Skip to content



Language Barrier Image
Language Barrier
Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Jul. 26 2010, 12:20 AM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Aug. 23 2012, 3:20 PM EDT

A few days after the winter academic semester ended, I received an e-mail from one of my students – I’ll call him Steve. His note went something like this: hey Miss Hows it goin? Just wanted to say thnx – u r a good teacher even though i don’t like english. i know i failed but maybe i’ll get u as my teacher next semester and i can try harder. Hope u have a awsome summer. LOL bye.

Final course marks had not yet been posted, so Steve was assuming that he had not passed. He was right. Not even close. And sadly neither of us was surprised.

Typically, my relief at the end of a semester is mixed with a sense of uncertainty about what I have accomplished in the previous 15 weeks with my students.

The syllabus may be fulfilled and the papers graded, but I wonder what these young people have taken away with them from the experience of being in my class. What have they learned? Have they learned?

In the case of Steve, the answers seemed clear enough. He had not managed, despite near-perfect attendance and a generally pleasant attitude, to meet any of the basic requirements of my college-level writing course, intended to develop communication skills for the workplace.

“So, how can I help you, Steve?” We were delving into one of his disastrous essays in the middle of the semester during my office hours. I had been dreading the exercise all morning.

He had been making the same mistakes over and over in his writing: the lack of a clearly defined argument, little to no supporting evidence, terrible sentence structure. “Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I just hate English and reading and stuff. No offence.”

I paused for breath, having heard this story before.

“Steve, you realize that you need to be able to communicate well to get a job and to be successful?” Even as the hackneyed words I’d said so many times before were leaving my mouth, I regretted saying them. I was tired of trying to defend the value of learning to properly use words.

Steve just looked at me and shrugged. That was the last time he came to my office. He had made it clear to me that, although he thought I was a nice lady who meant well despite a quaint predilection for books and ideas, he was determined not to learn, not to think, at least not about what I was teaching. He wouldn’t be budged.

Writing courses are notoriously difficult to sell to college students more interested in training for specific job fields than in bettering their communication skills. My English department colleagues and I are faced with the endless task of assuring students who are studying business administration, fashion arts, fitness and recreation, or multimedia that they will, indeed, be called upon in their careers to communicate: to write, speak and, perhaps most importantly, read and think with something approaching critical acumen.

To students, however, communicating effectively with others means being perpetually online and available, posting status updates, tweeting, texting and telephoning, all in abbreviated forms of English that, even they have to admit, allow for only a highly superficial connection to friends, family and co-workers.

There is no question that students value a kind of communication with others: They enter the classroom and, before bringing textbooks, paper and pens out of their backpacks (that’s if they decide today to take notes), immediately set up a kind of communication command post. The laptops open, wireless Internet is engaged, Facebook is logged into and cellphones, usually set on vibrate, are set up on the desk like objects of reverence to be gazed at and consulted frequently throughout the 50-minute class, in the event that someone has been in touch and left a message.

Steve was perfectly happy to sit in my classroom, always at the back, iPod ear-buds in, cellphone on the desk in front of him, failing every assignment. Rarely did he take notes, as evidenced by his lack of pen or paper in most classes. He began to bring a laptop to class and I was briefly encouraged. Now he’ll take notes! Now he’ll engage with the learning process! Now he’ll meet my expectations! Unfortunately, Steve was simply surfing for sports scores and checking on his Facebook updates.

At the final exam I watched Steve struggle for a short time to write without the distractions of his music or computer, then, once again, give up. He handed in his paper, largely blank, after only 30 minutes had passed. He waved goodbye and shuffled out the door. I regretted that I hadn’t been able to reach Steve at any level or capture his attention throughout the semester, and that I wasn’t the teacher to find in him some undetected ability, some spark of promise. Steve and I had failed each other.

I waited a couple of days before returning his e-mail, genuinely surprised to have received it. The final marks had been released and his failure in the course was official: Hi Steve, Thanks for your message. No, you didn’t pass the course this time, but we know why, right? If you do have me as your teacher again in the fall, we’ll both try harder. You have a great summer, too. LOL.

Listen here:


Copyright © 2016, Dana Hansen. All rights reserved.