Accents impede students’ success in math

By Julie Santiago

Some East Los Angeles College students are having trouble understanding their math professors because of language barriers.

In a survey conducted by East Los Angeles College Campus News on the Math Department, 200 students were asked if they had difficulty understanding a math professor due to language barriers. This survey was done prior to classes going online for the spring semester.

More than half of students surveyed said they had some difficulty understanding their math professors due to the professor’s accent.

Using a scale from one to five, with one being not at all difficult to understand and five being very difficult to understand, more than half of the students indicated some level of difficulty understanding professors.

Most students fell into the range of three. The survey also asked students if they felt the professor’s accent affected their grade in any way and if the students had difficulty understanding English.

Only 19 students said they had difficulty understanding English while 84 said they had difficulty understanding the professor’s accent and that it did or might have affected their overall grade. Students anonymously math professor Michael Cho on the survey as someone that was hard to understand.

The professor was informed about the survey results. Cho, who has taught math for about 13 years and is currently teaching at ELAC, Pasadena City College and Santa Monica College said there is no language barrier. He said he is not an English professor, he is a math professor and doesn’t think his accent is a problem. Cho said students are complaining, not doing homework, not studying or trying and believes this is the reason they are failing. “Sorry to say they are just lazy,” Cho said.

Cho said he goes over problems and asks for questions during class and encourages the use of the math lab. Cho also said that professors are passing students, from lower level math classes, that may not be entirely ready or qualified to pass.

Students are constantly needing to play catch-up in his class and many end up giving up. Sociology major Melissa Santana dropped Cho’s Statistics class at the beginning of Spring semester. Santana said she was disappointed when the professor she had initially enrolled with got switched last minute for Cho, but decided to give Cho a chance anyway.

After sitting through Cho’s class Santana realized she had no other option but to drop it. “I could not understand him at all! His accent is very thick and his voice is super low–the A/C was louder than him,” Santana said. Santana said math was never her best subject in high school.

Despite math not coming naturally to her, Santana said she would receive decent grades because she would put in extra effort. Santana was upset when she heard Cho said students are lazy. “It is really clear that he doesn’t care that people aren’t able to understand him. To fully understand the subject he is teaching, he needs to be a good communicator. This isn’t a learn-on-your-own course because if we were to teach ourselves we wouldn’t need him,” Santana said.

Student workers at the Counseling Department, Leonardo Gonzalez and Catherine Fabian, said they get complaints from students every semester about the professors at the Math Department. “Every semester we get students who tell us ‘I had enrolled with this professor but then I got this professor and I don’t know what the professor is saying. I don’t know if he’s saying four or seven, I don’t understand. I’m not going to be able to pass,’” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez struggles with how best to advise these students. Gonzalez said he doesn’t personally have issues with professors with accents but empathizes with students. “Some students just want to understand professors better because they are more auditory learners and some are more visual learners. It just depends on the student. A lot of students in general are auditory and visual so that is a necessary skill to have in their learning process,” Gonzalez said.

Professor of Mathematics for 19 years at ELAC, Anne Siswanto was also informed about the survey results. However, despite having an accent Siswanto was one of the few professors that received overall positive feedback on the survey conducted. She also has positive feedback on ratemyprofessor.com, a review site which allows college students to rate professors.

Siswanto said she is not sure how other professors treat their students but credits her favorable student rating to making sure students know she cares and supports their effort. “If students trust that the objective of a professor is to help them succeed and that they are supported, they will be open to try harder in class,” Siswanto said. She understands that students have other responsibilities outside school. She also makes sure they feel comfortable asking her any questions during class.

“The ability to freely ask questions in class helps them understand me better so that my accent matters less,” Siswanto said. Chairperson of the Math Department, Joe Kazimir, said he did not have any data to comment.

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