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Intriguing test results

 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
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 Message 1 of 3
01 May 2005 at 8:37pm | IP Logged 
I just got through grading the midterm examinations for the "Effective Study of Foreign Languages" course that I teach to college students in Lebanon. In this course I teach students how to teach themselves foreign languages, initially by literally walking them through my methodology, then by encouraging them to experiment with it to alter it to suit their individual learning styles. It is esssentially a practicum in which I meet with a group to give them each private tutorials.

I have fifteen students this semester, and each chose his or her own language: 6 French, 3 Spanish, 3 German, 1 Italian, 1 Greek, and 1 Japanese, all using Assimil books and tapes. For their midterm exam, I had them translate the texts and the exercises of the first 20 lessons (the first 14 for Greek and Japanese) back into English.

As even English-educated Lebanese have had French around them their whole lives, I expected the French learners to do best (indeed, I suspect that a few of them, despite their denials, have prior knowledge). Likewise, as most Lebanese are French-educated, I expected the learners of other Romance languages to do well--indeed, one girl is Brazilian-Lebanese, and she is doing Spanish, so I expected her to be the very best. However, she is the only one who did poorly, making random guesses and stabs at meaning throughout. Some of these students did just fine, but none of them could match the German and Japanese leaners, who all did great, while the Greek learner was impressive as well.

These findings match my observations from Korea, where I taught French, German, and Spanish and also oversaw the teaching of Japanese and Chinese. At the beginning of each school year, about 30 students would begin the study of each Western language (which are very difficult for Koreans), while 300 would begin the study of the Eastern ones (which are very easy for Koreans). However, the number of students who completed the third year of conversational instruction was the same in all cases, roughly 3. This means that the survival rate for the hard languages was 1 in 10, while for the easy ones it was only 1 in 100.

Although I know from my own studies of "exotic" languages that it is much more difficult to master them than it is to master more "familiar" ones, I can only interpret these results in one intriguing way:

the difficulty of a language is not really a factor in its successful study!

Students who freely choose to study "hard" languages do so because they really want to know them, and so their difficulty is anticipated and thus becomes moot. Students who choose "easy" languages, on the other hand, often do so because they expect their acquisition to be easy, and when they discover that it still requires time and effort, they give up.

Edited by Ardaschir on 01 May 2005 at 10:38pm

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 Message 2 of 3
02 May 2005 at 7:42am | IP Logged 
Ardaschir, this is quite an interesting course you give and I am sure that many people on this forum would love the opportunity to attend if distance did not prevent them.

Would you be able to give us some details as to the course contents and organization? Perhaps you have a document that we could read to know what you cover during the academic year for this program?

As for the students, I guess that some might have taken the class just for the credits and they feel that the extra time and energy needed to actually learn a language is outside of the scope of the course itself. It is a rare student indeed that shows enthusiasm for all courses he takes up. Some University Professors I know develop a sort of universal despise for junior students as the result of similar experiences. I think that misanthropy can be a professional hazard in the business of University teaching.
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 Message 3 of 3
04 May 2005 at 8:30am | IP Logged 
Ardaschir, I was about to post a topic similiar to this. I have been sudying Spanish, not because I want to, but because I figure if you study languages in the U.S. you have to know Spanish.

But on my occasional boondoggles with Chinese (talking to Chinese people, doing a few lessons), I can learn so much more, even with the characters and tones, just because I want to. This is why I'm sure I can succeed in Mandarin.

In the end, anyone can do anything, but you need to have the motivation.

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