Language Gain in Classroom Instruction: Proficiency Paradox or Ceiling Effect?

Benjamin Rifkin, U. of Wisconsin-Madison

I will review language gain (learning outcome) studies in foreign languages in general (e.g., Carroll, 1967; Magnan, 1986; Tschirner, 1996), the definitive US government study on learning outcomes in foreign languages (Foreign Service Institute, cited in Omaggio-Hadley, 2001) and in Russian in particular (e.g., Brecht, Davidson & Ginsberg, 1993; Davidson, 2002; Thompson 1996) and then present data on language gain in Russian in classroom instruction at the post-secondary level. I will include in my presentation data from an academic year college-level program (four levels of Russian-language instruction, first- through fourth-year) and data from a summer immersion college-level program (seven levels of Russian language instruction, first- through fourth-year). In each case, data have been collected for several years of student cohorts, allowing for an analysis of trends and patterns. The data collected represent language gain in listening, reading, speaking and writing in accordance with the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines for these modalities. In addition, I will present data on gain in grammar and syntax, but these are not correlated with any nationally articulated criteria (as none exist). In my discussion of the data, I will take up Robin's argument of the paradox of 15 years of proficiency-oriented instruction with little evidence of improvement in learning outcomes (Robin 2000) and argue for the existence of a ceiling effect in traditional (non-immersion) foreign language instruction.

Works Cited

Brecht, Richard D.; Davidson, Dan; and Ginsberg, Ralph B. 1993. Predictors of Foreign Language Gain during Study Abroad. Washington, DC: Occasional Papers of the National Foreign Language Center.

Carroll, John B. 1967. "Foreign Language Proficiency Levels Attained by Language Majors Near Graduation from College." Foreign Language Annals 1: 131-151.

Davidson, Dan E. 2002. "When Just Being There Is Not Enough."Paper presented at Symposium on Language Gain and Study Abroad. Global Forum on Languages, Literatures and Cultures. Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Magnan, Sally S. 1986. "Assessing Speaking Proficiency in the Undergraduate Curriculum: Data from French." Foreign Language Annals 19: 429-437.

Omaggio-Hadley. 2001. Teaching Language in Context. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Robin, R. 2000. Foreign language across the curriculum and the proficiency paradox. In Kagan, O. and Rifkin, B., eds. The Learning and Teaching of Slavic Languages and Cultures. Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 29-43.

Thompson, Irene. 1996. "Assessing Foreign Language Skills: Data from Russian." Modern Language Journal 80: 47-65. Reprinted in Kagan, Olga and Rifkin, Benjamin, eds. The Learning and Teaching of Slavic Languages and Cultures. Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2000.

Tschirner, Erwin. 1996. "Scope and Sequence: Rethinking Beginning Foreign Language Instruction." Modern Language Journal 80: 1-14.