Although Purdue offers an English proficiency class for potential non-native English speaking teaching assistants, it has yet to implement such a class for general international students.
Ileana Cortes Santiago, a graduate student, said she and another graduate student, Thu Ya Aung, were asked to do part of an action project, and they decided to focus on the problem of language barriers in the classroom. In an effort to raise more awareness, the two also sent The Exponent a letter to the editor on Nov. 29.
"It is a situation that needs to be addressed," Santiago said. "It is a very different scenario when in front of a classroom or explaining to students how to do an equation. In social settings, the language is informal and others can correct mistakes for you. In the academic setting, it is much different. You hand in a paper, you get a grade; you do a presentation, you get a grade. You can't change it."
United States institutions are required by law to verify the English language capability of non-native English speaking international students. In 1987, the University Senate adopted a policy that would prevent competency in English from becoming an issue in the academic setting.
Purdue requires several examinations for international students admittance including the Test of English as a Foreign Language, Ordinary Level of the General Certificate of Education language exam, General Certificate of Secondary Education language exam and the International English Language Testing System.
The Oral English Proficiency Program at Purdue is also required for international students wanting to become TAs. However, it is not offered as a general English proficiency course for all international students.
Santiago said oftentimes the lack of effective communication between students and their TAs causes animosity between the two groups.
"The idea of confusing language barrier with a lack of intellect is something that should not happen," Santiago said. "It is not fair."
Aung added that someone can do well on the proficiency exams, but everything changes when put in a different situation.
"I can say I did well, but I don't feel like I was prepared for discussions in the classroom setting," Aung said. "Translation is not always OK. We may have ideas but we may not be able to express them properly (in English)."
David Tate, director of clinical and continuing education and alumni relations, said the concerns about language barriers in the classroom is a problem not only for students but for the administration as well.
"A vast number of undergraduates express concerns of English proficiency of their TAs," Tate said. "They can't understand what the TA is saying ... If a student has a question, the TA may not understand or answer in a way that is proficient.
"I would expect (international students) to show up and have (English) skills. If they do not, they, frankly, should not be admitted. On the other hand, I understand it is difficult to get these international students. If this is the case, it is the requirement and obligation of the University to provide better training programs for these students."
Santiago and Aung have written a petition concerning the issue and hope to use other universities' programs as a models for what Purdue can do.
"We do not need to replicate, but adopt a similar program for Purdue," Aung said.
Santiago said it is a matter of seeing what others are doing and how it has worked for them. Indiana University requires international students to pass the U.S. English capability tests and requires the students to take a English proficiency exam specific to the coursework demands at the university. Michigan State University and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offer classes for English proficiency.
Tate added that it is issues like this that are the responsibility of the student governments and international associations on campus to bring awareness to it.
"If international students are saying this is a problem, then why isn't more help being offered?" Tate said.