Do native speakers have an unfair advantage in Modern Foreign Language exams?

By Corina Balaban
Published 27 May 2021

AQA researcher Corina Balaban and AQA’s Head of Research and Development Cesare Aloisi explore the concept of being a native speaker in relation to assessment.

It's a common perception that native speakers must surely have an unfair advantage in Modern Foreign Language (MFL) exams, which could affect standards in these subjects. But is that actually the case? We conducted a study to investigate the following questions.

1. Do native speakers display distinctive linguistic characteristics that distinguish them from non-native speakers?

2. Is it possible to categorise a student based on the degree to which they’re a native speaker in any meaningful way for assessment purposes?

Who are the ‘native speakers’?

Before we go any further, we need to consider what is meant by the term ‘native speaker’. There are many possible variations across individual linguistic experiences. For example, the same person could prefer one language in one context (eg at home) and another language in another context. Or someone may be fluent in speaking but not in writing. We also know that children who are brought up in an immigrant community might acquire the target language and become linguistically proficient yet still lack the language needed to join in games, stories or songs.

So, who should be counted as a native speaker in the school setting? How early must language exposure take place for someone to be considered as having been ‘born into’ that language?

When it comes to taking exams, some students might come from very different education systems and lack context-relevant examination skills, while others might lack content knowledge such as key assessed vocabulary.

Why do we need to be clear about this?

The reason we’re exploring these issues is because assessment stakeholders have previously implied that exam standards are negatively affected when native speakers take MFL exams. In recent years, standard setting for GCSE and A-level MFL exams has become more lenient to account for the perceived severity of grading in these subjects in the past.

At A-level, the change in standard setting was attributed to the presence of native speakers following Ofqual’s research findings suggesting that native speakers may play a role in the overall qualification standard. But on what basis can we confidently identify native speakers, and do they really have an unfair advantage in MFL exams?

What our study found

We selected a sample of 45 exam papers from students taking the writing component of AS Polish in 2018. We asked teachers to determine whether the student was a native speaker of the language (defined as someone using the language outside the school environment and from an early age), a taught learner, or both.

Our findings show that teachers weren't able to consistently differentiate between the exam papers solely on the basis of the students’ written responses. Not only did the teachers disagree with each other’s categorisations but at times their assessments contradicted the factual information available about the students’ backgrounds.

A level playing field

Returning to our initial questions, our findings show that (1) native speakers do not display recognisable linguistic characteristics that can be easily identified in an exam paper, and (2) because of this, a student cannot be categorised for assessment purposes based on the degree to which they’re a native speaker.

We conclude that assessment cannot capture who is a native speaker because the state of being native is a continuum based on a range of factors. We argue that each student has a unique combination of skills and abilities acquired at home or in other (informal) settings, and that no one should be unfairly targeted based on their unique learning environment.

This is important to understand because it suggests that any attempt to make assessment deliberately harder for perceived native speakers would be unfairly targeting certain students.


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