College of Arts and Letters leads new research on second language development

Posted at 10:48 AM, Feb 21, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-21 11:27:08-05

Researchers in MSU’s College of Arts and Letters are concluding a study that explores second language proficiency within the context of higher education.

Led by University Distinguished Professor Susan Gass and Associate Professor Paula Winke in the Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages, MSU’s data provides insight on language acquisition both locally and nationally.

The research is funded by a Flagship Language Proficiency Initiative grant from the National Security Education Program. Supported by an initial $800,000 two-year grant, the project has since received $410,000 in continued funding for this academic year.

With this support, the research team has administered about 6,000 proficiency tests to MSU students in four language programs: Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish. In addition to measuring students’ speaking, reading and listening skills, the team has been matching the data with in-class observations and focus groups on topics such as technology and study abroad.

“Nothing near the scope of our project has ever been conducted,” Gass said. “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.”

After the tests are completed, the research team gathers the data and gives the 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.

“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.”

MSU’s team is also merging results with similar data being collected through parallel Flagship Language Proficiency Initiative grants at the University of Minnesota and the University of Utah.

By gathering more information and understanding the relationship between listening and speaking skills, Gass said the research could influence curriculum changes within the college.

“It’s nice to have such a big set of language acquisition data,” Winke said. “It’s really unique. There is this concept that people develop their proficiency in certain ways, and with this data we can look at those concepts and attempt to answer important questions about the process of foreign language acquisition.”