For foreign professors, many barriers to overcome

Professor Alex Chung, along with several other professors, belong to the group of faculty members who made the decision to follow the American Dream – and teach despite the language barrier.

The presence of a minority group of professors, teaching even though English is not their first language, is among the aspects that give Norwich University a special flavor.

“For me, language is just a tool. It does not matter how smoothly you can speak, as long as you can communicate, you can do anything, even teaching,” said Chung, an assistant professor of economics and finance who comes from Taiwan.

Many young people from Asia, when searching for a job in the teaching environment, look at opportunities in the United States, identified as the destination with the “least restrictive” teaching system, according to Prof. Chung. They also come to the U.S. because its colleges and universities stress dialogue and interaction in the classroom.

“The best aspect of teaching in the United States, is that students are able to be passionate in expressing their opinions, arguing, and arguing back for something,” said Yangmo Ku, assistant professor of political science, and associate director of peace and war, from Seoul, South Korea. “This type of free debate and free communication style is a very strong point the American culture has compared to the Korean one.”

In general, the Asian teaching system can be described as unilateral: classes are lecture-based, while learning is memorizing-based. The relationship between teachers and students is built on a one-way communication style, meaning that the professor is the only one talking during lessons, while the rest of the people in classroom are only supposed to learn and take notes quietly.

“As a professor in the United States you have the freedom to choose your textbook, and the freedom to choose an elective topic if you want,” said Min Li, assistant professor of sociology from Shanghai, China. “The overall environment is more open and less confining, consequently students tend to be more involved during classes, and my job is more pleasant.”

Despite the positive perspective of working in the American teaching system, being a

 foreign professor also brings with it a need to overcome certain obstacles, such as discussing issues in a foreign language, or just getting ideas across.

“Teaching itself is a big challenge, making people feel the same kind of passion for the material and trying to respond to different kinds of teaching styles,” said Miri Kim, assistant professor in the history and political science department at Norwich, who hails from Seoul, South Korea. She said, “For me, the language is secondary to the other inherent challenges of teaching.”

Prof. Kim had the advantage of moving to the States when she was only eight years old. Children under the age of 12, when immersed in a new language, have the ability to “soak it like a sponge” and learn it faster than adults, according to British research cited by The Independent newspaper.

In other cases, such as Prof. Chung and most of the faculty members at Norwich coming from Asia, they moved to the States later in life, in order to get a bachelors degree or a masters.

For them, learning English has been one of the big challenges, but it is just the beginning. Being a foreign professor also requires being able to understand and explain the material to other people without using their native tongue.

“I remember the first class I taught in 1999, that was the worst nightmare I have ever had,” Prof. Chung said. “After that class, more than half of the students complained about my accent, saying that they could not understand what I was talking about, and that really frustrated me.”

In addition to the language barrier, professors working abroad also have to face every professors’ daily challenges, including dealing with students who have trouble with the class.

“From time to time, students, who are not doing well in my classes, automatically blame me, using my accent as an excuse for their poor results,” Li said. “There is nothing I can do about this. This accent I have, it is going to stay with me. As long as I know the material well, I can find a way to illustrate those concepts, but students need to do their part.”

Chung is not the only professor who confessed having had bad experiences in the past – and sometimes still in the present – while teaching and lecturing students in a foreign language.

“I have always been talented in making a presentation, and delivering messages to people, and when I was in Korea I was pretty good at giving speeches in front a big crowd,” Ku said. “However, when I am speaking in English, it is pretty limited. I have the same kind of passion and enthusiasm, but I have to acknowledge that there is some gap between my Korean and English speaking skills.”

The human brain works in an incredible way when it comes to multilingual people. Even after spending years in a foreign country, speaking a different language, there are specific actions the brain naturally does using their primary language. Thinking, talking to yourself, counting numbers, and dreaming are among the most permanent habits that stick to the native tongue.

“I have always liked to teach, but somehow teaching in English, which is not my mother language, is really hard,” Chung said. “You have to translate in your brain and then talk in a different language. It is very difficult – but I never gave up.”

After spending many years living and working in a foreign country, a person’s language skills naturally improve, but the language barrier can still be a challenge in certain occasions.

“English is still very hard for me, I do not think I will ever be 100 percent confident with it,” Kim said. “Even though I am fluent in it, because it is my second language, sometimes I just do not feel as comfortable as when I am speaking my first language.”

Losing the accent and fully mastering a second language is a never-ending challenge. No matter how long someone has been living in a new country, the brain sticks to the native language.

“Whenever I come back from a trip to China, I always tell my students to be prepared because some of my Chinese might pop out without me even realizing it,” Li said.

Prof. Chung along with the rest of the foreign professors at Norwich have traveled a long way, literally and also in the matter of language development in order to be better teachers.

“Even after being here over 20 years, I still will not be speaking like Americans,” Chung said. “As long as we share the same text, and the same material, and the students study, I don’t think there is a problem in teaching with an accent.”

Prof. Chung, along with all the faculty members coming from different countries, not only contribute to the Norwich community by teaching, by they are also a living example of what it means to follow a dream.

And by their very presence, they offer an example to students who might consider working abroad. Their experiences, and the obstacles these professors have faced, and still are facing when it comes to the language barrier, show how hard work, and perseverance can take a person far in the work environment and in life.

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