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Bridging the communication gap of a foreign speaking instructor in Hands On Pedagogy



The globalization of education and particularly engineering education often results in pedagogical instruction being given by instructors not speaking the native language of the audience. Today English is the language frequently selected to bridge this communication gap through traditional oral translation either simultaneous or interactive. This single avenue of communication is simply not adequate to support teaching using project based learning (PBL) pedagogy. Multiple portals of communication drawing on more senses than just auditory is essential to successfully instruct students using the PBL approach. This paper describes the team teaching experience of an English speaking instructor and an English/Russian interpreter teaching a hands-on activity to a predominantly Russian speaking audience. Communications using auditory, visual, physical and other avenues were used to implement a design, build and test project. Their experience and the lessons learned are the subject of this paper.
УДК 378.147: 678.5.002.6
Ю. Н. Зиятдинова, P. A. Sanger
Keywords: globalization, visiting professor, interpreter, multi-level commuication, foreign language command, project based learning.
The globalization of education and particularly engineering education often results in pedagogical instruction being
given by instructors not speaking the native language of the audience. Today English is the language frequently se-
lected to bridge this communication gap through traditional oral translation either simultaneous or interactive. This
single avenue of communication is simply not adequate to support teaching using project based learning (PBL) peda-
gogy. Multiple portals of communication drawing on more senses than just auditory is essential to successfully instruct
students using the PBL approach. This paper describes the team teaching experience of an English speaking instructor
and an English/Russian interpreter teaching a hands-on activity to a predominantly Russian speaking audience. Com-
munications using auditory, visual, physical and other avenues were used to implement a design, build and test project.
Their experience and the lessons learned are the subject of this paper.
Ключевые слова: глобализация, приглашенный профессор, переводчик, науки, образования и производства, международная и
междисциплинарная интеграция, выполнение университетом «третьей миссии»
В условиях глобализации инженерного образования и развития академической мобильности встречаются си-
туации, когда приглашенный профессор не говорит на родном языке слушателей. Для преодоления данного
препятствия используется английский язык как язык международного общения. Однако, в связи с низким
уровнем иноязычной компетенции российских студентов и преподавателей, во многих случаях лекцию на анг-
лийском языке приходится переводить на родной язык слушателей, последовательно, либо синхронно. К
сожалению, этот традиционный единичный канал коммуникации не подходит для занятий в форме
проблемного обучения. При проблемном обучении преподаватель используется множественные каналы
общения, не только слуховой, но также зрительный и кинестетический. В статье описан опыт работы в ко-
манде англоязычного преподавателя и переводчика английского и русского языков для проведения практиче-
ских занятий с русскоязычной аудиторией, сделаны выводы и даны рекомендации.
Globalization in all aspects of human life in the
21st century refers to university education as well.
Today, academic mobility has become a common
occurrence in international education and includes
faculty as well as their students. Academic mobility in
the Russian Federation was extremely limited during the
communist regime and now appears to be opening to
international movement. Russian universities seek to be
recognized and ranked according to international
standards. One of the metrics in these rankings is the
number of international faculty invited as visiting
professors to the university to give classes in the
traditional lecture format as well as in the popular
project based learning format [1]. Because of the limited
foreign language fluency among the Russian faculty,
foreign professors often have to work through an
interpreter. In many cases, this is a real challenge. An
interpreter can either become an obstacle to
communication between the professor and the audience,
or, due to their professional skills bridge both linguistic
and intercultural communication gaps.
Communication is broadly recognized to occur
along multiple channels, where signals and meanings
are transferred from one person to another through
hearing, listening, visual, physical gestures, mimics and
kinesics. Even when communication occurs in the
native language, it is often difficult to reach your
interlocutor and catch their attention. The process is
much more complicated when the communication must
bridge both cultural and language gaps [2]. Intercultural
communication is a dynamic process involving symbols
and depending on context and on the participants
Nowadays, the English language is the
language of international and intercultural
communication. In academia, a good command of the
English language is a necessary pre-requisite for a
successful career in the international education system
with increasing faculty and student mobility. Russian
faculty, however, have long been isolated from the
global education space. During in the communist
regime, there was no need to share scientific ideas
internationally with other countries and particularly with
the ‘capitalist’ countries. At the same time, the need for
scientific communication and collaboration was
satisfied within the confines of the Soviet Union. Thus
foreign language proficiency was aimed at developing
reading and translation skills, but not communicative
skills. Thus few Russian engineering faculty can speak
English or any other foreign language with adequate
In this context a visiting professor appearing at
a Russian engineering university will experience all the
challenges of intercultural communication. In many
cases a foreign professor works through an interpreter
who gets involved in the process. In the traditional form
of lecture, language is the principal avenue of
communication relying on the interpreter’s skill and
knowledge in the language in general but also the
vocabulary of the technology.
This situation changes significantly when the
pedagogy moves away from lecture/question interaction
and on to a hands-on inquiry based pedagogy such as
project based learning (PBL). In PBL, hands-on
projects and problems, being solved by students often in
teams, which are used to grow, exercise and reinforce
the skills and capabilities of the students. The style of
teaching in PBL is one of short, limited lectures which
define the learning outcome and the project that
supports the outcome followed by continual mentoring
and monitoring of the team as the team addresses the
tasks of the project. In the PBL situation, linguistic
communication and understanding through language is
insufficient and other channels of communication must
start working more intensively. Success significantly
depends on the physical presence of the professor, body
language and physical gestures, and the intensive of eye
The interpreter, in this PBL situation, becomes
an integral partner in the success of the interaction not
only connecting between two languages, but also
bridging two cultures into a very different kind of
instruction. Fluency in the language is necessary but
not sufficient and the cultural background starts playing
an important role. Close interaction with the students
and the instructor become more significant than ever.
The instructor and interpreter become a team acting as
one facilitating the progress of the team and assisting
the team in tackling the tasks of the project..
This is true for all forms of teaching, but, first
and foremost, for project based learning where personal
engagement of every participant is of foremost
In October 2011, the authors of this paper col-
laborated as the instructor/interpreter team in a demon-
stration of project based learning (PBL) using the Sky-
scraper Exercise. This exercise was created by
engineering educators from the United States and
contains all the major components of the conceive,
design, implement and operate (CDIO) pedagogical
approach in an exciting format. The full exercise is
available with both instructor guidance as well as the
challenge elements for the students [3]
In order to give an historical context, the
exercise is built around the highly competitive building
of skyscrapers in the early 1900s. One of these
skyscrapers is the Chrysler Building in New York City.
New structural materials such as steel I beams and new
building processes enabled this expansion. The PBL
exercise is to design, build and test a model skyscraper
using foam blocks and pencils as the fasteners. Each
foam block is priced based on volume and is used to
build up a construction budget not exceeding $2000
including provision for procuring land and footprint,
blocks, and fasteners. A test of the structural integrity is
required: supporting a 0.5 liter bottle of water while
being tilted on a 10% slope demonstrating earthquake
durability. The overall height of the skyscraper is the
principal success metric but aesthetics and pleasing
physical design is an additional factor in evaluation
process. The exercise is a team effort which includes
the following tasks:
Team organization for operational efficiency,
Requirements and constraints understanding and
Creation of a design meeting all technical re-
quirements with aesthetics appeal,
adherence to the budget and the imposed time
Gathering of the experimental technical data to
support the adopted design,
Construction documentation, configuration man-
agement and adherence to the documentation during the
build phase,
Final acceptance testing
This demonstration of a PBL project was given
to an audience with limited English capability by an
instructor with limited to no Russian language
capability and teamed with an English/Russian
interpreter from a non-technical background. The
pedagogical aspects of the exercise have been discussed
in a previous paper [4]. The communication during this
three hour exercise drew in all the dimensions of multi-
channel communications described in the previous
The experiment was challenging, but the event was
highly successful based on student feedback. :
Preparation: The communication went
smoothly due to the well-organized team work of the
lecturer and interpreter. The interpreter had to be in the
topic of the workshop, and it was essential that all the
texts and exercises were sent to the interpreter a week
before the event so that she could get acquainted with
the event. In addition the interpreter was actively
involved in preparing the materials and venue for the
exercise allowing her to starting grasping the
personality of the instructor and the upcoming dynamics
of the exercise.
Oral Delivery: The lecturer had to get adjusted
to working with an interpreter, to make the right pauses
in his speech between the meaningful utterances. It was
frequently more important for the interpreter to bridge
between the two cultures and transfer the mood of the
utterances rather than a direct word-to-word translation.
Cultural Organizational Preferences: There
were several difficulties in communication due to dif-
ferent expectation of both the audience and the lecturer.
Being used to working within the American culture, the
lecturer was prepared to an ‘American professional
image of an engineer’ who is used to team work and a
distribution within the group of the critical functional
roles of a team. The Russian faculty participants were
more used to hierarchical command structures, and
many groups very quickly got a leader, and everybody
expected him to make all the decisions [5]. On the other
end of the organizational spectrum, several groups
chose a communal command structure i.e. no one is in
charge but “we are all in charge” mode. In this case the
instructor’s concern that this choice could lead to
disfunctionality of the team and a failure to meet the
objectives were dissuaded by the interpreter bridging
the cultural gap and interpreting the choice and
providing context.
Mentoring vs. Lecturing: In PBL, the role of
the instructor is quite different from his role in the tradi-
tional lecture/question format. Interaction with the team
in PBL is similar to inquiry based learning where asking
leading questions is used to provoke the exploration of
different solutions by the team. Typically the instructor
listens to conversation to detect road blocks
and lack of progress. It was difficult for the instructor
to detect these situations since he did not understand the
language. Instead the instructor had to rely on reading
facial expressions and grasp the dynamics of the
conversation to ask the interpreter for more information.
From the interpreter’s point of view, this style of
pedagogy was new. Therefore translation was not the
goal but sensing a problem and lack of progress was
essential. She played an active role in mentoring of the
High Action Interaction: With 8 teams actively
participating in the exercise, the instructor is constantly
moving from group to group. Usually an interpreter is
more stationary and she could remain highly focused on
the goal of translating. Often times the interpreter
cannot recall what was said and is not allowed sufficient
time to absorb and understand the conversation. In this
case, it was essential that she comprehend and assess
simultaneous with translating the ideas.
Today, the world is shrinking, and university
education is becoming accessible to people from
different countries. Russian universities are going
international, and this requires professional
development of their faculty, attracting international
visiting professors [6]. This development process will
result in frequent and challenging situations demanding
non-traditional modes of communication. The process
gives many lessons learned in verbal and non-verbal
forms of communication, as well as communication
through an interpreter who is becoming an active
1. П.Н. Осипов. Вестник Казанского технологического
университета, 14, 5, 237-242 (2011).
2. Larry A. Samovar, Richard E. Potter, Edward R. McDaniel,
Communication between cultures. USA: Wardsworth, 2009,
496 p.
4. P. A. Sanger, J. N. Ziyatdinova, V. Ivanov, An Experiment
in Project Based Learning: A Comparison of Attitudes be-
tween Russia and America, ASEE Annual Conference, San
Antonio, 2012
5. A.A. Kaybiyaynen, Development of professional image of
an engineer at national research university. 2012 15th Inter-
national Conference on Interactive Collaborative Learning,
ICL 2012
6. S.V. Barabanova, V.G. Ivanov, Characteristics of training
and raising qualification of modern engineering university
faculty: experience of a Russian national research university.
2012 15th International Conference on Interactive
Collaborative Learning, ICL 2012, art. no. 6402087
© Ю. Н. Зиятдиновак.п.н., доцент, зав. каф. иностранных языков в профессиональной коммуникации КНИТУ,; Phillip Albert Sangerпрофессор Колледжа технологии Университета Пердью (США), директор Центра
быстрой реализации продукции,
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Вестник Казанского технологического университета
  • П Н Осипов
П.Н. Осипов. Вестник Казанского технологического университета, 14, 5, 237-242 (2011).
Communication between cultures. USA: Wardsworth
  • A Larry
  • Richard E Samovar
  • Edward R Potter
  • Mcdaniel
Larry A. Samovar, Richard E. Potter, Edward R. McDaniel, Communication between cultures. USA: Wardsworth, 2009, 496 p. 3. te_Full.pdf
  • Larry A Samovar
  • Richard E Potter
  • Edward R Mcdaniel
Larry A. Samovar, Richard E. Potter, Edward R. McDaniel, Communication between cultures. USA: Wardsworth, 2009, 496 p.