What teaching has taught me

In some way or another, I have loved teaching since I was young. As a first grader, I went with my mom to parent-teacher conferences so I could read to the parents waiting for their appointments. I bribed my younger sisters to play school with me, so that I could teach them the skills I was learning in school and assign them homework (for the record, they did not complete the homework). As soon as I was old enough, I established my own tutoring business and learned how rewarding teaching can be. As an undergraduate my job was to hold office for cog sci students struggling with assignments.

This quarter, I gained a lot more experience in conventional teaching: standing up in front of a group (of 10 high school students, in the case of my SAT class, or 50 undergraduates in the case of my Teaching Assistant position), lecturing, and doing whatever I could think of to get them to voluntarily participate. Especially towards the beginning of the quarter, standing in front of the class gave me (literally) cold feet and sweaty armpits. But I dealt with these consequences, and after reflecting, have some new ideas about teaching.

On the broadest level, teaching is such a unique form of human interaction. It has similarities to parenting: there is an established hierarchy, often based on age and experience, and welcomed by both parties. A teacher wants to be more knowledgable than his student, and a student wants her teacher to be more knowledgeable than she. If successful, a teacher-student relationship brings positive feelings to both people involved. The student feels accomplished by learning, and the teacher by teaching. When a student is successful, he and his teacher likely feel similarly to how a child and parent feel when the child is successful. Unlike in a parent-child relationship, though, interactions between teachers and students are almost always centered on one topic. Thus, they’re deep and focused interactions, as opposed to a parent’s varied and broad interactions with a child. The similarities are even more interesting to me in light of this difference.

I had both positive and negative experiences in the classroom. When a college student was unhappy with a quiz grade, she e-attacked me. The contraction “y’all” appeared 4 times (though one of those times it was in the form of “y’all’s,” an entirely new form to me) alongside a handful of spelling and grammatical errors and an accusation that the teaching team doesn’t want our students to succeed. And of course the icing on the cake: “Sent from my iPhone.” Luckily this message was comical enough that it wasn’t upsetting, but I’d prefer this sort of quasi-aggression if possible.

But on the other hand, plenty of students expressed positive experiences in my classes. One student wrote to me, “I was not expecting to learn this much, and I’m kind of sad that it is almost over.” Don’t worry, I want to assure her, I won’t tell anyone that you seem to kind of like our SAT classes. But I might tell them how much I do.

Artificial language tests

Languages created by humans (often referred to as “artificial” or “constructed” languages) fascinate me to no end (this is probably the best book I’ve read on the topic). Creating a language is not exactly the most respectable of academic pursuits, since artificial languages never truly catch on and they’ve often been created by zany and radical people, but I think they can teach us a lot about natural languages. Apparently, I’m not alone, since they’re being used as language aptitude tests in a number of contexts. At first when I hear about this, I was skeptical, but I’m coming around to the idea a bit more now.

One test being used in schools is the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT), which is reported to be a better predictor of a student’s success in learning common foreign languages (maybe like Spanish) than more exotic ones. The test seems to work by testing skills that will be important for learning a new language by using a made-up one. For example, it tests how well students can distinguish different sounds, form associations between sounds and symbols, and retain those associations; how well they can recognize grammatical functions of words; and whether they can infer grammatical rules when given samples of a new language. These do all seem like skills that facilitate learning a new language, so testing them with a novel language seems pretty reasonable.


Another test I looked at was the Oxford Language Aptitude Test. I consider myself pretty adept at learning new languages, but when I started taking the test, I was surprised by how challenging I found it. Here’s the beginning of the test:

I. The following sentences are in This Language (an invented language). Isolate the individual words and work out their meanings. Your analysis should be such that every segment of every sentence is assigned to some word; that is, when a sentence is broken up into words, there should be no residue:

  1. hi-tiacumya-? ‘Is a cat listening carefully?’
  2. hi-tisno-sist? ‘Is the little girl listening sleepily?’
  3. mya-tsno-hi-ti. ‘The cat is listening sleepily.’
  4. sisacuhi-ti. ‘A little girl is listening carefully.’

How does one express the following in This Language?:

  1. ‘cat’?_________
  2. ‘little girl’?_________
  3. ‘carefully’?_________
  4. ‘sleepily’?_________
  5. ‘a’?_________
  6. ‘the’?_________
  7. ‘is listening’?_________

By the end of the test, participants need to translate “The boy came home and annoyed the women.” into This Language. This is not child’s play.

I even found out that the SAT even used to contain an artificial language section, thanks to this article in The Atlantic. Students were given a vocabulary of 10 novel words, a list of 6 grammatical rules, and then some sentences to translate. This, apparently, was quite taxing, and as was the case with analogies and antonyms, it was eliminated from the test.

So now for my questions: Why did the SAT get rid of their artificial language section? If the English artificial language tests are most accurate predictors for languages similar to English, can we really call them “language aptitude tests?” (The vast majority of the world’s languages have little in common with English) Can we make aptitude tests to test aptitudes at learning specific languages? How reliable are they?