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Language Resource Center Speaker Series - Charlene Polio

Tuesday, April 16, 2019 at 4:30pm to 5:30pm

Stimson Hall, G25
204 East Ave., Ithaca, NY 14853, USA

"Are Some Languages Really More "Difficult" to Learn?"
Charlene Polio
Professor, Michigan State University

The U.S. Foreign Service Institute (FSI) created a table suggesting that for English speakers, certain languages take longer to learn than others. The FSI classified languages such as Spanish, as category I languages and other languages, such as Chinese, as category IV languages based on how long it took English learners to reach a certain level of proficiency. Although the table has been widely reproduced in the media and cited in applied linguistics articles, there are no empirical studies to support or refute the claims made by FSI. The first part of this talk will address what has been said about language difficulty and how that concept has been defined. I will also summarize the empirical research from second language acquisition that details what is known about which grammatical structures may be challenging. 
I then report on a small-scale study that tracks differential progress across languages. The participants (N=40) were beginners of Spanish (category I), Russian (category III), and Chinese (category IV) in a summer domestic immersion program. The participants were tested at the end of their program on the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) reading and listening tests and on the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview. We also observed four different instructors of the beginning levels of each language and interviewed the directors of programs. 
Despite the small sample size and self-selection of participants into languages, some trends emerged. First, as the FSI table predicts, all students of Spanish reached the Intermediate Mid level in reading while students of Chinese showed a median score of Novice Mid, and in Russian, a median score of Intermediate Low. Second, there was little difference among the three groups on the speaking test, suggesting that at the lower levels, when input is maximized, the FSI table may be misleading. Third, the listening results were difficult to interpret because the Chinese students' listening scores were both lower than the other groups' and below their speaking scores. Information from observations and interviews provide tentative explanations for the listening scores. 

Bio: Charlene Polio is a Professor and Associate Chair in the Department of Linguistics & Germanic, Slavic, Asian & African Languages at Michigan State University, where she teaches in the MA Program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and the Second Language Studies Program. Her main area of research is second language (L2) writing, particularly the various research methods and measures used in studying L2 writing as well as the interface between the fields of L2 writing and second language acquisition. She has also published and done research in the areas of second language acquisition, foreign language classroom discourse, and behavior differences in novice vs. experienced teachers. She is the co-editor of TESOL Quarterly and the past associate editor of the Modern Language Journal.

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Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences, Language Resource Center


LRCspeakerseries, CornellLRC


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Charlene Polio

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Michigan State University

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