Exams don’t examine culture

By Marilou Terrones

Upcoming standardized exams generalize bilingual students’ language knowledge.

On Saturday, the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures will administer bilingual exams in Watson Hall. During the two-hour tests, students are expected to prove their foreign language aptitude, which will determine whether they will be exempt from taking foreign language courses. The opportunity to receive college credit for being fluent in a second language may be beneficial to some students, but the exams offend others who took courses in order to learn the language.

“We want to be a global university so we really need to value languages and language knowledge, and so we tried to come up with a way of rewarding students for language knowledge at a high level,” said Katharina Barbe, Foreign Languages and Literatures chair, referring to an NIU policy that allows those who pass the fluency exams to opt out of foreign language requirements.

When I heard of the opportunity to take a linguistic proficiency test, I was offended. As a bilingual student, I don’t think any amount of credits offered by a single exam reflects the challenge of learning a language. It’s unreasonable to judge somebody’s language fluency on a scale based off of a test.

A better way to test a student’s language fluency is through interviews between the Foreign Languages and Literatures staff and those who are interested in receiving college credit. Getting to know a student on a personal level will allow the Foreign Languages and Literatures department to celebrate and promote diversity in cultures.

“I don’t think many universities reward students for what they bring in … instead, they reward you for what you learn. We want to reward you for what you contribute,” said John Bentley, Foreign Languages and Literatures assistant chair.

Speaking the same language as somebody else or having similar ethnic backgrounds does not mean everybody’s language fluency is the same.

Language goes far beyond memorizing words and the alphabet. A person may alter the way in which he or she chooses to communicate. Unfortunately, tests don’t examine a student’s knowledge of the language’s culture, such as slang words or commonly used phrases.

If a student decides to take a bilingual exam to prove his or her proficiency, the exam may score the student’s linguistic understanding incorrectly.

Learning a different language means identifying with that language’s culture. Standardized tests can’t show a person’s identity. Learning a different language is “ … a great advantage,” Barbe said. “You can’t take that from anybody.”