Smoothing The Path From Foreign Lips To American Ears

Ann McClure's picture

For hundreds of grown men and women here, work can mean sticking fingers into models of the human mouth, or trying to talk while peering at their tongues in mirrors or while hopping up and down stairs.

They are foreign graduate students at Ohio University who are spending up to two hours a day learning how to speak so that their American colleagues and students will understand them. Many of them spend more than a year in the program, and they are not allowed to teach until their English instructors say they are ready.

It is a complaint familiar to millions of alumni of research universities: the master’s or doctoral candidate from overseas, employed as a teaching assistant, whose accent is too thick for undergraduate students to penetrate. And it is an issue that many universities are addressing more seriously, using a better set of tools, than in years past.

“These are often students whose reading and writing in English is excellent, but whom Americans have a very hard time comprehending, and it calls for a lot of work,” said Dawn Bikowski, the director of the English Language Improvement Program here.

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