Proficiency in English essential to success

Without the necessary language skills, students will be left behind. But are they willing to put in the needed work?

As a new school year starts, many immigrants and young Canadians from homes where English isn’t spoken face the daunting task of learning an official language. They’ll have varying degrees of success.

When an appliance failure forced me to buy a fridge, the salesman was perfectly fluent in spoken English. He described the products, answered questions and used the store’s computer system without hesitation. But when he had to look for a detail in a printed manual, he handed it me saying, “You find it. English is your first language.”

Seeking to hire a research assistant, I once interviewed a woman who had just completed a PhD in education at the University of British Columbia. She interviewed well, had good references and provided all her documentation, including a printed copy of her impressive PhD thesis.

But I’ve learned to test for writing skills and try to scrupulously treat all job-seekers the same. So even though it seemed totally unnecessary and almost an insult, I turned on a computer and asked her to write a simple letter for me, as I had asked all the other candidates.

She absolutely refused, although the next day she sent me a perfectly written letter. Needless to say, she didn’t get the job. I still haven’t figured out how she managed to get that PhD.

A poster boy for picking up English was a newly-arrived immigrant who took an evening course in economics from me while he held down a low-skilled day job. Economics is a challenging subject even for those who have no difficulty with the language and this student had really minimal English.

I told him as politely as I could, and often, that he wasn’t ready for this course. I recommended he withdraw and take it when he had more English. He ignored my suggestions and attended every class, the pages of his language dictionary flying as he looked up words. Even though the grades were based on exams written in English, he passed. The following semester, he took a more advanced economics course and got an A.

Not all English as second language (ESL) students will work that hard or do as well. Stories circulate about ESL students pressuring professors to give them higher grades than their performances justifies, claiming they need those grades to go on to more advanced programs. Such pressure may come from international students whose higher fee scales make them an important component in the budgets of many educational institutions.

How do these students expect to succeed in their programs if they don’t meet the entrance requirements? They might follow the example of the poster boy mentioned above. But if they were prepared to work that hard, they would have aced the ESL course and met the needed standard.

Fortunately, the vast majority of professors won’t risk their professional reputations or that of their institutions by giving out unearned grades. The story below illustrates this. It’s an academic legend although all the other examples above are real.

An attractive young female student comes into the office of her male professor and closes the door behind her. Leaning over his desk and casually sweeping her hair away from her face, she says breathlessly, “I will do anything to get an A in your course.”

“Oh,” replies the professor. “Will you study?”

Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker. 


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