x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Universities work on lecturers' language skills

Some universities have been slow tackling the problem of miscommunication while others offer extra language and communication courses.

DUBAI // Walk around the staff or student common room in a Dubai university, and the chances are you will hear a score of different languages. It is a sign of the emirate's diversity - but can also present a massive barrier to teaching.

While some universities have been slow to get to grips with the problem, many are now doing so, instituting extra language and communication courses to help lecturers get their point across.

As student representative at the Middlesex University, Dubai Pooja Varma, 20, is well aware of the problem.

"Last year there was a statistics teacher and a law teacher that people said they couldn't understand," she said. "But the problems were raised through the system of student feedback forms and things actually got taken care of quickly."

All lecturers at the university, a branch campus of the UK institution, are now required to take master's teaching qualifications, to ensure that the students - of more than 50 nationalities - can comprehend what they are being taught.

At the University of Wollongong in Dubai, Raymi van der Spek, the executive director, said language problems are inevitable.

"We've got around 100 nationalities in our student body and 30 on our teaching staff. For many of them, English isn't their first language.

"While someone is doing a PhD they are not focused on teaching and learning but on their subject matter, so they've never received any formal training. This is a universal problem in [university] teaching."

Wollongong offers professional development training which includes skills such as language, communication and presentation.

"We rely on student feedback which we do every year to know what problems the students are dealing with [like language]," Mr van der Spek said.

Chris Burgoyne is the student president at Heriot-Watt University in Dubai. "Sometimes there are language and communication problems between the lecturers and students," he said. Such problems are usually aired during student assessments each term.

Abdulrahman Farrag, 19, a second-year mechanical engineering student and student council member, said lecturers' thick accents can be tricky, "especially if they speak quickly".

Lecturers at Heriot-Watt now have to complete a two-year teaching course that includes language issues. "It's made a big difference," Mr Burgoyne said.

Dr Warren Fox, head of higher education at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority in Dubai, which licenses and regulates free zone universities, wants more institutions to put their staff through language courses.

"If you're going to teach, you really need to take language training," he said. "It's a serious issue. When students are complaining, you've got to listen."

mswan@thenational.ae