Chinese business student Zheng Cheng has spoken fluent English since he was 14.
He learned the language while in school in his native China. So when he came to the University of Kansas a year ago to pursue a doctorate in strategic management, Cheng thought he’d have no problem communicating with fellow students.
“I wasn’t afraid of speaking English,” Cheng said, adding he never doubted he would land the teaching assistant position he needed for his Ph.D.
Cheng quickly discovered that chatting with friends over lunch was much different from schooling a class of mostly American-born students on the complex concepts of business management.
“I speak English, but the Chinese way,” he said.
Some idioms don’t translate and he struggled with tenses.
It’s been a common problem at colleges and universities for decades. It led some states — Missouri, for one — to pass laws requiring foreign graduate students who want to teach to first pass a spoken English test.
Such efforts are being tested more now than ever as increasing numbers of international graduate students pour onto U.S. college campuses, said Mary Wood, the director of Kansas State University’s English Language Program.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the number of international grad students is growing at its fastest clip in five years.
Twice, Cheng failed a spoken English test.
Like many doctoral students, he needed a teaching assistantship to chase his dream of becoming a professor and researcher.
To the rescue came KU’s Applied English Center and a 4-year-old language learning computer software program developed by Carnegie Mellon University.
The program, called Native Accent, allows the user to not only hear the language, but to also see it spoken. With a computer showing front and side angles of a speaker, the learner can watch the mouth move when a particular word is spoken. Then they can repeatedly mimic the audio and visuals seen on the computer screen, said Dawn Haverkate, a lecturer at the center. K-State and universities in Missouri use similar software.
After spending an hour a week for 12 weeks using Native Accent and practicing pitch, duration of utterances and the rhythm of English, Cheng passed the proficiency test. An accent remains, but Cheng’s English is clear. This fall he’s teaching his first classes at KU.
So far, no students have complained that they can’t understand him.
Now if he sees a blank look on a student’s face, Cheng is pretty sure it comes from trouble grasping the material.