility, he committed himself to weekly tutorials and almost daily language lab work. The change in this student in only one semester was extraordinary. He changed from a low-proficiency speaker to one that was 100% comprehensible.
We are lucky that Baruch offers free services to assist the students: SACC has a number of professional speech tutors (not students, but trained professionals) who work with students one-on-one. We also have a new and well-equipped ESL speech lab that is open 10 hours most days, and even on Saturdays. The lab features tons of excellent materials not only on pronunciation, but also grammar, vocabulary development, conversation management, and more. For more information, please see http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/esllab
Considering that communication skills are consistently ranked at the top of skills desired by employers of college graduates (and oral skills usually outranking written skills at that), we need to make our students aware of these services and make adequate communication skills an integral part of our evaluation procedures.