07 SES 03 B, Language and Multilingualism
With the growing international mobility of students, it is becoming more and more common to study in a language other than the native one. We exploit the unique features of a comprehensive dataset provided by the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano to explore the impact of the language of instruction on students’ performance, as measured by their grade. Our research question has a strong interdisciplinary link with the area of psycholinguistics and in particular the literature covering Second Language Acquisition (SLA).
Students at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano study in three languages during the course of their academic career, namely Italian, German and English. For most of them, one of the three languages is their native one, while they have varying degrees of knowledge of the other two languages. This allows us to observe the performance of the very same student as he or she learns in the native language and in other languages and to compare it with the performance of course mates with a different linguistic background. This feature is crucial for the study. For instance, it would not be possible to investigate this research question using English and foreign students at a UK university, because, due to self-selection, there is no clear comparison group (e.g. it may well be the case that, on average, foreign students attending a UK university may be of higher ability than British students and this would mask any language disadvantage they may suffer when studying in a foreign language).
The aim of this study is to understand if there are, on average, differences and asymmetries in academic performance based on the linguistic background of the student and/or the language of the exam. If so, do such differences disappear over time? We also want to identify the most appropriate tools to tackle linguistic differences, such as standardized language certificates, internal exams and periods spent abroad to improve the language.
By analysing subsamples of students, this study also allows to identify heterogeneity across groups (e.g. are students with higher high school grades or from specific types of high school quicker to adapt?), thus making it possible to design specific interventions to support individual study careers and to structure the study programs for optimal learning.
Over the coming weeks we plan to introduce professor fixed-effects and conduct a more in-depth analysis of the differences between third-party language certificates and internal language exams taken at the University of Bozen. By looking at cohorts and exams taken abroad, we will also try to get a better idea of possible shirking patterns aimed at bypassing the trilingual requirements of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano. Finally, alongside the existing literature on SLA in psycholinguistics, we also plan to explore the path of neurolinguistics to assess whether there could be a link between the spoken language and the way qualitative and quantitative information is processed by the brain.
Our database contains information about more than 15’000 students enrolled at the Free University of Bolzano since the year of foundation, 1998. Data is anonymous and for each student ID we can explore the grades for each exam, as well as socio-demographic information such as their birth province, gender, age, scholarships, etc. Starting from the year 2011 up to today we also have information about the type and date of certificates or exams as a proof of the student’s language level. We are thus able to create a path of language acquisition and measure its impact on grades. Besides the student database, we also have information on the teaching language of the courses, the instructor and the instructor’s linguistic and socio-demographic characteristics, as well as his or her academic role in the year of teaching. We were able to assign English, Italian or German as the native language to a total of 8'260 students of our database by proceeding as follows: those who had presented a high school degree (Abitur/Maturità/High School) in either Italian, German or English as proof of their language level at the moment of enrolment were considered natives in that language. In all other cases they were assigned with the language of their country of origin, if present and if the language was spoken by more than 80% of the resident population. For those born in the autonomous province of Bozen – South Tyrol and those who had missing information in the previous two steps, we considered the chosen language of communication at enrolment. Also, we only considered the Faculties of Economics and Management, Computer Science, Science and Technology and Design and Art, excluding the Faculty of Education as the student composition is characterized by a strong selection bias in terms of mother tongue and exam languages. In order to stay in line with the historic and cultural context of our database, we decided to concentrate our attention on the differences between German and Italian natives. We finally analyzed a total of 70’774 exams in an exploratory pooled regression model controlling for gender, high school grades and type, as well as faculty and cohort fixed effects, clustering standard errors at the individual level.
We find no significant asymmetries ex ante in terms of grades between Italian and German natives, slightly higher grades on average for exams taken in Italian compared to German ceteris paribus and an average loss of one grade point out of 30 for exams that are not taken in the student’s mother tongue. With these results in mind, we conducted a series of fixed-effect panel regressions on the full sample and on subgroups in order to get a better idea of drivers and interaction effects of linguistic asymmetries in academic performance. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a higher language level (language certificates from A1 to C2 as per the CEFRL ) held at the point of taking an exam which is not in the student’s mother tongue has a positive impact on grades. It appears, however, that Italian language certification has a much stronger effect for German students than German certification has for Italians. On the other hand, the positive effect of being a native speaker of the exam language is twice as high for Italians than for their German colleagues. Finally, Italians seem to particularly benefit from periods abroad completed prior to an exam taken in German, whereas we find no beneficial effects of periods spent in other Italian universities for German students. However, this could be due to the organizational constraint of the university being located in Italy and thus having less opportunities similar to the Erasmus program aimed at improving Italian languages skills, which would represent an important policy implication to be considered when designing multilingual study programs.
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