The journalist and scholar H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) once observed that “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” One would think that academic literacy, the ability to use academic language competently, would be the first and only language concern of the academic communities that make up the university. Such is the complexity of language problems, however, that not all solutions for them will have to do with making education and study more effective. Student communities may, for example, make language demands that are primarily politically inspired, and have little bearing on scholarship. When decision-makers yield to the politically expedient solution, that solution may be rationalized in many ways that might have the pretence of having to do with education, but that actually has no theoretical justification. There are at least two recent cases in South Africa where the language policies of universities were changed for reasons other than academic ones, with negative consequences that were foreseen, but ignored.
Simple but wasteful
So, solutions to language problems at university can be arrived at simply: through what is most expedient politically, or most conventionally appealing, or perhaps least costly. Those simple and apparently less costly solutions can, however, in the long run come to have substantial waste (and therefore cost) associated with them. Continue reading →
There is something reassuring for university administrators and decision-makers in using the results of large-scale tests. They seldom worry about their contextual appropriateness, or about their cost, or even enquire about their quality. The large reach of the test in their minds ensures its reputation. As to costs? Well, the argument goes, if students wish to undertake studies at this university, they must be prepared to pay for that privilege.
But do institutions of higher education get what they want from large-scale commercial tests, some of which have a global reach? Do they find enough diagnostic information in them, for example, to help them devise focussed language courses that would overcome the problems identified? Continue reading →
Christo van Rensburg, who died last week, was not only one of South Africa’s leading linguists, but also a considerable influence on my own work. It was particularly his voluminous report on Griqua Afrikaans that first brought him fame. My own debt to him is manifold: not only was he the supervisor of my doctoral thesis, but after he had set up and directed what eventually became known as the Unit for Academic Literacy at the University of Pretoria, he was instrumental in having me appointed as his successor.
It is for his generosity that Christo will be most remembered, I think. For that, along with imagination and cheerfulness, stands out as his most memorable qualities. He was rarely not in the best of spirits, and it was infectious.
He sidestepped bureaucratic hurdles with flair …
The fondness with which Christo will be remembered among academic colleagues stems not only from his congeniality, but also from the energy and direction he brought to studies of how Afrikaans emerged as language in contact and in conflict with others on the African continent. But it is primarily for his generosity that those who worked closely with him will remember him: Nothing pleased him more than seeing others flourish. He therefore did not take kindly to bureaucratic hurdles, sidestepping them with flair and without much concern. Continue reading →
What influence does the institutional, social or political landscape have on the way in which we test a person’s ability to handle academic language? And how should one go about it? What impact should the tests have on language planning, instruction, and development?
These and other challenges will be thoroughly discussed by a team of experts on July 4, at the 40th Language Testing Research Colloquium (LTRC 2018).
Part of the annual winter conference round of language associations (CLASA 2017) will be our two-day symposium (26 & 27 June) at the upcoming SAALT conference in Grahamstown. It’s theme? Pre- and post-admission language assessment in South African universities. Featuring a number of prominent South African scholars, the symposium will be enriched by having John Read (University of Auckland) as lead scene-setter. Continue reading →
Avasha Rambiritch of the University of Pretoria and I have just written a chapter for a book edited by John Read (Post-admission Language Assessment of University Students, Springer, 2016) that shows how making sufficient information available about the conception, design, development, refinement and eventual administration of a test of language ability — in other words “telling the story of a test” — is the first step towards ensuring accountability for such tests. The test in question, the Test of Academic Literacy for Postgraduate Students (TALPS), is used to determine the academic literacy of prospective postgraduate students. For the full reference, see the bibliography on this site. Continue reading →