Villarreal Guest Blog

My senior thesis student Daniel Villarreal is my guest blogger for this entry. As he is truly one of the most outstanding students at the College, Daniel was named the Class of 1940 scholar for the class of 2010. Daniel’s senior thesis proposal is included in the Honors Fellowship Program– a new initiative at the College that allows donors to donate to individual faculty/student research projects.

Dan’s thesis is described below and you can directly contribute to Dan’s thesis research by clicking on:

Ideas for research projects can come from all sorts of places: classes, life experiences, books, etc. Just this semester, I came up with an idea for a project, one that unites my two seemingly disparate majors of Linguistics and Math, thanks to something as simple as an everyday conversation with another student.

Anytime I ask other students to critique math professors at the College, I am hit with a familiar refrain: “He’s a good professor, but it’s really hard to understand his accent.” One student described a math class as, “Russian-English Translation 101.” The general opinion among math students seems to be that there exists a major communication gap between professor and student, a gap without which the professors would otherwise be excellent.

On the other hand, I have had little difficulty comprehending my math professors’ foreign accents, which I attribute to having grown up in a household with a father who had a foreign accent. Early on, I grew accustomed to detangling odd sentence constructions and allowing for a wider range of sounds to represent a certain English sound, so that I was used to processing “foreign-ness” in my math teachers even if theirs manifested itself differently from my father’s.

The big idea with my project is this: I hypothesize that it may be possible to accustom students to foreign accents before they step into the classroom in order to close the communication gap. My project will have two stages: first, I will elicit speech samples from math professors (both foreign and American-born) over the summer, and analyze the samples to see what kind of variation is involved. Second, I will ascertain which factors contribute most to the communication gap (i.e., is it more of an issue with the professors’ speech production or the students’ speech perception/biases? In what aspects of a professor’s speech is the gap the greatest?) through a Web-based survey.

Lots of research has been done on the topic of foreign instructors in undergraduate teaching, but the problem of the communication gap remains. It is my hope that this project will suggest new ways to address these difficulties in understanding, to help close the communication gap.

– Daniel Villarreal

For more on the Class of 1940 scholarships see:

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