Leading Second Language Proficiency Research

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Researchers in MSU’s College of Arts & Letters are finishing up a large-scale study, never done before in terms of scope, that will give an overall picture of language proficiency in higher education. Locally, the team is providing important information to language programs in the College. Nationally and internationally, they are describing language proficiency development within the context of higher education.

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Leading this research is Susan Gass, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages and Director of MSU’s English Language Center, and Paula Winke, Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages.

The research is funded by a Flagship Language Proficiency Initiative grant from the Institute of International Education under the National Security Education Program. The initial grant for $800,000 was for two years, which ran from fall 2014 to spring 2016. The project was renewed for 2016-2017 (a third year) and received $410,000 in continued funding.

“Up until now, most students had no clear indication of their overall proficiency in the language.”

Susan Gass

With this funding, the research team has administered proficiency tests to MSU students in four language programs: Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish. In spring 2015, the College of Arts & Letters Dean’s Office provided funding to expand the testing to other language programs, including German, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Portuguese. The tests, produced by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and administered through Language Testing International, measure students’ speaking, reading and listening skills.

“The test package per student is well over $100, and we have been able to offer that to all undergraduate students in those four programs at no cost to them,” Winke said. “In the first two years, testing was provided both semesters to students in all four years of the program with the exception of students in their first semester of language study. In 2016-17, testing is only being conducted in the spring semester.”

So far, about 6,000 proficiency tests have been completed at MSU as part of the externally funded research. Along with the proficiency tests, the research team has been matching the data with in-class observations and focus groups on topics such as technology and study abroad.

“Up until now, most students had no clear indication of their overall proficiency in the language,” Gass said. “They have had tests in classes and are measured on what they have learned in class, but that doesn’t give an overall picture of what they can do with the language.”

Research Outcomes

After proficiency tests are completed, the research team gathers the data and gives the test scores to the instructors, students and program directors to use as they see fit. The directors and instructors can see whether the results align with their own specific program and class objectives.

One outcome is that the project may prompt improvements to second language teaching in higher education.

“We are providing the information to program directors, but we have no role in how they end up using the data to inform their curriculum,” Gass said. “The programs could use the results to spur curricular changes, or they could use the results to justify an adaptation of their current expectations, either higher or lower. There is information we hope to gather for them concerning the relationship between and among listening and speaking skills. For example, if listening skills lag behind speaking skills, which they seem to do, the language programs could think about modifying the curriculum to focus more on listening comprehension skills throughout the four-year program.”

The research project is a cross-unit initiative within the College of Arts & Letters involving the Center for Language Teaching Advancement (CeLTA); the English Language Center; Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages; and the Department of Romance and Classical Studies.

“There is information we hope to gather for them concerning the relationship between and among listening and speaking skills.”

Susan Gass

Altogether, the Flagship Language Proficiency Initiative is providing a rich data set to the field of second language acquisition. The project team at Michigan State University is merging the data with similar data being collected through parallel Flagship Language Proficiency Initiative grants at the University of Minnesota and the University of Utah.

“It’s nice to have such a big set of language acquisition data. It’s really unique,” Winke said. ““It is exciting for us as second language acquisition theorists because this data is a treasure trove, and we can mine it to look at questions and theories in second language acquisition. There is this concept that people develop in their proficiency in certain ways, and with these data we can look at those concepts and attempt to answer important questions about the process of foreign language acquisition.”

Gass agrees. “Nothing near the scope of our project has ever been conducted. The last big study like this was in 1967, but that study only looked at majors. We are looking at everyone studying those languages, not only majors and minors, in those four languages,” Gass said. “What the funding agency wants is an overall picture of language proficiency across the United States. What can one expect in listening, reading and speaking from two years of language study, from three years of language study, from four years of language study. And in working with our partners in Minnesota and Utah, we are able to get more of a national picture.”

Three years after the completion of the project, the researchers will open an anonymized database of test scores to the public so researchers can investigate theories within the fields of second language acquisition and language assessment.

Looking Ahead

In collaboration with the two other institutions, the MSU researchers are now working on a book that will include 12-14 papers from this study. Plans are to submit the book to the publisher by July 31, 2017. In addition, three dissertations are coming out of this research from MSU graduate students working on various parts of the project.

“We are trying to tie everything together with this book,” Gass said. “In addition to the ongoing testing and meeting with faculty and program directors to look at curriculum, the goal of year three is to finish up with all the local projects that originate with our data.”

Gass and Winke have presented the Flagship Language Proficiency Initiative research at several national and international conferences including the American Association for Applied Linguistics and the Modern Language Association.

The MSU research team hopes to see proficiency testing continue at Michigan State University in some way and are looking at different models that can be created to help sustain this and to be a model for other universities interested in doing this sort of testing.

“We are very much hoping that the momentum we’ve generated will carry on,” Gass said. “We are trying to build in mechanisms so that this type of testing can continue. Not at the same level. Not with the same numbers because that would be too expensive. Language programs are proposing ways that are more financially sustainable and yet will yield similar information. I think the programs will not want to let this go.”