According to the National Science Foundation, the fields with the highest proportion of international students in American Ph.D programs are computer science, engineering, and mathematics. The majority of these students are from China, India, or South Korea. These statistics worry me, but not because of the increased competition for precious few spots in respected doctoral programs. From what I can tell, it’s generally easier for American students to get in Ph.D programs as compared to foreign students. I won’t get into the exact reasons, as that’s enough for an entirely different blog post.

But what I am worried about is how I will communicate with those foreign students. Many have accents that make it difficult for me to understand their speech. I encounter this problem frequently at Williams College, where about eight percent of the student body is international. Even the most simple conversation might require me to ask my conversationalist to repeat sentences multiple times before I understand it, and can leave both of us feeling awkward.

So how can a deaf person fix this problem? If you have enough hearing to easily converse with most Americans, one thing I strongly recommend is to actively continue to talk with people whose accents are difficult to understand. If you see those people alone, start a conversation! The worst thing you can do is avoid them or, failing that, gently nod at whatever they say. Rebuff any of those actions! The logic is quite simple; the more you talk with someone, the more you get used to his or her style of speech. And eventually, though it might take a while, conversations will require fewer and fewer “Pardon?”s and “What?”s that are an all too common occurrence in my life. As a case in point, my ASL interpreters have told me that I can understand the voices of certain international students at Williams College better than they can. Not coincidentally, they’re among the students who I’ve talked with the most.

This is important to me because I’m going to have to manage this in graduate school. The strength of a Ph.D program depends in part on the quality of its students. In strong computer science programs, I’m sure many foreign students have enough background (i.e. at a Master’s level) to pass the qualification examination on day 1. Clearly, these students are valuable resources for me. Almost all current research is the product of collaboration of at least two people, so I’m going to have to communicate with my peers if I participate in a project with them. They are the ones who I can learn the most from, so let’s start talking.