There was a running joke in Dan Whalen's first- and second-year chemistry classes that you'd be lucky if you got a teaching assistant who could communicate in English.
So dismal was the situation that Mr. Whalen and his classmates left their science lab on more than one occasion to ask their professor how to run the machines.
"It's been extremely frustrating," says the 22-year-old Queen's University biochemistry student, now in his final year of studies. "I've had more than several TAs where you can tell that not only is English not their first language, but they can barely speak it or understand it.
"If you wanted the extra help, no matter how willing they were to help you out, no matter how knowledgeable they were of the material, they just couldn't communicate it to us," he says. "And that, to me, was the biggest issue."
Mr. Whalen's complaint is not unique: Undergraduate students at schools across the country who completed the University Report Card survey complained in large numbers about the difficulty of being taught by TAs with inadequate English skills. These anxieties are becoming increasingly more pronounced as international graduate students flood Canadian universities.
Mikael Swayze, a spokesman for the University of Toronto's teaching assistants, estimates there are about 27,000 TAs on Canadian campuses. At larger universities like U of T, 25 per cent of them are international graduate students.
Why so many foreign TAs in the classrooms? India, China and other Asian countries are expanding their undergraduate programs, but their graduate school capacity is nowhere near that of North America. Further, Canadian universities are under pressure to increase the size of their graduate pool. But because of the strong economy, there aren't enough Canadian students moving into graduate studies, forcing universities to rely on international students. Ontario, for example, is increasing the number of graduate-school spaces by more than 50 per cent. Having foreign grad students can spell more revenue for Canadian schools but, as undergrads witness first-hand, it can also present challenges in laboratories and classrooms.
TAs, who are graduate students, provide the vital one-on-one contact that is lacking in large university lecture halls, where hundreds of students vie to catch a glimpse of their professor. As class sizes have grown, so too has the need for tutorial sessions. Teaching assistants do everything from marking undergrad papers to leading tutorials and supervising lab work.
Anil Varughese, a TA at U of T, admits there have been times when undergrads stare blankly at him, not understanding a word or phrase because of his Indian accent. While he says students need to listen more closely, he also believes that foreign graduate students need additional training in communicating in a North American classroom, where the style of English may be different.
Mr. Varughese, 34, arrived in Canada seven years ago to do his PhD in political science after doing his undergrad studies and master's work in India. He was attracted to the University of Toronto because it offered him a package that paid his tuition fees and provided him with a small income, as long as he took a TA position.
Before coming to Canada, he had never taken part in a tutorial, let alone led one. But U of T ran training sessions about how to set up tutorials and mark papers, and he says he is more at ease in a classroom these days.
Mr. Varughese's first language is Malayalam, which is spoken predominantly in southern India, but he studied in English. He feels that language barriers may be less pronounced in the humanities than in sciences, where students are required to write and communicate clearly.
Of his own interactions with other graduate students in the sciences, he says: "They are very good students in their field, but maybe their communication style can improve a little bit."
For the most part, TAs say their foreign colleagues are being unfairly criticized for their language skills.
Marnina Norys, a TA at York University in Toronto, notes that students also complain about the accents of their professors. "There's generally a lack of tolerance and a lack of willingness of students to work at it [understanding their instructors]" she adds.
Besides, she says, Canadian students should scrutinize their own English proficiency skills before attacking others. For all the enthusiastic undergrads she has taught in her six years as a TA, she vividly remembers the ones who could barely string together a sentence.
"Sometimes I'm actually quite shocked — just because of the lack of coherence," says the 38-year-old, who is doing her doctorate in social-political thought. "With one paper it looked like the original text had been taken by the student and just put through a computerized thesaurus."
Sarah Pemberton, a TA at the University of British Columbia, echoes the sentiment that undergrads shouldn't throw in the towel too quickly about communication problems with their TAs.
"There are probably people with all sorts of different accents or maybe different turns of phrases. But that doesn't strike me as inadequate English," says the 27-year-old, who is president of UBC's teaching assistants union and is doing her PhD in political science.
Mr. Whalen acknowledges that he had a few exceptionally good TAs, including one in his second-year biology course who went out of her way to run a website for students in addition to the time she spent with them in the lab and tutorials.
Sean Junor of the Educational Policy Institute, an independent research group based in Toronto, says large Canadian universities depend heavily on TAs to make sure undergrads have a grasp of the material, especially as professors are pulled into research activities.
All too often, institutions offload course material on graduate students who are ill-prepared to deliver it in a classroom setting. This becomes more difficult when the students' first or second language is not English, Mr. Junor says.
"They are not instructors. They themselves are students. They haven't developed the skills and the ability to teach," he says.
Based on his own experiences, Mr. Whalen adds: "They seemed willing to help us, but unable. It was a real point of stress."
Universities have taken notice of the undergrad complaints, and are responding.
"There are occasions when undergraduate students are known to attribute some difficulties that they're their having to communication issues in the classroom," says Janice Deakin, dean of graduate studies at Queen's University. "We do take that concern very seriously."
Most universities require that foreign graduate students complete the TOEFL (test of English as a foreign language), which covers all facets of English proficiency, including spoken English and grammar exercises, or other approved English-language tests.
Queen's University has taken the additional step of requiring international graduate students whose first language is not English to be assessed for oral proficiency in English before being assigned a TA position. If students fail, there is a course in communication skills for them and they must wait at least a semester before becoming a TA.
Other schools are taking on similar initiatives. The University of Toronto's school of graduate studies, for example, offers training, workshops and one-on-one consultation sessions for foreign graduate students.
Of the assessment program at Queen's, Andy Leger, an educational developer at the school's Centre for Teaching and Learning, says: "The purpose of this, for lack of a better term, is to pick off those individuals who need extra help before we put them in a position that is not very advantageous to them, and certainly not advantageous to the students who they are teaching."
He adds: "It's not about accent reduction, it's not about changing the way they speak. It's about helping them to communicate, and learn about what it's like to teach in a Canadian classroom — what are the cultural norms here."
Dr. Leger believes it's not always an issue of English proficiency for foreign graduate students, but rather having confidence in a new classroom setting — an assessment echoed by others.
He acknowledges that master's and doctoral students need to learn proper communication skills to face a classroom of undergrads. But at the same, he says, "it's incumbent on undergraduates to try to understand and try to appreciate these students and where they come from, what they have to offer. And then, frankly, try a little harder to really listen, or ask for clarification when they need it, and learn to communicate. Communication is a two-way street."