Reform necessary for foreign language placement


Bang Nguyen

A view of the inside of the Foreign Language Building on campus. Minju argues that the foreign language department does not let some ethnic people take low-level language classes.

By Minju Park, Columnist

For some, registering for foreign language classes can be a battle to prove one’s language fluency and competency.

The University implements restrictions in foreign language courses, some of which specifically indicate it targets students either “with a background” or “no background” in a language.

The courses aimed toward those with a background in the language would implement a more advanced level of grammar and vocabulary due to an assumption that the student would have higher proficiency in writing and speaking.

The issue at hand is how the student’s background in the language is determined. All students can take a proficiency test that places the student in the appropriate class based on their performance. However, students may also be filtered based on their ethnic background, assuming that this background may indicate the student’s familiarity or proficiency in the language, overriding the results of the proficiency exam.

While it may appear logical to assume a student’s language proficiency based on their ethnic background, the relationship between ethnicity and language proficiency is blurry.

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    According to a 2002 study by the National Institutes of Health, Asian immigrants appeared to prefer using English for thinking and speaking with family.

    This phenomenon is often referred to as a “heritage language learner,” which the University of California, Davis defines as “a person studying a language who has proficiency in or a cultural connection to that language.”

    A 2012 study by Dr. Silvina Montrul, a linguistics and Spanish & Portuguese professor at the University, explored the similarities and differences between heritage language learners and those learning it as a second language.

    Montrul’s research found that while heritage language learners displayed “more native ability” in phonological production, perception and syntax, other grammatical areas were highly variable in competence.

    This is due to a number of different variables that may or may not have been present in the heritage language learner’s lifetime, including encouragement from family or friends to utilize the language, how early the language was introduced in their lives and whether the individual ever attended formal education to learn the language.

    These factors are highly variable, and in some cases, Montrul found that it “affects the linguistic competence and fluency in the heritage language, which ends up resembling a second language.”

    Students who aren’t confident in their linguistic ability are restricted from taking introductory courses meant for those with “no background” in the language, due to the assumption of fluency.

    The argument for the separation between heritage language learners and second language learners is that they would need a different style of teaching. However, Montrul found that both heritage learners and second language learners benefit from instruction based on grammar, phonological features and pragmatic usage of the language. Montrul also found that teaching method did not play a significant difference in the benefits of teaching both types of learners.

    Another argument for the separation is that some native-speaking students may be trying to purposely place themselves into lower level classes to earn an easy “A” and fulfill their foreign language requirement for graduation. However, this argument can be easily made for any subject, whether it be mathematics or writing composition.

    These subjects aren’t generally the object of detailed scrutiny about the individual’s previous environmental exposure to the subject in order to determine correct placement. In addition, many students take foreign language classes simply as an elective, not necessarily to fulfill requirements.

    The spectrum of heritage language learners is vast. From those who have minimal exposure to the language, to those who have grown up speaking and utilizing the language on a daily basis, an individual’s language proficiency is difficult to determine solely based on their ethnic background.

    Serious reform is necessary to the placement of heritage language learners in order to ensure fair judgment of their language proficiency and prevent the system from becoming a deterrent in advancing their language skills.

    Minju is a junior in Media.

    [email protected]