Folio News Story
January 6, 2006

Words don't come easy

Language barrier the Great Divide in education

by Caitlin Crawshaw and Richard Cairney
Folio Staff
Colombian student Enrique Ariza and English teacher Lisa Alton review an assignment in Alton's English language class. Ariza hopes to complete his master's degree in electrical engineering here but knows his languages skills need to improve.
Colombian student Enrique Ariza and English teacher
Lisa Alton review an assignment in Alton's English
language class. Ariza hopes to complete his master's
degree in electrical engineering here but knows his
languages skills need to improve.

There's a note at the front of Lisa Alton's classroom that reads "English only please." While it sounds like a simple request in an English Language Program class, it is frought with academic and emotional challenges, the Faculty of Extension English language instructor explains.

"They have adult ideas, but they haven't the language to express that yet," she said, adding that without the ability to communicate as an adult, students can feel vulnerable.

"Your sense of self is very shaky for a while."

Her students, she says, share a fierce commitment to learning English, but differ greatly in their motivation. While some are in the process of applying to attend the U of A as undergraduate or graduate students, others are career-minded business people interested in improving their English to earn promotions at work. As a result, not only do the students represent myriad countries and cultures, but also a range of age groups.

"It's the enormous variety of age ranges and focuses that's the biggest challenge," said Alton, who has been teaching since 1983. "As a teacher, you want to keep your students interested, but the kinds of materials we use have to appeal to such an enormous range of ages and interests."

On top of this dilemma, Alton must make sure her classroom is a place where all of her students feel at ease and can take risks. Because of all the new things students must adjust to when they come to Edmonton including vast differences in culture, weather and food it's important for the classroom to be a comfortable space: "The last thing they need is to not feel safe in their class."

Soft-spoken Enrique Ariza, 32, hails from Barranquilla, Colombia, and within a matter of weeks will be returning home to re-apply for a student visa.

"I'm taking this English course with the purpose of getting into a master's program," he said.

Since completing his computer engineering undergraduate degree in Colombia, Ariza worked for nine years in the telecommunications industry. But because the industry isn't as advanced in Colombia as it is in other parts of the world, Ariza decided he'd need to travel abroad to pursue graduate studies in telecommunications. And one particular dot on the map stood out to him.

"Canada is a perfect place to do it," he said. "Here in Alberta, they have the most important nanotechnology institute."

Now his hope is to become a U of A electrical engineering master's student, and study under researchers at the National Institute for Nanotechnology. He has the money and the dedication, he says, but will need the language skills to succeed.

"I started English because I know I'll have to do a good job at the university, and I need my English perfect. I don't want to fail not because of my knowledge of electrical engineering, but because of English problems."

If there is a popular complaint on campus about international education and research, it often is related to language. Professors complain that they can't understand their students. Students complain they can't understand their professors. And some students feel isolated when they're unable to speak a foreign language that their classmates revert to.

Provost and Vice-President (Academic) Dr. Carl Amrhein agrees language is a dicey issue. While he remains firm on the importance of both professors and students attaining certain levels of proficiency in English or French, he knows it isn't easy.

"There is a level of English or French competency that must be attained," he said. "It's part of the experience of being at a university on an international scale to learn to understand people whose English is as good as anyone else's, but who speaks with an accent. When you leave Edmonton, you'll meet people who speak with accents."

Amrhein said he'd be worried if international students were working in their native language, particularly if it's to the exclusion of other students.

"That is something chairs and lab supervisors would look out for. The other issue that arises in these cases is that the students aren't fully involved in the educational experience. We need to work with students to be sure they understand why it is important that they make that investment to be fully fluent in English."

Ariza's investment in English language instruction is already paying off, he says. Since taking ELP courses at the Faculty of Extension over the last few months, Ariza says he's far more adept at finding the words he needs to communicate effectively.

"When I arrived here, I tried to find the word, but it was really difficult," he said. "My brain was thinking in Spanish and trying to translate."

Now, he says with a smile, the words flow more freely.