Language proficiency and academic success : an investigation into the relationship between language proficiency and academic success at university with particular reference to first-year students of English.
The relationship between language proficiency and academic success in university studies is of major concern in educational institutions throughout the Western world. The particular focus of this study is the situation in the Republic of South Africa. This problem is of critical importance at this stage in the history of South Africa when universities have publicly stated their commitment to admit any students with merit or potential to succeed at university. In order for students to succeed at university they need to be communicatively competent in the language which is the medium of instruction. It has been assumed that this ability can be assessed by means of a formal test and it is this issue on which this dissertation focuses in order to establish how reliable such tests are as predictors of academic performance. The empirical research covers a six-year period from 1982 to 1987 and investigates two tests. One is a particular language test which was designed specifically for the selection of students for courses of academic study of English at university. The other is the senior certificate examination which provides the statutory admission requirement for university entrance in South Africa. An extensive review of relevant studies both within South Africa and overseas has been undertaken. In addition an unstructured questionnaire was sent to English departments throughout South Africa in order to establish the current practice with regard to the selection of students for first-year courses. The conclusion seems to be that in the context of a homogeneous population language proficiency as measured on a formal test is predictive of academic success in first-year courses in English. In heterogeneous student populations, like that of South Africa where the majority of prospective students may be described as being "disadvantaged", however, this is not the case. Academic success cannot be predicted with any degree of confidence on the basis of language proficiency. Extreme caution is necessary in the implementation of any language test for the selection of students for academic study at university in the present changing nature of university student populations in South Africa.