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Free University of Bozen-Bolzano

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Studying in another language? An unibz research measures the effects on exam grades

Undertaking university studies in one or more languages other than one's mother tongue can result in a lower average exam grade. This is shown by a study undertaken at the Faculty of Economics and Management, analysing the performance of male and female students at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano. "Those who decide to pursue this path must be aware of the difficulties, but also of the great opportunities for example on the labour market," says Prof. Mirco Tonin, one of the two authors of the paper.

Attending degree courses in a language other than one's mother tongue has now become a common experience for the new generations of university students who go abroad to complete their education, but also for those who remain in Italy; many universities in Italy, in fact, have been offering study courses entirely in English for years.

But what does this choice entail in terms of performance? What is the impact of the language in which one receives one's education? This was studied by Prof. Mirco Tonin, Professor of Economic Policy at the Faculty of Economics and Management (Free University of Bozen-Bolzano), and researcher Juliana Bernhofer (Venice Ca' Foscari), who, in their paper “The Effect of the Language of Instruction on Academic Performance”, just published in the scientific journal Labour Economics (in Open Access), analysed data on the marks obtained in profit examinations by the female students from three faculties of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano.

The unibz students. The ideal case study

Tonin and Bernhofer's starting hypothesis, based on the existing literature, is that studying in a language other than one's mother tongue imposes cognitive costs that are reflected in the learning and performance of the students in examinations. Empirically proving this hypothesis is not easy. Comparing, for example, native and non-native speakers in English universities would not be informative, as students, for example from China, who go to study in England, are selected and this masks a potential language disadvantage. For this reason, the two economists took into consideration the students at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano. Being a trilingual university (Italian, German and English), attended for the most part by Italian or German mother-tongue students who are obliged to take courses in the three languages, unibz offers the ideal institutional set-up to measure the performance differential when the*student*must*take the test in their mother-tongue or in another of the two.

The results of the analysis

"We looked at data on the grades of male and female students and how many times they’ve taken the tests and found that the grades taken when they took the exam in a language other than their mother tongue are lower on average," Tonin explains, "furthermore, the likelihood of the exam going badly increases when the exam language is not their own. The trilingual system of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano makes it possible to compare Italian and German mother-tongue students attending courses in English, German, and Italian together, and thus isolate the effect of the congruence between mother tongue and language of instruction. Well, statistical analyses have shown that the marks awarded in an examination in a language other than one's own are on average 9.5% lower, which is not negligible.

Moreover, there is a higher probability of failing the exam. A further result of Tonin and Bernhofer's research is that knowledge of the other language at a high level (C1 or C2) reduces - but does not eliminate - the disadvantage.

Finally, the study notes an attempt by unibz students to avoid taking examinations in a language other than their mother tongue (e.g. by taking some of them on Erasmus or at other universities or by postponing them, by waiting for a course to be taught in their mother tongue in subsequent years), but this type of behaviour, although present, is very limited and irrelevant from a quantitative point of view.

So, is it better to only train in one's mother tongue? Not really

The most obvious conclusion, based on Tonin and Bernhofer's study, is that it would be better to avoid taking courses in a language other than one's mother tongue. Nothing could be more wrong, according to the professor of economic policy at unibz. "There are numerous studies that underline the advantage of possessing language skills in the labour market," Tonin emphasises, "so, from the point of view of professional opportunities, multilingualism has a payoff. The students who decide to take a university course in a language other than their own language - or in the case of unibz, often even in two languages other than their own - have broader horizons and show, first and foremost to future employers, that they are not afraid of challenges. It is, therefore, an investment that entails an immediate cost, which is, however, amply repaid in the future, both from a personal and a professional point of view'.