Pronunciation Is Key

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By Carl Straumsheim for Inside Higher Ed

With more Chinese students showing up on University of Iowa class rolls than ever before, the Henry B. Tippie College of Business last month invited its faculty and staff to a workshop on how to pronounce the students' names. Meanwhile, Chinese students are flocking to the tutoring center to become fluent in English.

The introductory lessons in Chinese, hosted in early February, drew about 50 participants to the Judith R. Frank Business Communications Center, the business school’s tutoring center. Some participants likened the experience to a fifth-grade classroom -- administrators and faculty members huddled in groups of four or five, trying and failing to pronounce sounds never used in English.

The turnout was a pleasant surprise for presenter Xi Ma, whose job as a curriculum coordinator at Iowa’s Confucius Institute chapter involves raising awareness about Chinese culture. Ma, along with student volunteers from the Greater Chinese Business Association, hovered from group to group, demonstrating how to pronounce the Xi-s, Zh-es and Ji-s often featured in pinyin, the system used to transcribe Chinese characters into letters more recognizable to professors in the Midwest.

“When they asked me to host this pronunciation workshop, I had to choose what matters most,” Ma said. She tailored the sessions to teach the participants how to pronounce students’ names -- something many professors at the business school have admitted is a daily struggle. One frustrated professor, Ma said, brought a class roll where 80 of 100 students were Chinese.

As a growing Chinese middle class crowds the country’s top universities, the number of Chinese students in the U.S. has skyrocketed. International students make up about 10 percent of the student population at the University of Iowa, but at Tippie, that number is 21 percent -- up from 8 percent in 2009. And while Chinese students account for about half of the international student population campuswide, more than 80 percent of Tippie’s roughly 500 international students are Chinese. Nearly all of them study finance and accounting.

“There’s no diversity in our diversity,” said Susan R. Felker, assistant dean at Tippie.

Felker, who said her second-language proficiency extends to reading menus and asking for directions in French, said she looked forward to attending advanced sessions in Chinese after being introduced to the language last month.

“If I can get it pronounced somewhat correctly, that’s the goal,” Felker said. “As much as people complain about French and Spanish, I think Asian languages present a completely different paradigm.”

Not only are Tippie's staff brushing up on their second-language skills, its students are doing the same. The rampant growth of the business school’s Chinese population has led to a greater demand for English as a Second Language services, said Lisa A. Leech, assistant director of the business communication center. 

In addition to tutoring students on writing and speaking, the center has bolstered its ranks with tutors who claim Chinese as their native language. The tutors host weekly informal conversation groups, which Leech said helps Chinese students pick up on aspects of the English language that are difficult to teach in a formal setting, such as idioms and slang.

As the business school raises awareness about its non-native English speakers, professors are becoming more aware of how they use language when lecturing.

“We use slang constantly in the classroom, and if you do it quite a bit, it makes it difficult for international students to understand what you’re saying,” Felker said. She and other professors pointed to phrases like “out in left field” and “check it out,” which have confused students in the past.

“Things that we don’t think about as idioms can really impede understanding,” Leech said. She suggested that professors should include illustrations, gestures and different types of multimedia -- as well as making sure to consider their speaking speed and word choice -- in order to ensure that international students are able to fully comprehend their lectures.

“Just simply slowing down can help,” Leech said. “Students can’t quite keep up, and it just gets worse, and farther behind they get.”

The Chinese pronunciation workshops have given the international students another opportunity to practice English and interact with their professors. Based on the positive feedback from both parties, the business communication center is considering new workshops that will build on those hosted last month. No official plans have been made, but Ma said she would return to present, whether it involves helping professors with the names on their class rolls or giving administrators more detailed lessons in the mechanics of the language.

“For now, it all depends on their needs,” Ma said.

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