On Scaffolding (Re-Learning Swahili with Duolingo, P. 3)

Having studied both Arabic and Swahili, I’ve always felt stronger in Swahili. I studied Swahili for two years in university, lived in a Swahili-speaking country, and did so that within the past decade. Arabic, on the other hand — I did a brief study abroad in Jordan as a high school student (over a decade ago), neglected the language for a decade, and then began taking twice-weekly Arabic classes for the past three months. At this point, I’m honestly not all that strong in either language, but I definitely thought I was better in Swahili. Regardless, out of curiosity, I recently took the “placement tests” for both Swahili and Arabic on Duolingo.

Spoiler: I didn’t place out of ANY of the Swahili skills.

This, frankly, was a bit of a shock to me. Any skills? I don’t know ANYTHING abut Swahili? I find this a little bit hard to believe (because I definitely know some things). But, when you evaluate language knowledge by asking someone to translate a handful of specific words and phrases, there’s a definite probability that I simply won’t know those exact phrases! Sauce, for example. I didn’t know how to say “sauce.”

Now, for the double-spoiler: I placed out of 26% of the Arabic course. TWENTY-SIX PERCENT!

This was even more of a shock to me. I hardly knew anything — but many of the questions were phrased in such a way that I could guess the answer. It’d give me a sentence, and have me translate using a word bank. By knowing a few words, plus the suffixes for “my” and “your,” I could usually get it correct. In fact, I got almost every question on the placement test correct, generally by guessing.

The whole point of this story is that, as a language-learner, it’s a great reminder that scaffolding is everything. Scaffolding means easier exercises first, oftentimes matching or with a word bank, followed by more complex, “productive” (write the sentence yourself) exercises. I think what happened with the Duolingo tests is that the Arabic placement test was entirely lower-level, matching-style questions, with very few productive exercises (I didn’t have to type a single sentence)! On the other side of the spectrum, the Swahili placement test was entirely productive, with very few word banks or lower-level questions (which is, admittedly, quite challenging). I don’t know exponentially more Arabic than Swahili (quite the contrary). The results of the test reflected the test, not my language knowledge.

In educational jargon, we call this test validity (and these tests… sorry, Duo, not valid).

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