English language bar for citizenship likely to further disadvantage refugees

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has proposed tougher language requirements for new citizenship applicants.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Sally Baker, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, University of Newcastle

Citizenship applicants will need to demonstrate a higher level of English proficiency if the government’s proposed changes to the Australian citizenship test go ahead.

Applicants will be required to reach the equivalent of Band 6 proficiency of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

To achieve Band 6, applicants must correctly answer 30 out of 40 questions in the reading paper, 23 out of 40 in the listening paper, and the writing paper rewards language used “accurately and appropriately”. If a candidate’s writing has “frequent” inaccuracies in grammar and spelling, they cannot achieve Band 6

Success in IELTS requires proficiency in both the English language, and also understanding how to take – and pass – a test. The proposed changes will then make it harder for people with fragmented educational backgrounds to become citizens, such as many refugees.

How do the tests currently work?

The current citizenship test consists of 20 multiple-choice questions in English concerning Australia’s political system, history, and citizen responsibilities.

While the test does not require demonstration of English proficiency per se, it acts as an indirect assessment of language.

For example, the question: “Which official symbol of Australia identifies Commonwealth property?” demonstrates the level of linguistic complexity required.

The IELTS test is commonly taken for immigration purposes as a requirement for certain visa categories; however, the designer of IELTS argues that IELTS was never designed for this purpose. Researchers have argued that the growing strength of English as the language of politics and economics has resulted in its widespread use for immigration purposes.

Impact of proposed changes

English is undoubtedly important for participation in society, but deciding citizenship based on a high-stakes language test could further marginalise community members, such as people with refugee backgrounds who have the greatest need for citizenship, yet lack the formal educational background to navigate such tests.

The Refugee Council of Australia argues that adults with refugee backgrounds will be hardest hit by the proposed language test.

Data shows that refugees are both more likely to apply for citizenship, and twice as likely as other migrant groups to have to retake the test.

Mismatched proficiency expectations

The Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), where many adult refugees access English learning upon arrival, expects only a “functional” level of language proficiency.

For many adult refugees – who have minimal first language literacy, fragmented educational experiences, and limited opportunities to gain feedback on their written English – “competency” may be prohibitive to gaining citizenship. This is also more likely to impact refugee women, who are less likely to have had formal schooling and more likely to assume caring duties.

Bar too high?

The challenges faced in re/settlement contexts, such as pressures of work and financial responsibilities to extended family, often combine to make learning a language difficult, and by extension,
prevent refugees from completing the citizenship test.

Similar patterns are evident with IELTS. Nearly half of Arabic speakers who took the IELTS in 2015 scored lower than Band 6.

There are a number of questions to clarify regarding the proposed language proficiency test:

  • Will those dealing with trauma-related experiences gain exemption from a high-stakes, time-pressured examination?
  • What support mechanisms will be provided to assist applicants to study for the test?
  • Will financially-disadvantaged members of the community be expected to pay for classes/ materials in order to prepare for the citizenship test?
  • The IELTS test costs A$330, with no subsidies available. Will the IELTS-based citizenship/ language test attract similar fees?

There are also questions about the fairness of requiring applicants to demonstrate a specific type and level of English under examination conditions that is not required of all citizens. Those born in Australia are not required to pass an academic test of language in order to retain their citizenship.

Recognising diversity of experiences

There are a few things the government should consider before introducing a language test:

1) Community consultation is essential. Input from community/ migrant groups, educators, and language assessment specialists will ensure the test functions as a valid evaluation of progression towards English language proficiency. The government is currently calling for submissions related to the new citizenship test.

2) Design the test to value different forms and varieties of English that demonstrate progression in learning rather than adherence to prescriptive standards.

3) Provide educational opportunities that build on existing linguistic strengths that help people to prepare for the test.

The ConversationEquating a particular type of language proficiency with a commitment to Australian citizenship is a complex and ideologically-loaded notion. The government must engage in careful consideration before potentially further disadvantaging those most in need of citizenship.

Sally Baker, Research Associate, Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, Lecturer, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


English has taken over academia: but the real culprit is not linguistic

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In academia, you’ll need to.
Africa Studio/www.shutterstock.com

Anna Kristina Hultgren, The Open University and Elizabeth J. Erling, The Open University

Not only is April 23 the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, but the UN has chosen it as UN English Language Day in tribute to the Bard.

If growth in the number of speakers is a measure of success, then the English language certainly deserves to be celebrated. Since the end of World War I, it has risen to become the language with the highest number of non-native users in the world and is the most frequently used language among people who don’t share the same language in business, politics and academia.

In universities in countries where English is not the official language, English is increasingly used as a medium of instruction and is often the preferred language for academics in which to publish their research.

In Europe alone, the number of undergraduate and masters programmes fully taught in English grew from 2,389 in 2007 to 8,089 in 2014 – a 239% increase.

In academic publishing, the use of English has a longer history, especially in the sciences. In 1880, only 36% of publications were in English. It had risen to 50% in 1940-50, 75% in 1980 and 91% in 1996, with the numbers for social sciences and humanities slightly lower.

Today, the proportion of academic articles in the Nordic countries which are published in English is between 70% and 95%, and for doctoral dissertations it’s 80% to 90%.

Pros and cons of using English

One frequently cited advantage of publishing in English is that academics can reach a wider audience and also engage in work produced outside of their own language community. This facilitates international collaboration and, at least ideally, strengthens and validates research. In teaching, using English enables the mobility of staff and students and makes it possible for students to study abroad and get input from other cultures. It also helps develop language skills and intercultural awareness.

But some downsides have been identified. In the Nordic countries, for example, the national language councils have expressed concerns at the lack of use of national languages in academia. They’ve argued that this may impoverish these languages, making it impossible to communicate about scientific issues in Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Icelandic. There has also been fears that the quality of education taking place in English is lower because it may be harder to express oneself in a non-native language. And there are concerns about the creation of inequalities between those who speak English well and those who don’t – though this may begin to change.

Research suggests a more nuanced picture. National languages are still being used in academia and are no more threatened here than in other domains. Both teachers and students have been shown to adapt, drawing on strategies and resources that compensate for any perceived loss of learning. The ability to cope with education in a non-native language depends on a number of factors, such as level of English proficiency – which varies significantly across the world.

English built into the system

Some solutions to these problems have focused on devising language policies which are meant to safeguard local languages. For instance, many Nordic universities have adopted a “parallel language policy”, which accords equal status to English and to the national language (or languages, in the case of Finland, which has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish). While such initiatives may serve important symbolic functions, research suggests that they are unlikely to be effective in the long run.

Learning in Oslo – but in what language?
AstridWestvang/flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND

This is because the underlying causes of these dramatic changes that are happening in academia worldwide are not simply linguistic, but political and economic. A push for competition in higher education has increased the use of research performance indicators and international bench-marking systems that measure universities against each other.

This competitive marketplace means academics are encouraged to publish their articles in high-ranking journals – in effect this means English-language journals. Many ranking lists also measure universities on their degree of internationalisation, which tends to be interpreted rather simplistically as the ratio of international to domestic staff and students. Turning education into a commodity and charging higher tuition fees for overseas students also makes it more appealing for universities to attract international students. This all indirectly leads to a rise in the use of English: a shared language is necessary for such transnational activities to work.

The ConversationThe rise of English in academia is only a symptom of this competition. If the linguistic imbalance is to be redressed, then this must start with confronting the problem of a university system which has elevated competition and performance indicators to its key organising principle, in teaching as well as research.

Anna Kristina Hultgren, Lecturer in English Language and Applied Linguistics, The Open University and Elizabeth J. Erling, Lecturer of English Language Teaching , The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Why is English so hard to learn?

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Fabrik Bilder/www.shutterstock.com

Sean Sutherland, University of Westminster

The prime minister, David Cameron, wants more Muslim women in the UK to be taught English to reduce segregation between different linguistic communities and even limit the lure of extremism.

Most of us who have tried it probably feel that learning a new language is difficult, even if that new language is similar to our own. So how difficult is it to learn English and especially if your first language is quite different?

The difficulty of learning a new language will depend on how similar that language is to one you already know. Despite English speakers often rating certain languages as being particularly difficult – languages such as French, which indicate the gender of nouns with articles like le and la, and the Chinese writing system – there are similarities between these languages.

If you were to learn French you’d immediately recognise many words, because the English equivalents have French Latin roots, such as ballet or amiable. If you were to learn Chinese you’d find that its grammar is similar to English in many ways – for example each Chinese sentence has a subject, a predicate and an object (though an English speaker would most likely find learning French easier than Chinese).

The most difficulty arises when people learn English when they don’t have the advantage of sharing many borrowed words or grammatical patterns with English. This will include speakers of Arabic, Urdu and Bengali – three of the most common languages spoken by Muslim immigrants in Britain.

Baffling spellings

In my experience, the most common complaint language learners make about English is that the spelling of words often has little or nothing to do with their pronunciation. It’s easy enough to teach someone how to write the letter “a”, for example, but then they must be taught that its pronunciation changes in words like hat, hate and father. In oak it isn’t pronounced at all.

Compare this to the simplicity of Spanish, a language in which an “a” and other vowels rarely change pronunciation from word to word.

Laugh is pronounced larf but the similar-sounding half is not written haugh – but of course there are regional differences in accent too. Like the “l” in half, there are silent letters sprinkled throughout English words: the “k” in knife and knead, the “s” in island, the “p” in receipt, and so on.

A recent poem of unknown origin, a favourite of English language teachers who want to amuse their students, contains tongue twisters such as:

I take it you already know

of tough and bough and cough and dough?

Others may stumble, but not you

on hiccough, thorough, slough and through.

Another area of difficulty that learners of English often comment on is the prevalence of irregular past verbs in English. It’s simple enough to remember that the past tense of walk is
walked, shout is shouted and pick is picked.

But what about all the irregular verbs, like hit, read and think? For hit, the past tense looks and sounds the same as the present tense. For read, the past tense looks the same, but is pronounced differently. For think, the past tense thought involves substantial change to both the spelling and the pronunciation.

There’s not always a pattern to many of these irregular verbs. For verbs ending with “ink” we have “think/thought”, but another irregular pattern “drink/drank” and a regular pattern “wink/winked”. English has several hundred such irregular verbs for learners to look forward to memorising, and many of them are very frequently used: be, get, have, see, eat, and so on.

Being polite

A delicate difficulty concerns how English speakers show politeness. Some languages have quite clear ways for their users to do this. In French you can use the pronoun vous instead of tu to be polite.

Not as easy as it looks.
banlon1964/flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND

English only has you, so that doesn’t work. In Japanese you can substitute polite forms of words, so that although kuu, taberu and meshiagaru all mean “eat” in Japanese, the longer words are more polite.

In English we can use longer words: “Would you like to consume nourishment?” instead of “Would you like to eat?” – but it doesn’t sound polite, rather a bit awkward.

There are less obvious ways of marking politeness in English: use a question (“Could you pass the … ” instead of “Pass the …”), express some doubt (“I don’t suppose you could … ”) and apologise, even for small requests (“Sorry to bother you, but …”).

If subtleties aren’t mastered then otherwise-fluent learners of English (or any other language) – even if they don’t intend to be impolite – may unintentionally appear rude.

The ConversationSo spare a thought for those picking up an English textbook for the first time – mastering the quirks of the language is tough (pronounced tuff).

Sean Sutherland, Senior Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics, University of Westminster

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

ELT teachers living in a ‘nether world’


ELT teachers living in a ‘nether world’

June 2017 (EL Gazette)

Members of the Unite trade union in Ireland held a protest outside the Department of Education in Dublin today, calling for better pay and conditions.

Prior to the rally, the Unite ELT branch committee had requested a meeting with Ireland education minister Richard Bruton to discuss how to improve current wage and working conditions for ELT teachers. However, the members said Bruton had refused to meet with them, referring them to the Workplace Relations Commission because they were employed by private companies and not the government.

Regional organiser Roy Hassey agreed to speak to the EL Gazette about the protest and why they felt it was important.

What do you hope to achieve in this protest?

We want the minister of education to sit down with a small delegation from the Unite ELT branch and for the first time listen to the concerns of teachers. Mr Bruton has met with all other stakeholders in the industry but has not spoken to teachers or the representatives of teachers.

We want the minister to acknowledge the pervasive abuse of employment rights that occur in the sector and include the regulation of employment law and the application of basic standards in employment legislation in the sector.

It is also important to highlight an industry which is worth billions to the Irish economy and is an enormous growth sector but has employment practices from the dark ages. Over 100 English language schools exist in the state employing up to 1,200 teachers at any one time. The majority of these schools are hugely profitable, but Unite members live in a nether world of contractless jobs, zero hour contracts, bogus self-employment, no job security, unpaid work [and] discrimination against non-native speakers.

How long have you been trying to make contact with education and skills minister Richard Bruton and has he given you any reason as to why he hasn’t responded to your demands?

We originally wrote to the minister in March requesting a meeting. He responded to us some time later stating that “a meeting was unnecessary” as any issues around employment can be referred to the Workplace Relations Commission as these were for-profit businesses. However the government regulates virtually every aspect of the industry around the ownership and administration of schools, to how many students should be in each class, temperatures in the rooms, desk sizes, etc., but he claims they cannot regulate around employment rights for teachers. If schools are obliged to have a set number of toilets and to heat the classroom at a certain temperature, they can be regulated to ensure that teachers are paid for all hours worked, are paid an established and fair wage and have proper, legal contracts.

How many people do you expect to be at the protest?

As schools have different hours and different lunch times, it is difficult to find a time for a rally that suits everyone. We are hoping for a big turnout of teachers from city centre schools.

At the rally, union members handed in a letter reiterating the union’s concerns and request for a meeting with the minister. They were accompanied by Unite regional secretary Jimmy Kelly and opposition politicians.

*At the time of going to press, the Irish government had not responded to requests for comment from the EL Gazette.

Original article: (http://www.elgazette.com/item/409-elt-teachers-living-in-a-nether-world.html)


What brain regions control our language? And how do we know this?

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Our language abilities are enabled by a co-ordinated network of brain regions that have evolved to give humans a sophisticated ability to communicate.
[bastian.]/Flickr, CC BY

David Abbott, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health

The brain is key to our existence, but there’s a long way to go before neuroscience can truly capture its staggering capacity. For now, though, our Brain Control series explores what we do know about the brain’s command of six central functions: language, mood, memory, vision, personality and motor skills – and what happens when things go wrong.


When you read something, you first need to detect the words and then to interpret them by determining context and meaning. This complex process involves many brain regions.

Detecting text usually involves the optic nerve and other nerve bundles delivering signals from the eyes to the visual cortex at the back of the brain. If you are reading in Braille, you use the sensory cortex towards the top of the brain. If you listen to someone else reading, then you use the auditory cortex not far from your ears.

A system of regions towards the back and middle of your brain help you interpret the text. These include the angular gyrus in the parietal lobe, Wernicke’s area (comprising mainly the top rear portion of the temporal lobe), insular cortex, basal ganglia and cerebellum.


The Conversation, CC BY-ND

These regions work together as a network to process words and word sequences to determine context and meaning. This enables our receptive language abilities, which means the ability to understand language. Complementary to this is expressive language, which is the ability to produce language.

To speak sensibly, you must think of words to convey an idea or message, formulate them into a sentence according to grammatical rules and then use your lungs, vocal cords and mouth to create sounds. Regions in your frontal, temporal and parietal lobes formulate what you want to say and the motor cortex, in your frontal lobe, enables you to speak the words.

Most of this language-related brain activity is likely occurring in the left side of your brain. But some people use an even mix of both sides and, rarely, some have right dominance for language. There is an evolutionary view that specialisation of certain functions to one side or the other may be an advantage, as many animals, especially vertebrates, exhibit brain function with prominence on one side.

Why the left side is favoured for language isn’t known. But we do know that injury or conditions such as epilepsy, if it affects the left side of the brain early in a child’s development, can increase the chances language will develop on the right side. The chance of the person being left-handed is also increased. This makes sense, because the left side of the body is controlled by the motor cortex on the right side of the brain.

To speak sensibly, you must think of words to convey an idea or message, formulate them into a sentence according to grammatical rules and then use your lungs, vocal cords and mouth to create sounds.
paul pod/Flickr, CC BY

Selective problems

In 1861, French neurologist Pierre Paul Broca described a patient unable to speak who had no motor impairments to account for the inability. A postmortem examination showed a lesion in a large area towards the lower middle of his left frontal lobe particularly important in language formulation. This is now known as Broca’s area.

The clinical symptom of being unable to speak despite having the motor skills is known as expressive aphasia, or Broca’s aphasia.

In 1867, Carl Wernicke observed an opposite phenomenon. A patient was able to speak but not understand language. This is known as receptive aphasia, or Wernicke’s aphasia. The damaged region, as you might correctly guess, is the Wernicke’s area mentioned above.

Scientists have also observed injured patients with other selective problems, such as an inability to understand most words except nouns; or words with unusual spelling, such as those with silent consonants, like reign.

These difficulties are thought to arise from damage to selective areas or connections between regions in the brain’s language network. However, precise localisation can often be difficult given the complexity of individuals’ symptoms and the uncontrolled nature of their brain injury.

We also know the brain’s language regions work together as a co-ordinated network, with some parts involved in multiple functions and a level of redundancy in some processing pathways. So it’s not simply a matter of one brain region doing one thing in isolation.

Broca’s area is named after French neurologist Pierre Paul Broca.
Wikimedia Commons

How do we know all this?

Before advanced medical imaging, most of our knowledge came from observing unfortunate patients with injuries to particular brain parts. One could relate the approximate region of damage to their specific symptoms. Broca’s and Wernicke’s observations are well-known examples.

Other knowledge was inferred from brain-stimulation studies. Weak electrical stimulation of the brain while a patient is awake is sometimes performed in patients undergoing surgery to remove a lesion such as a tumour. The stimulation causes that part of the brain to stop working for a few seconds, which can enable the surgeon to identify areas of critically important function to avoid damaging during surgery.

In the mid-20th century, this helped neurosurgeons discover more about the localisation of language function in the brain. It was clearly demonstrated that while most people have language originating on the left side of their brain, some could have language originating on the right.

Towards the later part of the 20th century, if a surgeon needed to find out which side of your brain was responsible for language – so he didn’t do any damage – he would put to sleep one side of your brain with an anaesthetic. The doctor would then ask you a series of questions, determining your language side from your ability or inability to answer them. This invasive test (which is less often used today due to the availability of functional brain imaging) is known as the Wada test, named after Juhn Wada, who first described it just after the second world war.

Brain imaging

Today, we can get a much better view of brain function by using imaging techniques, especially magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a safe procedure that uses magnetic fields to take pictures of your brain.

When we see activity in a region of the brain, that’s when there is an increase in freshly oxygenated blood flow.
from shutterstock.com

Using MRI to measure brain function is called functional MRI (fMRI), which detects signals from magnetic properties of blood in vessels supplying oxygen to brain cells. The fMRI signal changes depending on whether the blood is carrying oxygen, which means it slightly reduces the magnetic field, or has delivered up its oxygen, which slightly increases the magnetic field.

A few seconds after brain neurons become active in a brain region, there is an increase in freshly oxygenated blood flow to that brain part, much more than required to satisfy the oxygen demand of the neurons. This is what we see when we say a brain region is activated during certain functions.

Brain-imaging methods have revealed that much more of our brain is involved in language processing than previously thought. We now know that numerous regions in every major lobe (frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal lobes; and the cerebellum, an area at the bottom of the brain) are involved in our ability to produce and comprehend language.

Functional MRI is also becoming a useful clinical tool. In some centres it has replaced the Wada test to determine where language is in the brain.

Scientists are also using fMRI to build up a finer picture of how the brain processes language by designing experiments that compare which areas are active during various tasks. For instance, researchers have observed differences in brain language regions of dyslexic children compared to those without dyslexia.

Researchers compared fMRI images of groups of children with and without dyslexia while they performed language-related tasks. They found that dyslexic children had, on average, less activity in Broca’s area mainly on the left during this task. They also had less activity in or near Wernicke’s area on the left and right, and a portion of the front of the temporal lobe on the right.

Could this type of brain imaging provide a diagnostic signature of dyslexia? This is a work-in-progress, but we hope further study will one day lead to a robust, objective and early brain-imaging test for dyslexia and other disorders.


The ConversationWant to know how the brain controls your mood? Read today’s accompanying piece here.

David Abbott, Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Epilepsy Neuroinformatics Laboratory, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Schools told by Ofqual to expect more ‘variability’ in exam results this year


Results
By Eleanor Busby (TES)
Ofqual has written to schools as pupils sit new GCSEs and A-levels for the first time

The exams regulator Ofqual has warned schools to prepare for “more variability” in results following the introduction of new GCSEs and A levels this year.

Sally Collier, chief regulator of Ofqual, has written to schools today to tell them to expect variability in their results this summer following the significant changes to the qualifications.

This summer, pupils are sitting new GCSEs in English and maths – as well as a number of new AS levels and A levels.

In her letter, Ms Collier said: “We know that it is normal for schools and colleges to see some variability in their own year-to-year results – either up or down.

“It can be due to many different factors, including differences in the ability mix of the students, different teaching approaches, changes in teaching staff or teaching time.

“We also know that when qualifications change, there is normally more variability in schools and college results, and this is what we expect for new qualifications this year.”

Ms Collier told schools that Ofqual will publish more information on this on both results days.

She also used the letter to tell schools that Ofqual is monitoring the actions of exam boards following a series of mistakes in GCSE and A-level papers this summer.

This week, exam boards OCR and AQA both apologised for errors in their exam papers.

Ms Collier said: “We expect all papers to be error-free, but we also recognise that the production of question papers is a complex process which is subject to human error and so mistakes will happen from time to time.

“When errors are not identified before the exam, we expect the exam boards to do everything they can to minimise the impact on students.

“That is our immediate priority, and we are monitoring their actions closely. Once results are issued, we will look carefully at the reasons for the errors that occurred and take action if appropriate.”

Original article (https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/schools-told-ofqual-expect-more-variability-exam-results-year)


How learning a new language improves tolerance

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Why learn a new language?
Timothy Vollmer, CC BY

Amy Thompson, University of South Florida

There are many benefits to knowing more than one language. For example, it has been shown that aging adults who speak more than one language have less likelihood of developing dementia.

Additionally, the bilingual brain becomes better at filtering out distractions, and learning multiple languages improves creativity. Evidence also shows that learning subsequent languages is easier than learning the first foreign language.

Unfortunately, not all American universities consider learning foreign languages a worthwhile investment.

Why is foreign language study important at the university level?

As an applied linguist, I study how learning multiple languages can have cognitive and emotional benefits. One of these benefits that’s not obvious is that language learning improves tolerance.

This happens in two important ways.

The first is that it opens people’s eyes to a way of doing things in a way that’s different from their own, which is called “cultural competence.”

The second is related to the comfort level of a person when dealing with unfamiliar situations, or “tolerance of ambiguity.”

Gaining cross-cultural understanding

Cultural competence is key to thriving in our increasingly globalized world. How specifically does language learning improve cultural competence? The answer can be illuminated by examining different types of intelligence.

Psychologist Robert Sternberg’s research on intelligence describes different types of intelligence and how they are related to adult language learning. What he refers to as “practical intelligence” is similar to social intelligence in that it helps individuals learn nonexplicit information from their environments, including meaningful gestures or other social cues.

Learning a foreign language reduces social anxiety.
COD Newsroom, CC BY

Language learning inevitably involves learning about different cultures. Students pick up clues about the culture both in language classes and through meaningful immersion experiences.

Researchers Hanh Thi Nguyen and Guy Kellogg have shown that when students learn another language, they develop new ways of understanding culture through analyzing cultural stereotypes. They explain that “learning a second language involves the acquisition not only of linguistic forms but also ways of thinking and behaving.”

With the help of an instructor, students can critically think about stereotypes of different cultures related to food, appearance and conversation styles.

Dealing with the unknown

The second way that adult language learning increases tolerance is related to the comfort level of a person when dealing with “tolerance of ambiguity.”

Someone with a high tolerance of ambiguity finds unfamiliar situations exciting, rather than frightening. My research on motivation, anxiety and beliefs indicates that language learning improves people’s tolerance of ambiguity, especially when more than one foreign language is involved.

It’s not difficult to see why this may be so. Conversations in a foreign language will inevitably involve unknown words. It wouldn’t be a successful conversation if one of the speakers constantly stopped to say, “Hang on – I don’t know that word. Let me look it up in the dictionary.” Those with a high tolerance of ambiguity would feel comfortable maintaining the conversation despite the unfamiliar words involved.

Applied linguists Jean-Marc Dewaele and Li Wei also study tolerance of ambiguity and have indicated that those with experience learning more than one foreign language in an instructed setting have more tolerance of ambiguity.

What changes with this understanding

A high tolerance of ambiguity brings many advantages. It helps students become less anxious in social interactions and in subsequent language learning experiences. Not surprisingly, the more experience a person has with language learning, the more comfortable the person gets with this ambiguity.

And that’s not all.

Individuals with higher levels of tolerance of ambiguity have also been found to be more entrepreneurial (i.e., are more optimistic, innovative and don’t mind taking risks).

In the current climate, universities are frequently being judged by the salaries of their graduates. Taking it one step further, based on the relationship of tolerance of ambiguity and entrepreneurial intention, increased tolerance of ambiguity could lead to higher salaries for graduates, which in turn, I believe, could help increase funding for those universities that require foreign language study.

Those who have devoted their lives to theorizing about and the teaching of languages would say, “It’s not about the money.” But perhaps it is.

Language learning in higher ed

Most American universities have a minimal language requirement that often varies depending on the student’s major. However, students can typically opt out of the requirement by taking a placement test or providing some other proof of competency.

Why more universities should teach a foreign language.
sarspri, CC BY-NC

In contrast to this trend, Princeton recently announced that all students, regardless of their competency when entering the university, would be required to study an additional language.

I’d argue that more universities should follow Princeton’s lead, as language study at the university level could lead to an increased tolerance of the different cultural norms represented in American society, which is desperately needed in the current political climate with the wave of hate crimes sweeping university campuses nationwide.

Knowledge of different languages is crucial to becoming global citizens. As former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted,

“Our country needs to create a future in which all Americans understand that by speaking more than one language, they are enabling our country to compete successfully and work collaboratively with partners across the globe.”

The ConversationConsidering the evidence that studying languages as adults increases tolerance in two important ways, the question shouldn’t be “Why should universities require foreign language study?” but rather “Why in the world wouldn’t they?”

Amy Thompson, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of South Florida

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.