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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.