The highest national research award for foreign language education recently was awarded to the team of Xiaowan Zhang, MSU Ph.D. alumna in Second Language Studies; Paula Winke, Professor in MSU’s Department of Linguistics, Languages, and Cultures; and Shaunna Clark, Associate Professor at Texas A&M University, for their research paper, “Background Characteristics and Oral Proficiency Development Over Time in Lower-Division College Foreign Language Programs.”
The 2021 Paul Pimsleur Award, presented by the National Federation of Modern Language Teachers’ Association (NFMLTA) and The Modern Language Journal, recognizes this work as the most outstanding 2020 contribution to research in world language education.
“This award is an amazing honor and recognizes the importance of our 2020 study conducted in foreign language programs here at Michigan State University,” Winke said. “We found evidence that high-school foreign language learning is crucial for advanced-level success in college programs. This encourages us to make stronger and more principled connections across the K-12 and college-level learning landscapes.”
Their research, published in the journal Language Learning, studied 1,922 MSU students studying Chinese, French, Russian, or Spanish who, over time, repeatedly took language proficiency tests in the language they were learning. The students also filled out a background questionnaire on their gender, heritage-learner status, high-school language experience, and experience using the language outside of class.
“We found that language exposure in the home context greatly facilitates language development in college. We hope college language educators and teachers find our research useful for their design of curriculum and instruction.”Xiaowan Zhang, Ph.D. alumna in Second Language Studies
“The study was unique in that it tracked language development longitudinally using national, standardized tests,” Winke said. “The data showed that high school and heritage language learning before college provide a super-charged boost in learning while at college. In essence, we need articulated high-school and college-level programming to meet national language needs.”
Students who had learned the language in high school experienced more growth over time, the study showed, as did those who had exposure to the language as a child through family members who spoke the language in the home.
“We found that language exposure in the home context greatly facilitates language development in college,” Zhang said. “We hope college language educators and teachers find our research useful for their design of curriculum and instruction.”
Another unique aspect of the study is that the anonymized data used for the research were published alongside the paper itself. Readers and other researchers can download the data to try out the analyses that the authors used, or run other studies, answering new research questions, using the data.
“Publishing the data is important because we want to be transparent in how we came to our study’s conclusions,” Winke said.
The data for the research was collected through a National Security Education Program (NSEP) grant awarded to Winke as the Primary Investigator. The grant was conducted within the MSU Center for Language Teaching Advancement and through the Department of Linguistics, Languages, and Cultures and the Department of Romance and Classical Studies.
“Michigan State University is an amazing location for foreign language education. The highly engaged and motivating students and faculty here serve as an example to the entire nation on how foreign language learning is done.”Professor Paula Winke
“Michigan State University is an amazing location for foreign language education,” Winke said. “The highly engaged and motivating students and faculty here serve as an example to the entire nation on how foreign language learning is done.”
The Paul Pimsleur Award was created in 1977 as a memorial to Paul Pimsleur and to recognize his contributions to the profession as an outstanding teacher, researcher, and expert on test creation and interpretation. This award was virtually presented to Zhang, Winke, and Clark at the November 2021 American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) conference. The quality of the research and its potential impact on world language learning and teaching comprise the principal criteria for award selection. Each study nominated was assessed in the light of the rigor of its research approach and the significance of its contribution to knowledge within the language education field.