26 November 2010

One of the big arguments that comes up on the net is over the usefulness or otherwise of rote learning.  It is near universal that people who support "rote learning" don't actually know what rote learning is.  To them, "by rote" is synonymous with "by repetition".  If this were so, we would not have invented the word rote, and there would be no argument, as everyone knows that there is no learning without repetition.

What rote learning is is repetition without meaning.  Rote learning is when we memorise a list of dates, or the order of kings of France without any background.  Learning these meaningfully means looking for linkages and cause and effect.

The example I recently used elsewhere was the presidents of the USA, a subject that I don't really know much about.

Here's four of them:
Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford

How did I remember these?

First of all, part of it is mnemonic.  If you look at the syllables, you have !.. !. !. ! (where ! is a stressed syllable and . is an unstressed one).  To me, there's a rhythm in there that's reminiscent of playground chants.  Are mnemonics rote?  To a point, maybe, but mnemonics aim to give artificial meaning to inherently meaningless data, so not strictly rote.  Besides, this is not the main way I learned the order, it's just an additional support.

First up, I looked at the order on the internet.  I looked for links.
The first thing I recalled was that I had seen TV archive footage of Nixon and Kennedy running against each other in the presidential elections.  Kennedy was shot, while Nixon resigned, but that doesn't tell me who was first.  The meaningful information that tells me Kennedy was first is the archive footage mentioned previously, but more specifically the accompanying analysis: it is said that it was TV that won the election for JFK, because he looked so much nicer.  Hearing that said over the top of pictures of Kennedy smiling and waving with Nixon hunched up and looking concerned sticks -- it really means something.

So Kennedy was before Nixon.  How do the other two fit in?

Well, that relies on knowing a little bit about the American terms of office.  If a president dies or steps down, he is replaced by his vice-president.  Nixon and Kennedy ran against each other, so there must have been another president between them, as Kennedy died.  And when Nixon resigned, his VP took over.

The names Johnson and Ford don't really mean much to me, and here's where the mnemonic chant helps, but if we look a little further we can make things more meaningful.

Johnson, as it turns out, was re-elected for a second term.  He won the largest majority of a US president in history.  Why?  Many commentators say it was a sympathy vote for JFK, as it wasn't really that long after the assassination.

Ford, on the other hand, was never re-elected.  Which isn't a surprise given that he took over from someone who resigned in disgrace.  To make matters worse, the economy was on a downturn at the time.

Filling in a picture of the most prominent features of these two gives me context -- meaning -- and looking at their photographs makes them people rather than facts.

I fully expect to be able to recall this right up until I start to go senile, because it now really does mean something to me.

19 November 2010

Expository vs Naturalistic Language Examples

A couple of weeks ago, I was discussing authentic materials.  The main problem I identified was the lack of mutual reinforcement between individual texts (I hate that word, but I just can't find a suitable alternative...) meaning that very little language presented is retained.

So where did our modern love of "authentics" come from?

Authentic materials is actually one of the oldest tools in the language learner's toolbox.  Classical education has long focused on the reading of genuine Latin and Greek texts.  If you have a look at the Open University's course catalogue, you'll see that their classical language courses are called Reading Classical Greek and Reading Classical Latin, which is a pretty clear statement of the course goals.  The Greek course looks at a lot of literature in translation, but the Latin course is a perfect example of learning by authentic materials, as it looks at excerpts from Roman dramas and Cicero's speeches.

The use of authentic materials would even appear to go at the very least as far back as the heyday of the Roman Empire, where Greek was the fashionable language du jour.  Greek slaves were sold into rich Roman households where they would teach the children of the house to read and understand the works of writers such as Homer.

But despite two millenia as one of the most widely used tools in language learning, there are those who present the idea of using "real" language as a new and revolutionary idea.  In fact, many proponents of "real language" actively attack old ways of learning as ineffective and outdated.

But if we don't go straight for authentic material, what is there?

The very extreme opposite of authentic material is the stereotypical idea of trite sentences designed purely to demonstrate grammar points -- what I call expository language.

There are several classic examples of the absurdities that a purely expository approach leaves us with.

To the French person, the archetype is "My tailor is rich", which I'm told was the opening sentence of the original Assimil course.
In English, our traditional archetype is "La plume de ma tante" ("my aunt's pen", literally "the pen of my aunt") in such contrivances as "la plume de ma tante est sur le table".

Over a hundred years ago, people were already spending a lot of time attacking this approach.  The Danish language teacher Otto Jespersen wrote a book entitled How to Teach a Foreign Language (translated to English by Sophia Yhlen-Olsen Bertelsen) in which he put forth an argument for the so-called "direct" or "natural" method - ie that of teaching the language monolingually, by only speaking the target language.
"Disconnected words are but stones for bread;" he said, "one cannot say anything sensible with mere lists of words," and this is certainly true. "Indeed not even disconnected sentences ought to be used," he continued, "at all events, not in such a manner and to such an extent as in most books according to the old method," and while I wouldn't argue with this, we can see a little hint of what Decoo classes under the heading of "denigration of others" in his lecture On The Mortality of Language Learning Methods.

I'll reproduce some of Jespersen's examples, all taken from genuine courses of the time, for your benefit.
"My aunt is my mother's friend. My dear friend, you are speaking too rapidly. That is a good book. We are too old. This gentleman is quite sad. The boy has drowned many dogs."
Clearly there is no consistency or logic behind these, and it is hard to build up any sort of a bigger picture.

He then picks an example from a French book:
" Nous sommes a Paris, vous etes a Londres. Louise et Amelie, ou etes-vous? Nous avons trouvé la lettre sur la table. Avez-vous pris le livre ? Avons-nous eté a Berlin ? Amélie, vous etes triste. Louis, avez-vous vu Philippe? Sommes-nous a Londres ?"

And this is Jespersen's criticism of it:
"The speakers seem to have a strange sense of locality. First, they say that they themselves are in Paris, but the one (the ones?) that they are speaking with are in London (conversation by telephone?) ; then they cannot remember if they themselves have been in Berlin ; and at last they ask if they themselves are in London."

There is nothing in his criticism that really applies to any method, "old" or otherwise.  We are in fact looking at a criticism of choice of material.

I'd like to give a few examples that I think underline this point.

An Comunn Gaidhealach's Elementary Course of Gaelic was first published almost 100 years ago.  I picked up a reprint of the 1921 edition in a charity shop a couple of years back.  The first edition was written at the just after the high point of the "natural methods", and the revised edition was put together about 30 years after Jespersen's book, so it's quite likely that natural/direct thinking had an effect on both the original author and the author of the revised edition.  So let's have a look at some of the exercises in the book.

The first lesson has the following as a reading exercise (this is my translation of the original Gaelic)
The dog is at the door. The cat is on the floor. The swan is on the lake. The seal is on the rock. The man has a head. The cow and the bull are in the meadow.
There is a fort on the hill and there is a man in the fort. What is this? This is a hole. What is in the hole? There is a mouse in the hole. Where is the foal? The foal is in the stable. The boy is at the door with the cow....[etc]

This makes the mistake that Jespersen highlights of being disjointed and "jumping around" between subjects, but is certainly not as bad as his examples.  Jespersen's focus on the disjointedness misses the problems of the individual sentences. The author of the Gaelic book is trying to paint a picture, but he is writing expository text here -- his main goal is still to show the grammar, not to be natural.  Because of this, he ignores the problem of introducing new subjects with a definite article.  "The dog" and "the cat" are fine, because we are all acustomed to talking this way about family pets.  But "the swan" and "the seal" are more troublesome, as I'm likely to ask "which swan?"  The definite article assumes that we have a shared idea of a particular swan or seal.  We're more likely to say things like "there is a swan on the loch", as this doesn't assume any prior knowledge of the swan (I can now use the definite article, because I introduced the swan with "there is...").

The second paragraph is where this really starts to get troublesome, because we hit that old schoolboy motivation-killer: answer in sentences. "What is this? This is a hole." "Where is the foal? The foal is in the stable."  Point out to any teacher that natives don't answer in sentences and you'll get a simple and very logical answer: the reason for answering in sentences is to learn the grammar.  This is the very definition of expository language -- examples that exist purely to demonstrate a language point.

And here's where the "natural" and "direct" methods' justification starts to unravel.  When you're in a monolingual classroom, the simplest way to prompt a student to say something is by asking a question and demanding a fully formed response.  This means that your "natural" method is pretty much guaranteed to produce expository language and not naturalistic or authentic language.

"Answer in sentences" has pervaded language learning, and we see it not only in monolingual methods, but often the bilingual classroom will present new language with a native language explanation followed by monolingual practice.  Even methods using pure translation will often fall into this trap.  The original courses by Michel Thomas did not, but many of the courses written by others under the brand after his death do.  The Japanese course is a perfect example of expository language gone wrong.  The learner is asked to translate "do you want this?" and then "no, I want that."  Now there may not seem to be anything terribly wrong with this at first glance, but think about this: when I am talking to you, what is "this" to me is "that" to you.  This is even more problematic in Japanese, as it has a 3-way distinction equivalent to the Shakespearean "this" (near me), "that" (near you) and "yonder" (near neither of us).  The author is so fixated on the grammatical and lexical contrast between the two sentences that the physical logic of the dialogue is lost.  Again, the expository displaces the naturalistic, and the problem of meaningless and nonsensical language reappears.  Similar problems with here/there/yonder occur in almost all of the Pimsleur courses.  If you listen carefully, you'll often find yourself asking where the hotel is, only to be told it's "there", meaning where you are.

OK, so I have mostly given examples from bilingual courses or courses with explicit instruction.

One of the most vocal opponents of explicit instruction among the internet set is Stephen Kaufmann, Lingosteve on YouTube.  He is adamant that the only way to learn is by understanding bits of language.  He's put together a fairly sophisticated website dedicated to this idea, LingQ.  Kaufmann really hits that "denigration of others" that Decoo points out.  His whole argument is based on the same idea as Jespersen: he associates unnatural language with conscious methods.

But if we have a look at LingQ, will we find evidence of naturalistic or expository material?  Hmm....

Here's the first few lines of the first lesson in Portuguese (my translation):
"Welcome to LingQ.  My name is Mairo. What is your name? I live in Brazil. Where do you live? Do you want to learn Portuguese?..."

The conscious contrast between Mairo's personal information and his request for information from the learner is clearly expository.

And now an early Spanish lesson (again, my translation):
" Listen and repeat: What is your name? My name is Ana. What is his name? His name is Juan. What is her name? Her name is Maria. What age are you? I am 25 years old. What age is Juan? He is 22 years old. How old is Maria? She is 19 years old."
Here again we have clear expository goals: 1) question form vs statement form; 2) contrasting 1st, 2nd and 3rd person conjugations; 3) contrasting masculine and feminine pronouns in the 3rd person.

So even though we aren't going through any native-language instruction, we still get the problems that Jespersen was railing against.  The problem was not the medium of instruction, it was the material.

One form that is very widely used in both monolingual and translating courses is the dialogue.  Some of LingQ's texts are two-man podcasts.  Teach Yourself and Colloquial start each section with a dialog.  Assimil is based almost entirely on dialogues.  Dialogues often include the "answer in sentences" problem as described above, but not always.

The dialogue is said to give a natural context to the language, but sometimes this is assumed and the author ends up ignoring the naturalness of speech and produces a dialogue that is absurd almost to the point of meaninglessness, and becomes once more purely expository language.  This post was inspired by once such book: Beginner's Basque by Wim Jensen.  I can't say I was that hopeful when I picked it up -- it's by Hippocrene Books, who seem to specialise in cheap reprints -- but the first dialogue was worse than anything I have ever seen.  It comes with an English translation on the facing page, so I'll just use that (my comments are in italics.

Bernard: Good morning! I am Bernard. I am a boy. (Would anyone say this?  Certainly, the other person should be able to see that Bernard is a boy, so the effect is of someone with a learning disability.  Except that Bernard is not a boy.  The voice you here is of a man who would appear to be in his late twenties or early thirties.)
Johanna: Hello! I am Johanna. I am a girl. (Classic expository language -- using almost exactly the same structures with a word or two changed.  Again, the effect of learning difficulties comes through, and again, the voice actor is clearly an adult.)
Bernard: My name is Bernard. (Expository -- it restates known information needlessly, simply to demonstrate a different structure) I am Johanna's brother. (Woah there.  Who exactly is Bernard supposed to be talking to? I thought he was talking to Johanna, but there's no way he'd say this to her.)

Johanna: My name is Johanna. I am Bernard's sister. (Again we have an expository near-exact repetition, and again it really doesn't feel like Johanna's talking to Bernard.  Maybe they're introducing themselves to us?  Like a "piece to camera" in a video course?  It's not a particularly natural context though - it's what they call "breaking the fourth wall".)
Bernard: Johanna is a nice name. Your name is nice. (Nope, Bernard is clearly talking to Johanna.  But here again we have repeated information for contrast of structures, in this case attributive vs predicative adjectives.  Naturalisticness has been sacrificed again in favour of exposition.)
Johanna: Yes, it is nice, but Bernard is a nice name too. (And here we have a partial "answer in sentences" and more redundant echoing to demonstrate a particular form.)

Bernard: I am very glad. (??)
Johanna: See you!

This odd dynamic continues throughout the book.  The final dialogue in the book sees Johanna and Bernard discussing a family trip to the mountains.  From the dialogue, they clearly both know the plan, and take it in turns to say parts of it.  Who exactly are they presenting information to?  They are either saying things to each other they already know, or they're talking to you,

So really, dialogues are no kind of magic bullet.  Simply shifting your expository language into a dialogue does not automatically make it natural or meaningful.  Often it forces the author to be more consistent and coherent, but on the other hand, it can actually amplify the absurdity of some sentences by creating a clash between the expected behaviour in the context and the actual words of the participants.

But then we come to one of the most inexplicably popular figures in foreign language learning: Stephen Krashen.  Krashen was one of the big figures in the latest reincarnation of the direct/natural methods (and as Decoo says, in language, every method comes back again and again) and he was big on avoiding rules.  One of his justifications was getting people into "real" language "as soon as possible".  But as I said previously, supporters of authentic material allow it to be doctored and still call it authentic.  Krashen takes this self-deceit a fair bit further by that weaselly phrase "as soon as possible".  "As soon as possible" accepts that it's not possible right from the word go.  Have a quick look at a video of him in action, in a lecture he gave on his theories:

If you think about it, what did he start with?

He took a naturalistic piece of German and demonstrated that it wasn't an effective teaching strategy.  Then he presented a piece of very contrived expository language and called it "comprehensible input".  But it was not comprehensible.  Certain words and phrases were made very obvious, but you did not understand "what he said", but rather fragments of it.

So we go back to Jespersen's original argument -- that bilingual courses result in unnatural examples of the target language.  But monolingual courses are worse -- Krashen demonstrates quite aptly the opposite of his argument: that it is impossible to teach monolingually with natural language.  The one thing in favour of monolingual learning is that it does restrict the artificiality of the language -- the language must be unnatural to be understood, but it cannot be nonsensical or it will not be understood at all.

In that case, monolingual teaching is a bit of a crutch -- it gives us better results without having to fully address the problem.  But without these restrictions, and with a bit of brainpower, a bilingual course can do so much better.  It is extremely hard to elicit sentences like "do you know where it is?" and "I'm sorry, I didn't see you" in a monolingual classroom because of the non-specific function words, but these are extremely natural precisely because of those words; meanwhile they are actually very easy to prompt for by translation.  And once we're into function words, we move onto modality -- needs, desires etc.  These are very difficult to pick up from input, but in the Michel Thomas courses (the originals, not the potboilers produced posthumously), "wanting" appears 15 minutes into the course.  In Italian you'll be saying "I don't want to know", in German "What do you want to eat?" and in French "I would like to speak French". In the Spanish course it's actually held back until a full half hour into the course. *gasp*

Compare Krashen's demonstration with Thomas -- Krashen necessarily gives us easy words, because he relies on physical demonstration.  Thomas gives us words and structures that have vast conceptual meaning, but a very abstract, non-physical concept.  Krashen and his supporters would argue that because we are learning through translation, we are learning to translate.  Yet Krashen has never given any good demonstration of a reliable way to learn this very important functional language.  When it comes to grading authentics, it's the functional language that we generally need to remove to make it what he calls "comprehensible input", because it's inherently non-obvious.  If you want to get into native materials "as soon as possible", it's the non-obvious stuff that you need to teach/learn "as soon as possible".

So Jespersen is mostly wrong.  Yes, the worst examples of meaningless expository language could only occur in a bilingual course, but the cure is not to go monolingual, because only a bilingual translating course can employ genuinely natural language.

15 November 2010

So that Susan Boyle has been back in the press, promoting her new album just in time for the Christmas rush.

I hear she's being quite inspirational too, telling people how all they need to do is work hard and turn up to lots of auditions.  The trouble is, for SuBo it's not just about how good she is.  She's a very talented singer, but she really isn't the "best".  There's a few rough edges and she pronounces some words very oddly.

SuBo's success is down to being... well, not the prettiest picture in the gallery, and standing up and singing well despite getting laughed at by an audience and judging panel who seemed to believe that anyone who isn't naturally gorgeous can't sing.  She is, basically, a novelty act - a one-off.  There are people who have worked harder than her and have as much or more talent than her that remain as unknown as she was only 2 years ago.  This is not through lack of effort, it's just a lack of lucky timing.

This is a pervasive trope in our modern world: "try hard enough and you can be the best!"  It's like the American parent in the old black-and-white films telling the kid that one day he can be president.

But there are over 300 million people in the USA, and there's a presidential election once in every 5 years.  That means in a average lifetime, you'd expect to see about 15 presidents.   So about 0.000005% of the US population will ever be president.  1 in 20,000,000.

The odds for popular singers are a bit better, but you're still relying on a whole lot of luck.

OK, so what's this got to do with language?

Well, have a look at this article from the BBC's From our own Correspondent.  French bands are increasingly singing in English.  His article focuses on the angle of choice, freedom and cool, and skips past the question of success, but I find it hard to imagine that an ambitious young French singer doesn't have at least half an eye on the international success of Daft Punk.  But this is new only because we're talking about France.  If we step slowly backwards in time, we can see the Latin American stars (Shakira and Ricky Martin), Dutch electronic dance music (remember the Vengaboys anyone?) and on back through to Sweden where acts like Roxette followed on from cheesetastic Abba.

The number of international success stories is low, and it's a fair assumption that for every break out artist there's a hundred or more that didn't make it, and who're doing the same thing -- which means singing in English.

The desire to be the best, the biggest, the worldwide hit is discouraging people from being happy with being good locally, and it's taking people away from their own languages.

Take a look at the show Rapal on BBC Radio nan Gaidheal and BBC Alba.  Over the years they've supported various bands from within the Gaelic community, but for the most part these bands sing exclusively in English.  They're chasing the bigger audiences, but sadly the odds are stacked against them.  It's a shame to see talented young people waste their time chasing the unobtainable rather than making a genuine impact in their own small part of the world.

12 November 2010

I was down in London with work, and I had a spare half-an-hour on my way to the airport.  I was just about to head down into King's Cross-St Pancras underground when I remembered a bookshop I'd been meaning to visit.

LCL International Booksellers is on Judd St, under five minutes' walk from Kings Cross.  I walked in the door and was immediately asked if I needed help.  I didn't, so I told the shopkeepeer that I'd heard about the place and just had to see it for myself.

It was incredible.  Every nook and cranny was jammed with a bookcase and every bookcase was full.  There was every language course you could think of (except Rosetta Stone, which I think says something!) plus many you would never have realised existed, and many that don't exist any more.

I could bankrupt myself in a place like that.  What particularly intrigued me were all the CDROM courses on offer.  Now I know they'll all be rubbish -- all computer-based self-teaching packages are, but I'm just so curious about different people's ideas on how to teach languages with computers.  What ideas were lost when Transparent Language and Rosetta Stone absorbed the market?  What ideas did newer entrants to the market build on?

But in the end, there's no guarantee that I could get any of these older packages to run on a current computer, so I headed back to the "proper" book section.

So yeah, I did spend a bit of cash, but I only baught two books! (This is the first time I've ever been glad of draconian hand-baggage limitations on aeroplanes.)

This first is something I've been meaning to get for a long time -- Cronómetro.  It's a book for preparing for the Spanish DELE exams, and I picked up the advanced version.  I don't really put all that much stock in exams, but unfortunately the Open University recently aligned their marking scheme to the CEFR, and their final Spanish course is graded as B2/C1.  Now that I've got an official rating against the CEFR, I feel compelled to better it -- my ego doesn't like not reaching the highest point.  Also, I've found that various among the finer points of Spanish grammar are starting to slip away from me, so I really need to focus myself on something to get a better command of all those bits and pieces.
(I'm actually not a fan of the CEFR and I've got a couple of posts in the pipeline about the whys and wherefores, so I'll not bore you with that now.)

The second book was something a little different. It was Hippocrene Books' Beginner's Basque by Win Jansen.  I really shouldn't have bothered -- I knew that at the time -- but my judgement was impaired by a cracking occular migraine that was constantly threatening to turn the world into shards of coloured glass like you'd find in a kaleidoscope.  Talking to a shopkeeper whose head is trying to turn into a fountain of rhomboids is more than a little disorientating. (Crossing the road later was very disturbing, and walking through the tube station with a bloke from a stained glass window pacing me in my peripheral vision was also extremely bizarre.)  This book has kind of inspired me to another post on one of the big problems with dialogues in language books, but that'll come later.

Right now, I'm more interested in the place of bookshops in the modern world.  There is no specialist language bookshop in Edinburgh as far as I know, and I'm sure enough people know I would be interested that someone would have told me by now.  Many of the books in there just wouldn't get space in even the best-stocked Waterstones, so there is no way for most people to discover them.

But what about the internet, I here you cry?  I'm not hopeful.  Years ago, the big buzzword in internet economics was "the long tail".  They said that the internet would be great for the little guy by making things always available and available everywhere.  It does, but that doesn't mean that folk will buy it.

The results have been disheartening.  The internet seems to be concentrating more and more consumer power into less and less products.

Part of the problem is the problem of too much choice, and lack of the expert shop assistant.  How do you decide what to buy?  You get what everyone else is getting.

And it gets worse, because in a bookshop, you don't open up a book and see an advert for a rival book, but when I went to Amazon the other day and had a look at a course from the Michel Thomas range, I saw the following blurb in an advert for a rival product: " Tried Michel Thomas? New Spanish & French Audio Courses from Collins ".  Almost everywhere I look for information on language learning, I see adverts for Rosetta Stone (a package which is almost universally derided by serious language learners).  Hell, they even had their own display in the airport departure lounge I was in that same day.

So what is the future for language learning materials?  Will we see increased consolidation on the market leaders, or will there be greater diversification?  And in the end, does it really matter?

05 November 2010

Word. New word. Different word.

One of the biggest problems facing many learners today is the problem of incidental vocabulary.  One of the prevailing themes in education is the preference for so-called "authentic materials".

"Authentics", to use a bit of teacherese, is just another word for "native materials".  Except you're allowed to doctor them a bit without making them less authentic.  Once you hit upper-intermediate, you will be subjected to more and more authentic materials.  Your lessons will be based around texts (that damn word again) drawn from newspapers, magazines and websites, or excerpted from novels or non-fiction books, and will be arranged in chapters based on themes like science and technology, arts, education and the like.

But there's suddenly a problem here.  Throwing together a heap of articles that are related in topic is all well and good if your goal is to study the topic, but if you are aiming to study the language, then the relationship between the articles is entirely superficial.  The structures that you are looking for just won't be there.

The simplest manifestation is in vocabulary.  Key vocabulary in that would be incidental for a native sends many a learner scuttling for his dictionary.  So a word appears once only in the article, and never again in the entire course -- that dictionary time is wasted as the learner does not learn the word.  In a textbook chapter on technology, you can switch from satellites to biometrics to textiles.  Each of these semantic domains has a vastly different stock of basic words.  The learner is left trudging through a bog of heavy, unknown words, and looking back later those are lost in a fog, never to be recalled.  A cursory look back may occur in a programmed "revision lesson", but it's a random sample of a fraction of the language covered, and usually limited to matching exercises (word+definition, sentence halves or question+answer) that tacitly admit that the student isn't capable of recalling the word without heavy prompting.

The same occurs with grammatical patterns, where a pattern may appear and be taught in one text, but then subsequent texts don't support, revise or otherwise consolidate that structure.  On the other hand, it's in the grammar that a lot of doctoring takes place, with complexity thrown out of window to make the text easier to understand.  But it is very difficult to program for increasing complexity when you're not writing the material yourself.

The end result is a lot of wasted time -- lots of material is presented to the learner, and little retained.  The goal of exposing the student to native materials slows down the learning process, and in effect means that students may leave the course less well equipped to deal with native materials than they otherwise would be.

But wait... there's more!
There is a secondary consequence of this.

The reliance on themed material favours the well educated, because they are more likely to have knowledge of the topic under discussion, and in many language pairs, the terminology will be very similar.  For example,  "biometrics" in French is "la biométrie".  This particular example came up in my last French course, and my classmates were confused by it, but as I already know a few things about biometrics, there was nothing in the articles themselves that challenged me.
The well educated and well read get better marks, and we justify this with by accepting that people who have done well in the past are "good students" and that those who haven't aren't.  This is only marginally better than the old fallacy of equating education and intelligence.
But in reality, whether the historically "good" students are genuinely better than those without a good history of attainment, that's a side issue.  The material presented favours those who really have the least need for favours.  In my book that's a bad thing.

It's particularly worrying to me that the course I was studying is with an institute of higher education that takes pride in the fact that it makes learning available to everyone, regardless of educational background.