Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Language Placement Exams for Heritage Speakers of Spanish: Learning from Students' Mistakes

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Language Placement Exams for Heritage Speakers of Spanish: Learning from Students' Mistakes

Article excerpt

Abstract:

Student admission into heritage language programs is usually determined by locally designed placement exams. However, there are no norms to guide language teaching professionals in the assessment of this student population. This study looks at placement exams completed by heritage learners of Spanish at the University of Houston. The quantification and analysis of the verb morphology section from this archival data describe the variation present in the linguistic systems of these learners, making it possible (1) to recognize gaps in the learners' linguistic systems and (2) to identify major differences between academic Spanish and the students' home-variety language. This information may be useful in the design of a placement exam based on empirical research, and may also serve as a guide for syllabi design and teaching practice.

Key Words: heritage languages, language testing, placement exams, Spanish, verb morphology

Language: Spanish

Introduction

Despite the increase in the Hispanic population in the United States, proficiency in Spanish as a heritage language continues to diminish (Bernal-Henriquez & Hernández-Chávez, 2003; Hernández-Chávez, 1993; Lipski, 1993; Silva-Corvalán, 1994, 1997; among others). An increasing number of universities are aware of the importance of heritage language education; consequently, they are promoting the teaching of heritage languages through specially designed programs. However, according to Feal (2002), these programs are not "as prevalent as one might think" (p. 5). The results of a nationwide survey indicate that "programs that take heritage learners into consideration are offered in 22% of AA-granting departments, 18% of BA-granting departments, 34% of MA-granting departments, and 39.3% of PhD-granting departments" (Feal, 2002, pp. 5-6).

González-Pino and Pino (2000) indicate that different tools are used to admit students into heritage language programs. These placement tools include demographic questionnaires, self-placement, interviews, and placement exams. There are several tests that can be used for Spanish at the K-12 levels, either as diagnostic or placement tools (e.g., the Prueba de Ubicación para hispanohablantes [Placement Exam for Spanish Speakers] developed by Otheguy and Garcia and available through McDougal Littell; the Batería WoodcockMuñoz Revisada; the Language Assessment Scales-Oral); however, options are limited at the university level. Some institutions use standardized exams such as the S-CAPE (Brigham Young University), with heritage language learners often providing unreliable results since this type of test was designed for students of Spanish as a foreign language. To my knowledge, the only test available to the public and currently used by several universities is the one developed by the University of Texas, El Paso, several years ago by Parisi and Teschner (1983). This is a 140-item blind multiple-choice test used to place all incoming students either on the heritage learners' track or in traditional foreign language courses.

In general, student admission into college-level heritage language programs is determined by locally designed placement exams. However, there are no norms to guide language teaching professionals in the assessment of this student population.1 Most foreign language professionals are familiar the ACTFL/1LR Proficiency Guidelines and tests such as the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI). Although a number of universities use the Guidelines and the OPI (or modified versions of this test) for placing heritage speakers, some professionals consider them inappropriate for heritage learners since the speaker they test is the foreign language student and the levels specified in the guidelines are based on the acquisition process that takes place in the classroom (Valdés, 1989, p. 394). Sociolinguistic studies of language heterogeneity in real-life situations have challenged some key constructs in language education, including the concepts of native speaker and standard language. …

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