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Thursday, October 25, 2012

The LPE Changes with the Times

The Language Testing Program now offers computerized Language Proficiency Exams (LPEs) in more languages than ever before. Tests currently in development feature culturally-rich authentic source material such as clips from modern Korean film, a look at the Somali-speaking community in the Twin Cities, and much more!

scene from Korean film
Example of culturally authentic material that could be used in LPE
Computerized LPEs were established in 2001. Hundreds of language students take them each semester to fulfill the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) language requirement and as a gateway to advanced language study. The mission of the Language Testing Program has remained constant: to accurately assess students' ability to listen, read, write and speak in the target language.
However, the program has changed and grown since 2001. The LPE is constantly being improved and the pace of modernization and innovation has picked up in the last few years. The Language Testing Program has focused on two new goals since 2010:  to serve as many language students as possible and to improve the students' exam experience by including contemporary and diverse media from the target language culture.

Before 2010, a computerized test was available only for students of French, German and Spanish and a few related languages. Students of Asian and other less commonly taught languages were limited to paper-based tests, or had no exam options at all.

Tests are now in place for Arabic, Chinese, Hmong, Italian, Japanese and Russian, and there is a second version of the Spanish LPE. In addition, development is underway for Finnish, Korean, Somali, and Swahili. All of these tests were made possible through an influx of funding from Title VI and other sources, along with a committed effort on the part of the Language Testing Program and the individual language programs to work together tirelessly and collaboratively. Once all of the newer exams are completed, the LPE will be available for almost all non-Classical languages offered in CLA and will reflect the diversity of languages available at the University of Minnesota.

As new tests are created, the Language Testing Program and the developers aim to bring new depth to the student experience and to conform more closely to current trends in second language pedagogy with increased emphasis on culturally-rich contexts. The new exams retain the original LPE goal of validating the work of students in their four semesters at the university by providing an opportunity to show what they can do with the target language in a communicative context.

However, they are not just tests - they are also learning opportunities for students, highlighting something new about the culture, history, or people of the target language through the use of authentic materials. Students may learn, for example, how traditional holiday celebrations have changed over time as societies become increasingly multicultural. There are also explorations of how gender roles have shifted and how these shifts impact language as well as cultural practice. One exam features an innovative, and perhaps surprising, environmental initiative. Another explores the lyrics of a popular song from a YouTube video.

The piloting process for new LPEs often includes a survey of student opinions about the test. Reactions to the new authentic content have been overwhelmingly positive. Test-takers have said that they were surprised and pleased to see that they had no difficulty reading texts that they might encounter on a daily basis in the target culture.

Here are some sample student reactions:

It made me realize the potential of a real-life usage for the language I've been studying.

I liked that the readings were all things I'd have to figure out in real life. It was a very pleasant experience to read articles from Japan.

The Korean LPE also offers a significant technological innovation: the incorporation of authentic video segments into the listening section. The test includes five diverse clips from modern Korean film showing natural and interesting interactions between native speakers. The use of authentic video is an excellent platform from which to assess listening proficiency, since it ties closely to the construct of listening in a communicative context, where meaning is negotiated based on a variety of input sources. The Korean listening exam has already been piloted once, and the response to the test was enthusiastically positive. Students reported that they especially enjoyed the video segments and felt confident that they could understand content overall, even though there may have been a few words unfamiliar to them.

The Somali listening section will include some authentic video segments as well. This exam stands out because it is set locally and explores the lives of immigrants integrating with the larger community as they share their language and culture - a reflection of the changing face of the Twin Cities.

Since 2010, new LPE creation has been led by Gabriela Sweet, who has worked tirelessly to organize a rotating team of developers, coordinate with multiple departments and stakeholders, and keep all projects on time and moving forward. The Korean, Somali, and Swahili development teams also include Language Center AV Developer Alaina Witt, Item Reviewers Xinyi Wu and Meghan McFadden, and LC Technical Coordinator Diane Rackowski.

The current language-specific developers are:

Finnish: Dan Karvonen, Jaana Viljakainen

Korean: Hangtae Cho, Yunseong Cheong

Somali: Said Ahmed, Abdulkarim Maalin

Swahili: Angaluki Muaka

Much of the funding for Korean development has been provided by a CLA InfoTech Tools for Discovery Grant. Title VI funding managed by the Institute for Global Studies has provided some travel and development grants for Somali and Swahili.

The Language Testing Program and the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures plan to present the new Korean listening section featuring authentic video later this winter. The U of M language community will have an opportunity to see how the classic LPE format can be modernized with technology to provide students with an educational, culturally-rich, and even enjoyable testing experience.

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