Lately, I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon when my sign language interpreters have a tough time understanding some of my classmates’ accents, yet my professors (and, presumably, my other classmates) don’t seem to have that problem. Here are a few non-exhaustive examples, restricted to my Berkeley experience:

  • I once gave a talk in Peter Bartlett’s research group meeting back in April. I had a sign language interpreter there, and she was able to help me by explaining some of the comments Peter made about the paper during pauses in my lecture. Unfortunately, she had major trouble with one of the postdocs, who had an accent I couldn’t even distinguish – it was not Chinese or Indian. She was unable to explain what that person said, and I think we had to rely on a few other people to help us out, plus a couple of finger pointing to the relevant stuff I wrote on the whiteboard.

  • In my EE 227BT class (Convex Optimization), many of the students are Chinese. My interpreters had such a hard time understanding some of them that, after the first few lectures, they talked to the professor, Laurent El Ghaoui, about it. He acknowledged that some of them were tough to comprehend (“they’re engineers” he lamented) but he learned to repeat their questions so that my interpreters could easily relay the information back to me. However, there lies the interesting factor: my interpreters sit pretty close to the professor, and he doesn’t move around too much in class, so the difference in their comprehension probably doesn’t come down to distance from the speaker.

  • In my CS 287 class (Advanced Robotics), Pieter Abbeel is unusual in that he seems like he really wants to get to know the students. (Our class is much larger than the previous editions, so he actually offers two lecture times to reduce the number of students in a room!) During some of our class breaks, he will take out the list of students and ask some of them to stand up and introduce themselves to the rest of the class. When one of the Indian students spoke about himself, my interpreter could not understand a single word that student said – literally! But Pieter did not even ask that student to repeat himself, so I assume he must have understood part of what that student said. This situation happened to a less extreme event (as in, the interpreter understood a handful of words) with a few other students.

I think the only way that can explain the comprehension disparity between my interpreters and professors is that the latter group of people are more used to being around foreigners. I wrote a blog post almost three years ago that highlighted my concern over understanding foreign accents in graduate school. Unfortunately, it’s been a nontrivial problem for me here as most of the students I work or converse with are international students (typically from one of two major countries: China or India).

Incidentally, none of those three professors are American1, so it’s possible that they may be more skilled at picking up accents since they’ve traveled to quite a number of places and conversed with lots of people. That’s my only explanation. But I would also be interested in knowing if there was any initial struggle or hump they had to clear, or if they actually do have trouble understanding people but are clever at hiding it.

So, here are some questions I’d like to ask:

  • To people who can understand foreigners easily: why do you feel like this is the case? Where are you from? Have you traveled around the world a lot, talking to people of different nationalities? Was it always easy to talk to foreigners?

  • To people who have a hard time understanding foreigners: do you get the chance to talk to a diverse group of people? How long have you tried to understand foreign accents?

  • To American STEM students: how good are you at communicating with foreigners? Do you find the high proportion of foreign students in STEM to be a deterrent to your education?

  • To foreigners: do you get frustrated when people ask you to repeat what you say? What are your thoughts in particular about communicating with deaf people like me (who have enough hearing to talk one-on-one)?

The practical concern of this for someone like me is that, if I work in a group of foreigners – reducing the likelihood of one-on-one conversations – will there be any benefit of a sign language interpreter?

  1. Actually, probably most faculty in EECS are not even American. I don’t know what the matter is with our (pre-doctoral) STEM education.