More than half of the students who take SPA 101: Beginner's Spanish I, a class for students with no previous background in the language, have studied Spanish before enrolling in the class, according to a survey conducted by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese in spring 2012.
The survey, which received 106 responses, also revealed that 29 percent of the students surveyed had taken at least three years of Spanish before beginning the introductory course.
“Language teaching is very different in different institutions,” Spanish Senior Lecturer Alberto Bruzos Moro explained. “For some students, high school is enough to place them off the foreign language requirement, but for others it is not enough to be placed out of 101.”
He added that he was glad language placement was determined by a placement test system rather than by high school experience.
But the fact that some students taking introductory Spanish have background in the language is not limited to just Spanish.
Joe Yan ’14 and Shawn Du ’14, who are both enrolled in KOR 101: Elementary Korean I, said their class contains some heritage speakers, or students who have picked up some of the language from hearing it spoken in their home,who start out on a better footing than the rest of the class and that the curve is on the difficult side. Both Yan and Du said they had some exposure to Korean before taking the class, but had never studied it or spoken it.
Robert Kaster, who is teaching LAT 101: Beginner's Latin this fall, noted that in his class of 12 students, two have had prior experience with Latin.
But students with language background won’t necessarily be getting the best grades, language professors say.
Several professors said that there is no strong correlation between performance in language classes and prior experience with the language. Kaster noted that although some students who had prior exposure to Latin find the 101 course easy, others who fit this description struggle.
Bruzos Moro noted that the allocation of grades can often have more to do with study habits than with students’ prior exposure to the language. While slightly overqualified students may not have to study as hard at first, he explained, the course eventually becomes more difficult, favoring the students who have established good study habits.
“Motivation is just as valuable as proficiency,” Bruzos Moro noted.
Departments have created various options to address the issue of potential proficiency imbalances in introductory language classes. Some language departments, professors explained, have now created 103-level courses to provide an introductory language track for heritage speakers.
Furthermore, professors noted that even if students do not perform well on a given placement exam, they may speak to their professor and move up. If a student seems overqualified but does not approach their professor, the professor can approach them and make a determination about their placement. Interviewing provides another option: East Asian Studies Senior Lecturer Jing Wang explained that in the Chinese program, the placement test is followed by a separate interview with each student, as the test only addresses the written aspects of Chinese.
Everett Zhang, departmental representative for East Asian Studies, explained that he is not concerned that overqualified language students may intentionally enroll in classes below their skill level. Beginning a language on a higher-than-introductory level can be a great benefit to a student, he explained, as itsaves time and allows students to start pursuing other interests.
Both Bruzos Moro and French Senior Lecturer Christine Sagnier said they believe the Princeton language programs are very strong. Sagnier noted that Princeton’s French students are often able to pursue internships in France after three semesters in the French language program, which she believes would not be possible for a student who had studied French for three semesters in high school.
“Although [students] start at a lower level, we try and push them to question their own culture,” Sagnier said. “We really try to build a University program that leads them to discover and think and be intellectually challenged. Otherwise, no one would continue.”