The effects of shared L1 and connected speech processes on Mandarin Chinese international teaching assistants’ perceptions of native and nonnative undergraduate student questions asked in science labs
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U.S. higher education attracts many international graduate students—particularly those from China today where many of them become international teaching assistants (ITAs) in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, which not only benefits the students, but also our country as a whole. However, unfortunately, the issue of the ITAs' English proficiency, or what is known as “the ITA problem,” still lingers in many U.S. higher education classrooms as well. In order to tackle this issue, many studies have looked at ways to improve the ITAs’ spoken English competency where different types of ITA programs and university-required ITA training oral courses and tests were mandated. Most of the time, the focus was on the ITAs’ oral fluency, pronunciation, and methods of teaching in an American cultural classroom. However, unlike lecture classes, science lab settings often require more instances of direct exchanges of communication like question-and-answering rather than instructors simply lecturing in front of a class. Unlike many studies that looked at how well native English students understand their international instructors, the purpose of this study was to see the reverse, or how well Chinese ITAs understand their students’ utterances and questions. This study investigated two key factors:1) the effects of a shared Mandarin L1 (L1 being an individual’s first or native language) background between the ITA and student, and 2) the presence or absence of connected speech processes on the teaching assistants’ assessment of students’ intelligibility and comprehensibility (intelligibility being a measure of the accuracy of a listener’s transcription of a speaker’s utterance, and comprehensibility being the listener’s rating of the ease or difficulty in understanding a speaker’s utterance). 30 teaching assistants (15 Chinese Mandarin L1 and 15 native English L1 instructors) were each asked to perform two tasks: first, to test for the teaching assistants’ perceptions of student intelligibility, they were each asked to watch and listen to a unique set of 24 questions—12 asked by native speakers and 12 by nonnative speakers—and orthographically transcribe exactly what they heard; second, to test for the teaching assistants’ perceptions of student comprehensibility, each teaching assistant was asked to rate how difficult it was to understand the question on a Likert scale of 1 to 7. According to the research results, overall, a Mandarin shared L1 was significantly correlated to both the Chinese international teaching assistants and native English L1 teaching assistants’ perceptions of student intelligibility and comprehensibility. For both the ITAs and native English-speaking TAs (NSTAs), Mandarin speakers were most difficult to understand. However, for the ITAs, while the results showed the most errors made in the ITAs’ transcriptions for Mandarin speech compared to English L1 and other nonnative English speakers’ speech, their comprehensibility ratings for Mandarin speakers were higher than other nonnative English speakers. In others words, Chinese ITAs believed it was more challenging to understand other nonnative English speakers, such as Korean L1, Hindi L1, and Arabic L1 speakers, than Mandarin L1 speakers who had a shared L1 with the ITAs. With regards to the influence of connected speech processes on the teaching assistants’ perceptions of student intelligibility and comprehensibility, connected speech processes were also statistically significant for both Chinese ITAs and NSTAs.