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Coffey Examines Foreign Language Learning, Fluency

Heights Editor

Published: Monday, February 18, 2013

Updated: Monday, February 18, 2013 00:02


Last Friday in Stokes S286, professor Thomas Coffey of the Modern Languages and Literatures Department at Creighton University presented “Language Scales: Majors, Contact Hours, and Real Life Proficiency”—an in-depth analysis of the importance of learning additional languages in the contemporary world.
The presentation focused primarily on the university level of language development, but also the limitations of attaining a truly extensive knowledge of a language within the confines and time constraints of a college setting. Coffey emphasized this theme of language limitations with his research on “language scales”—measurable standards of how well a person comprehends a language, including accent detection and other nuanced understandings of a language.
Coffey, who specializes in French, German, and linguistics, first explained certain language learning terms like “critical language” (a language in need) and “native speaking” (speaking the language one is born into), and demonstrated how language scales gauge one’s ability to employ a language.
The Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale—one of the most widely used instruments of measuring language speaking abilities—describes five levels of language proficiency: (from 1-5) elementary, limited working, general, advanced professional, and functionally native. College students majoring in a foreign language, Coffey noted, are generally only capable of reaching level three on the ILR scale—not as a result of intellectual ability, but of the lack of contact hours (overall exposure) with the language. 
“Learning a language is age related,” Coffey said. “Generally, to reach level five [on the ILR scale], exposure must occur prior to the physiological development of the brain … around the age of 12.” Coffey explained how the onset of puberty restricts certain capabilities of learning a language like word ordering and accent enhancement, and can even deter students from studying a language completely. “Less than one percent of all college students pursue a foreign language degree,” he said.
The current deficiency in foreign language degrees in America is particularly troublesome for four languages, otherwise defined as “critical languages”: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. These critical languages are highly sought after for governmental and business affairs, but are collectively studied by less than 10 percent of foreign language majors. Last year, only 19 students in the entirety of the U.S. studied Pashto, a South-Central Asian language primarily spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Coffey’s lecture focused heavily on the levels of language proficiency obtained through various methods of cultural immersion and academic engagement, but also stressed the importance of combining a foreign language degree with a “practical” field of study.
“Within the U.S. market for foreign speakers, there is a strong demand for speakers with cultural experience,” Coffey said. The supply, however, is increasingly drawn from other countries.
Throughout his lecture, Coffey also drew attention to the importance of cultural immersion, recommending that every student study abroad if given the opportunity. “‘Chatter’ is important,” he said about the impact foreign dialect has on learning varying types of languages. When asked for some advice for students going abroad, Coffey reiterated the importance of simply “talking.” He urged students to engage in communities where no functional knowledge of English exists. “You will have the opportunity to teach [nonnatives] English, as well as the chance to develop your own proficiency.”
The language seminar gave students an opportunity to ask Coffey questions regarding potential study abroad opportunities and stimulated discussion on the role languages play in business and even the intelligence community. “One should aspire to go beyond level three [on the IRL scale] through varying types of immersion,” he said. “Level five is the gold standard.”

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