Oceanographic concepts and language (part 4)

On how it always helps to speak the same mother tongue as your teacher.

As you might have realized from previous discussion on the topic of oceanography and language (part 1, 2, and 3), I have been thinking a lot about how me teaching in a foreign language to both me and most of my students affects my teaching, our interactions and their learning. I thought I was very aware of the difficulties that arise due to the second (or third or fourth) language issue, and that that awareness was helping me deal with it in a good way.

Recently though, I was supervising students writing the exam for the course I had taught. I was walking around, talking to individual students, and a german student asked me a question to clarify what I wanted them to do. Specifically, the student repeated the question back to me in German and asked me to confirm that their understanding was correct, which it was. And that was when I realized that even though I have always been teaching in English, and always tried to respond to students in one-on-one situations in whichever language they approached me in, german students really have an advantage in my class.

Similarly, when correcting exams, I understand the false friends that german students might use, or their weird choice of words. And while I always try to separate language problems from problems with the oceanographic concepts, I might not be doing such a good job for students whose languages I am not familiar with. Actually, not “I might not be doing such a good job” – there is no way I would do a good job if I was not familiar with the language and the false friends or weird sayings or typical mistakes that come with that language.

I don’t know how to resolve this. I don’t even know whether it is possible. I am sure that the effect is small in my courses and grades because I am aware and actively trying to make sure this isn’t unfairly helping or hindering students. But this is the first time that I think of being back in a primarily german-speaking environment as an advantage – at least I am not introducing unfair circumstances due to different languages.

What do you guys think? Have you come across these problems? How did you deal with them?

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