Well, it's a matter of, um, plain speaking

December 21, 2007

Hot on the heels of the National Student Survey comes another weighty document. This time the students surveyed are from outside the UK and hail from Europe and the rest of the world. The International Student Barometer (ISB), which was set up in 2005, is a national survey of international students in higher education, and it is conducted at two points during the academic year. Students at all stages of their studies participate in the survey - unlike the National Student Survey, which focuses on finalists. Not all universities take part, although the numbers are growing - in 2007 there were 56 participating institutions.

Leaving aside the sympathy I feel for the poor students who are constantly being surveyed for one thing or another and must be sick to death of filling in forms, the results of the ISB are rather intriguing. The survey covers three areas: student satisfaction with their learning experience; with student life overall, which includes questions about the host culture as well as basic questions about the quality and price of accommodation; and a set of questions about student satisfaction with the host university's support services. One would expect the results to map pretty well on to those of the NSS, and to some extent they do. But there are some significant differences.

Catering received quite low satisfaction ratings, which doesn't surprise anyone, given the quality of the food Chinese or Japanese or French or Italian students are used to at home. The high cost of living and steep accommodation costs were not popular, either. But for me, the oddest complaint to emerge from the survey was dissatisfaction with academics' English. Across all the institutions taking part in the survey, some did much better than others. The final result showed general broad satisfaction with the expertise of academics, but the question of what constitutes poor English has posed a problem. Discussing the survey results with colleagues, one American said that he could not understand half of what his fellow British academics were saying, so he could sympathise with students who were not native speakers; though we all laughed, the serious question remained. And since the findings are not detailed enough to show quite what is the basis of this particular type of dissatisfaction, we remained mystified.

It is the case that there has been a steady internationalisation of academic recruitment in recent years, so that in some departments there is a sizeable percentage of non-native English-speaking lecturers. However, it is most unlikely that this group of academics can be deemed to have problems with English. In my experience, many lecturers recruited from overseas speak clearly and have a sophisticated grasp of English that would put many UK nationals to shame. At international conferences, where English is increasingly a lingua franca, you can hear all kinds of Englishes spoken, and participants do not appear to have problems understanding one another.

With no evidence to support this hypothesis other than 30 years of listening to lectures and conference presentations, I think the key is probably the delivery of the material. Some people speak far too fast, others gabble and slur their speech, many don't look at the audience and are therefore often barely audible. Of course these defects can be corrected to some extent with training, but when I think of the very distinguished Professor X whose speech is punctuated by "so ... er ... well ... er ... umm ... actually ... er ... the source of the ... er ... problem ... can ... er ... be traced ... er ... umm ... to ... ", all accompanied by passionate hand gestures, I reckon that if he hasn't improved over 25 years, no amount of training is going to help very much. Neurotic speech habits impede comprehension and irritate the listener into the bargain. Yet Professor X will continue to address uncomprehending audiences simply because he is a Big Name.

There is also the interesting dimension of the changes that spoken English has undergone since the 1970s. Before that, academics were generally expected to acquire some form of BBC English and use the standard Received Pronunciation that was perceived as the hallmark of a good education. Over the past few decades, however, all that has changed. Today, all kinds of regional accents can be heard on radio, on television and in the lecture room. It is no longer, thank goodness, a stigma to speak with a regional lilt or burr, indeed it is actively encouraged and in this way great progress is being made to ensure the survival of local vernaculars.

But although this may be desirable within a UK context, we may wonder how easy it is for overseas students to understand regional variants of the standard English they have been taught. In Rome many years ago, I used to have to speak the compulsory first-year dictation exam, and because the lecture hall was so vast and there were so many students, two of us read, echoing one another, at either end of the room. The students used to mill around before sitting down, and those who had worked with me would try to get near to where I was speaking from, while those who had worked with my Irish colleague and who found my English hard to follow would all try to sit near her.

An additional linked problem comes when a lecturer tries to appeal to youth culture and uses colloquialisms or contemporary references from the telly. This may go down well with native speakers, but it can seem like gobbledegook to someone encountering British culture for the first time. At the opposite end of the scale are the high and mighty; those academics who talk down to their students, fill their lectures with complicated terms and references and make no allowances for anyone.

So how can we help our international students feel better about our English? We can try to articulate better, avoid too many colloquialisms, never patronise through the use of specialist jargon or classical tags and above all, speak at a speed that involves everyone and does not leave half the room behind. All new academics undergo training in how to lecture; now the overseas students are reminding us that it's never too late for old dogs to learn new tricks.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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