On Teaching Fashion: When English Is Your Second Language

Teaching in a university setting is challenging at times but when you are not teaching in your native language it brings about new challenges. Speaking is our primary method of communication in the classroom and being a teacher demands that we are able to be understood by our students. When this is a struggle for either the teacher or the student, the learning outcomes are compromised. Since English is my second language, I purposefully speak slowly and clearly during my lectures. English is my primary method of reading, writing, and speaking these days and I don’t have a noticeable accent. I grew up with parents that do have a very strong accent, which of course never bothered me. What did bother me is when I saw that others were confused at what they said or told them they couldn’t understand what they just said. My mother, a former teacher, had a student burst out in the middle of her lecture saying that he couldn’t understand what she was saying because of her accent. Her response was: “I don’t have an accent-you have an accent!” This quickly diffused the situation and everyone laughed. It also gave her an opportunity to announce that if anyone needs her to repeat anything they should just raise their hand and she will be happy to do so. She was also supplementing her lessons with handouts and slide show presentations.


On Teaching photographed by Tre Miles

I think being a good teacher includes knowing that not all students learn the same way, accent or not. Having a typed copy of the presentation for the students to follow along with your lecture, handouts, writing key terms on the board are all helpful for any teacher. But these tools are essential when communication problems may occur. You have to make sure that you announce to your students, especially undergraduates, that it is okay if they need you to repeat something that you said. Graduate students may also be hesitant to ask you to repeat yourself, as they may not want to seem rude. Perhaps even making a joke about a word you struggle with as an example for students to see that repeating yourself does not bother you, and the lesson plans will not be compromised.

If a student hasn’t had much exposure to a person with an accent, they may not be as comfortable or maybe not have experience in making an effort to understand a person who sounds different from others in their life. We want the student to be focused on the content of the lesson, not the way it sounds. If a student misunderstands a word or two, it shouldn’t make a big impact since we want them to be focusing on understanding the concept. However, for those of us with an accent, it is worth exploring this because after every semester, each student will fill out a course instructor survey, or teacher evaluation. This information is then used for promotion, a pay raise, and is a deciding factor if the teacher is rehired for another semester. An example of a survey question could be “Has the instructor communicated information effectively?”, which the student will have to rate either Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Neutral, Agree, or Strongly Agree. Students are also able to leave comments and I have heard from colleagues that they have seen comments such as “the way she speaks makes it difficult to understand” or that they “aren’t able to do well in the course because the teacher doesn’t speak proper English and I can’t understand”.

There is an article out right now discussing how to acclimate international students to campus. The article notes that they “challenge faculty to alter their traditional teaching methods by varying their lecture styles and talking speeds, adding visuals to presentations and to play into different learning styles. (Also noted), that international students don’t often participate the same way American students do, and might be uncertain when it comes to expectations.” It is a great read for those of you that have an international student working with you. I recently heard from another faculty member at a different university about her experience with team teaching a course in which “the TA had such a strong accent that the students in that section complained of inequities which led to some adjustments for the semester to balance things”. Being able to understand how an international student may feel and having solutions to work with any limitations is important for the whole department. Most universities have small graduate student numbers, so we should actively help international students to ensure that they will be successful in their coursework and complete the program.


Pattermaking students photographed by Karen Bravo

On a related note, I learned patternmaking using the English System of Measurements and not the metric system. I currently teach patternmaking in one of my courses and have seen bewildered international student faces look back at me when I point out the ¼” measurement used along the neckline. I’ve started to explain our measurement system to all students and point to the ruler when talking about each point. I know this is important for international students, but it also helps the others get use to the new equipment they’ll be using in the classroom. Ultimately, I want all the students to be familiar with both styles of measuring since it’ll be essential for students to work internationally in the future. I am curious which measuring system apparel design teachers are using. I’d also love to hear your experience with English as a second language in the comments below. I look forward to hearing from you.

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