“A multilingual approach to analysing test results and the role of languages spoken in a bi-/multilingual community” by Gessica De Angelis

This post was contributed by Agnès Marchessou, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

linguistics_50_finalDr Gessica De Angelis’ seminar was the second in a series of talks being hosted by Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication, as part of its 50th Anniversary celebration. It gave us the opportunity to hear from one of the great alumni contributors to the field. De Angelis obtained her PhD at Birkbeck in 2002 with Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele as supervisor. She worked at the University of Toronto, the University of Bolzano and is currently Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin.

One of the most inspiring aspects of De Angelis’ research is the fact that it has sociopolitical implications, well beyond the field of Applied Linguistics. By presenting a critical overview of standardised tests, De Angelis exposes the language barriers to an equal education, with ramifications at policy-making level.

The research presented takes place in the province of South Tyrol (Northern Italy), a multilingual region where three languages coexist within the community: German (the largest population), Italian and Ladin (the Dolomites’ dialect). De Angelis took us through the traumatic and complex history of the region, torn apart by neighbouring nations. Of particular interest was the signing in 1972 of Article 19, the statute which gave the right to education in any of the three local languages, and introduced three separate monolingual school boards. By stipulating that teachers had to be of the same mother-tongue as their students, it actually made bilingual education illegal.

De Angelis presented two pieces of research in this complex sociolinguistic context.

The first study (De Angelis 2012; De Angelis and Jessner, 2012) looked at the relation between school performance and the language spoken in the community (population distribution), with speakers of Italian L1, German L2 and English L3. Written national evaluations undertaken by 14 year old students were used as data. The results showed a typical association between L2 exposure and proficiency, but most importantly, the research demonstrated that it was the absence rather than the presence of Italian L1 in the community that made the difference, by increasing proficiency in L2 German. In other words, a context with a majority of L1 German speakers gave the L1 Italian group more opportunities to communicate with them and therefore improved their L2 proficiency in the language of ‘the other’. This in turn had an effect on L3 competence, given that high proficiency in German L2 was found to have a positive effect on English L3.

The second study (De Angelis 2014) focused on the language proficiency of immigrant children attending Italian schools in Italian and German-speaking areas. National school test results on seven year olds were compared at a national and local level. Unexpectedly, in the case of South Tyrol, both 1st and 2nd generation immigrants underperformed to a similar extent, when it would typically be expected that 2nd generation immigrants would outperform 1st generation ones (as shown in national results). When reassessing the data in view of the language spoken in the community, 2nd generation immigrants actually also outperformed 1st generation ones in German speaking areas (where opportunities to practice Italian within the community are limited).

Consequently a multilingual approach can prove beneficial for the accurate reading of test results within specific local linguistic contexts. The misinterpretation of such results can have heavy financial repercussions for the use of (often limited) resources in education. Standardised tests also have important social implications (McNamara & Roever, 2006), therefore raising concerns about their interpretation may assist in addressing inequalities (in education for instance). I have found such insights into the language conflicts of South Tyrol most valuable, as my current research is taking me to another European border region, Alsace.

De Angelis, G. (2014) A multilingual approach to analysing standardized test results: immigrant primary school children and the role of languages spoken in a bi-/multilingual community. Intercultural Education, 25 (1), 14-28.

De Angelis, G. (2012) The effect of population distribution on L1 and L2 acquisition: evidence from the multilingual region of South Tyrol. International Journal of Multilingualism, 9 (4), 407-422.

De Angelis, G. and Jessner, U. (2012) Writing across languages in a bilingual context: A dynamic systems theory approach. In R. M. Manchòn (Ed.) L2 Writing Development: multiple perspectives. Trends in Applied Linguistics Series. Mouton de Gruyter. 47-68.

McNamara, T. F. and Roever, C. (2006). Language testing: The social dimension. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

See the full recording of the talk here.


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