Spring 2005 Table of Contents
International Partners in Health
From Infection Control and Ergonomics to ESL:
Seeking a Common Language













Dr. Denise Murphy and colleagues from the Steinhardt School during their visit to Shanghai to learn how ESL is taught in China

Denise C. Murphy, DrPH, Clinical Associate Professor of General Dentistry and Management Science

With over 50 countries represented at NYUCD, it's no exaggeration to say that our students speak every language under the sun. Several years ago, I became curious about the range of English-language fluency among our students from abroad and how best to teach material to these students for whom English is a second language. While my primary responsibilities are for the curricula in infection control and ergonomics, I decided to pursue this line of thinking and broaden my pedagogical skills by taking an evening graduate course in multicultural and multilingual studies offered by the NYU Steinhardt School of Education. That was over three years ago and I've been taking graduate-level English as a Second Language (ESL) courses ever since.

My experiences taught me that progress in ESL is influenced by a variety of factors, including personal learning habits, the surrounding cultural environment, a student's preferred way of learning -- whether visual, oral, aural, or numerical -- the relative comfort level of learning in large or small groups or individually, and the anticipated role of the teacher -- whether the person is viewed as the ultimate source of knowledge or as a facilitator who is there to guide self-directed learning.

Last July, I had the opportunity to consider the process from a new angle. Rather than learning strategies for teaching non-native speakers living in the U.S., I traveled to Shanghai, China, with a small group of graduate students from the Steinhardt School to learn how English is being taught in China today by teachers for whom it is also a second language.

We discovered a number of obstacles to learning, primary among them a curriculum and textbooks mandated by the Ministry of Education to be used in all schools, thereby depriving teachers of input into the selection process. In addition, because native Chinese speakers are generally not fluent in English, they have difficulty translating this skill to their students. Cultural factors also play a part. For example, a teacher in China traditionally is seen as all-knowledgeable and never to be contradicted. As a result, students have no experience asserting themselves by challenging the teacher or initiating independent study. Finally, although the curriculum speaks of a communicative approach, teachers still tend to focus primarily on grammar, rote memorization, and direct translation of texts from Chinese into English and vice versa.

After returning to NYUCD and making infection control rounds in both the pre- and postdoctoral clinics, I became even more aware of the range of English fluency among NYUCD students who had been born in other countries. I concluded that as many as one-third of our internationally born students were strong grammatically but had difficulty expressing themselves in English, while others hesitated to speak because of concern about their grammar and/or fluency -- major obstacles in developing rapport and a level of trust with their patients.

This suggests to me that there are probably a fair number of non-native English speaking students at NYUCD who might be interested in forming a small, informal English Language Discussion group, which I would be happy to set up and lead. I invite all students who think they may be interested to contact me. I'm sure we'll have a lot to talk about.

If you are interested in joining a small, informal ESL class that would allow you to practice and polish your conversational and academic writing skills, please e-mail Dr. Murphy at denise.murphy@nyu.edu.