International students learn in native languages, not English


Jake Miller/ Iowa State Daily

Many international students use translated textbooks or have slides during lectures translated into their native language.

Katharina Gruenewald

Large reading assignments can be a cognitive load for students. Reading in a non-native language is an added learning pressure for many international students.

A few of Iowa State’s introductory classes will provide translations into the Chinese language to help relieve this pressure.

“Having the slides or textbooks presented in Chinese is wonderful for the Chinese students to get a sense of what’s going on in the class,” said Tammy Slater, assistant professor of English.

However, Slater said that the ultimate goals of those students must be taken into account.

“International students come to good universities in the U.S., so that when they go back to their home countries, they go back with a degree from an American university where it is understood that they were functioning in English,” Slater said.

Slater also said students cannot speak very well about a context area in English if they learned it in another language.

Vemala Devi Balakrishnan, an international student from Malaysia and senior in dietetics, has personally never found it very difficult to read English textbooks.

“I have been exposed to English reading since the age of 14 and never had problems with it,” Balakrishnan said.

Balakrishnan has to look up specific terms in the dictionary, too, but can usually get the main idea of what is being said. Therefore, she personally doesn’t feel the need to receive any translations in her native language.

“Malaysia is very multicultural. We all have different mother tongues. My own mother tongue is Tamil. But Malaysia’s national language is Malay,” Balakrishnan said.

Balakrishnan also said that Iowa State offers facilities to improve the level of English for non-native speakers, like the English placement test and the offering of basic English classes.

“I think if you know that you are going to another country, you should be fully aware that the whole medium of communication, especially in education, will be in English,” Balakrishnan said.

Instructors may feel like they should take partial responsibility for international students understanding their courses. 

“I feel for the international students. If it is engaging them, it is helping them when they were not understanding this before these PowerPoints are a nice gestures. But I do get concerned, because if they want to learn context in English, then they are missing the point,” Slater said.

There have also been some complaints about the content specialist going back to China.

“There have been complaints that content specialists are having trouble teaching classes in an all-English environment,” Slater said.

These specialists’ abilities to speak English about their context is apparently not good enough to interact in scholarly activities, Slater said.

“And if you provide translation for that specific language, why not provide it for some of the minority languages?” Balakrishnan asked.

Slater said that people might end up favoring one nationality over another, too.

“What they could possibly do is have a support group that provides explanations of specific terms because I have to look up terms sometimes,” Balakrishnan said.