Linguist challenges language learning assessment


May 25, 2010

In his research within the field of applied linguistics, ASU professor Jeff MacSwan recently examined a language assessment which identified some children as “non-nons” who, according to the test, know neither English nor Spanish.

“The test result is really unexpected, because linguists see language acquisition as just a natural part of being human. We acquire languages because we are biologically endowed with a language faculty,” MacSwan said. “Everybody learns a language effortlessly and without instruction, so why would we find kids who don’t learn a language at all? The consequences are huge for these kids. They very often end up in special education programs because schools don’t know what to do with them.” Download Full Image

Understanding this dilemma is intimately related to policy issues and educational issues facing English language learning.

“Whoever developed the tests to reach this determination has some concept of what it means,” said MacSwan, who is one of the nation’s leading scholars in applied linguistics. “We need to ask: Is it a good concept? Is it a defensible theory of linguistic knowledge or is it not?”

To challenge this popular assessment, MacSwan gave children a wordless picture book and asked them to tell the story. He wrote down their responses word for word and used a linguistic coding system to analyze the syntactic error rate and morphological error rate to find evidence of language deficiency. Instead, 98 percent of the children scored in the proficient range with the natural language sample compared to the commercial language tests that labeled 90 percent of them “non-nons.”

“The tests were dramatically out of synch with the natural language abilities of these kids,” MacSwan said. “The language sampling approach is informed by sound linguistic theory and the commercial tests were designed by people who have a very crude understanding of language proficiency.”

On the surface, MacSwan’s abstract linguistics approach to the study of bilingualism seems unrelated to his work in ESL policies and classroom practice. But his inquiry into the nature of bilingualism also informs perspective and understanding of language as he probes questions in applied areas related to policy, curriculum, teaching and learning.

“For me, they’re tightly connected because when we discuss bilingualism and language minority education, we bring along a set of assumptions about the nature of language and the nature of bilingualism," he said. "Those assumptions have very dramatic consequences on the way we think about why some students do better than others in English language learning programs.”

MacSwan has approached linguistics research through a disciplinary lens then applied it to support English language learners in schools. At ASU, his scientific work has focused on the basic linguistic structure of code-switching, in which speakers interchange words from dual languages.

“I probe the question of grammatical structure or the system of grammatical rules,” he said. “It’s been very strongly established that code-switching is governed by a system of grammatical rules just like monolingual language. The question for researchers becomes, what is the system of rules?”

“When people say a sentence is wrong, they are thinking of prescriptive grammar. We’re talking about an empirical discipline where we have evidence that a sentence is not consistent with an underlying rule system that is mentally represented in our subconscious minds,” MacSwan said. “It starts getting very, very complicated because it matters which language pairs you have and it matters what particular grammatical context is used.”

MacSwan is the program director for ASU's interdisciplinary Applied Linguistics PhD program and a member of the graduate faculties of Applied Linguistics, Language and Literacy, English, Speech and Hearing Science, and Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. He received his PhD from UCLA in 1997 and in 2003 was selected as a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow. He also was a visiting scholar in the Linguistics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a guest scientist at the Center for the Study of Multilingualism at the University of Hamburg in Germany.

His 2000 article on the underlying mental architecture of bilingualism and code-switching is anthologized in a prestigious international book series published by Routledge, titled "Bilingualism: Critical Concepts in Linguistics,” and has been translated and reprinted in international journals.

MacSwan’s interest in code-switching was piqued while teaching English as a second language to bilingual students at a high school in California. The experience ultimately became the subject of his dissertation.

“I saw my kids code-switching like this all the time. I had a background in linguistics, so I found it very intriguing," MacSwan said. "My focus was on immigrant kids and English language learning, and it seemed like a nice marriage to use linguistics to study bilingualism."

He began using the linguistic framework of Noam Chomsky’s Minimalist Program, which theorizes the rules that govern the structure of language and has radically changed thinking about linguistics since the 1990s. From this research, MacSwan developed a model of intra-sentential code-switching which explored consequences of Chomsky’s minimalist approach.

“One important aspect of classical minimalism is lexicalism, the idea that language differences are encoded in words rather than the syntax,” MacSwan said. “The old idea was that there was a parameter, or switch, that tells the learner what the syntactic rule is. In code-switching, that kind of a theory gets a little difficult to unravel because if you have a mixed sentence, how do you know which syntactic system is contributing the rule for basic word order?

“With lexicalism, you no longer have the idea that parameters are set in syntax as it was developed to look at monolingual language,” MacSwan continued. “There is some property of a word that has the consequence of one word order or another. For code-switching researchers, that was extremely valuable because now we can pin down what properties a word should have. Now we have a tight relationship between the language and the specific linguistic contributions it’s making to an expression.”


Written by Verina Palmer Martin

Educational technology program top-ranked for productivity


May 26, 2010

With only a few graduate faculty members, the educational technology program in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College may be small but it is one of the most productive in the world. In the recently released 2010 edition of the Educational Media and Technology Yearbook, Arizona State University's educational technology graduate program is ranked second worldwide as measured by number of publications in the field’s top two journals.

The program was established at ASU in the late 1960s. It focuses on the design, development and evaluation of instructional systems and on educational technology applications to support learning. The program offers a master's of education degree and a doctorate of philosophy in educational technology, as well as two certificate programs. Download Full Image

ASU’s educational technology program has long been considered one of the top programs in the country, but this year’s Educational Media and Technology Yearbook for the first time ranked programs using objective data. The yearbook editors counted the number of publications in the field’s top two journals, Educational Technology Research and Development and the Journal of the Learning Sciences, in 2007 and 2008. ASU ranked second behind only Nanyang Technological University in Singapore for most publications.

The yearbook also ranked programs by the amount of grant and contract monies they had received in the 2008-09 academic year. ASU tied with six other schools for sixth place on that list, which includes programs in information and library science as well as learning, design and technology.

Also included in the yearbook are lists of the top schools by number of faculty and number of graduates. ASU was not ranked on those lists because of the small size of the program, which makes the high productivity ranking even more of an achievement.

“Our competitors – all of the other big universities that have educational technology programs – have nine to 12 faculty while we have less than half of that,” said James Klein, a professor in the program.

In a journal article published last year that counted total number of publications in Educational Technology Research and Development alone, ASU’s educational technology program garnered a No. 1 ranking. That study covered the 20-year period from 1998 to 2008.

As further evidence of ASU’s dominance in the field, a ranking of the top authors in ETR&D over the same 20-year period shows that four of the five top-ranked authors are affiliated with ASU. Klein is ranked third while emeritus professor Howard Sullivan is ranked second. The first- and fifth-ranked authors, as well as one of three authors who tied for sixth place, are graduates of ASU’s educational technology program.

“We established a strong research culture in our PhD program in educational technology at ASU," said Sullivan, who helped create the program after joining the ASU faculty in 1964, and retiring in 2007. "We emphasize experimental research and co-publication by doctoral students and faculty, most likely to a greater extent than any other educational technology program in the U.S.”

The alumni who ranked among the most-productive scholars all studied with Sullivan and credit him for much of their success.

“ASU is a really well-known program for mentoring doctoral students as researchers and preparing them to impact their field,” said the No. 1 ranked author, Michael Hannafin, a named eminent scholar at the University of Georgia. “In my own case, I worked with Howard Sullivan. He was one of those guys who really managed to groom a lot of people and really help a lot of people understand what it took to do the kind of work that he did.”

Robert Reiser, the fifth-ranked author in ETR&D over the past 20 years, also studied with Sullivan at ASU. He later mentored Klein when Klein was a student at Florida State University, where Reiser is a distinguished teaching professor.

“I was really fortunate that I went to Arizona State and that I studied with people like Howard,” said Reiser. “He really worked with me and with all the students to hone our research skills and particularly our ability to write.

“The tradition that Howard started not only continues with the students who have gone elsewhere but continues when new faculty came under his wing as colleagues there. Jim Klein is the perfect example of that. I’m not at all surprised by ASU’s placement in the rankings because the people there just are very productive.”

Written by Barby Grant