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How and Why was the Modern Language Aptitude Test Developed?

Updated: Apr 26

Who created it? How was it developed and why?

John B. Carroll and Stanley Sapon developed the Modern Language Aptitude Test as part of a five-year research study at Harvard University in the 1950s. The initial purpose of the MLAT was to help the US Government predict people who would be successful learners of a foreign language in an intensive program of instruction.

After testing many different kinds of tasks, the academics chose five tasks that they felt worked well as a combination in predicting foreign language learning success in a variety of contexts. These tasks were minimally correlated with one another, but used together they had demonstrated high predictive validity with respect to such criteria as language proficiency ratings and grades in foreign language classes.

The design of the Modern Language Aptitude Test also reflects a major conclusion of Carroll's research, which was that language learning aptitude was not a "general" unitary ability, but rather a composite of at least four relatively independent "specialized" abilities. The four aspects, or "components", of language learning aptitude that Carroll identified were phonetic coding ability, grammatical sensitivity, rote learning ability and inductive language learning ability. In the article "The prediction of success in intensive foreign language training", Carroll defined these components as follows:

Phonetic coding ability: an ability to identify distinct sounds, to form associations between those sounds and symbols representing them, and to retain these associations.

Grammatical Sensitivity: the ability to recognize the grammatical functions of words (or other linguistic entities) in sentence structures.

Rote learning ability for foreign language materials: the ability to learn associations between sounds and meanings rapidly and efficiently, and to retain these associations.

Inductive language learning ability: the ability to infer or induce the rules governing a set of language materials, given samples of language materials that permit such inferences.

The data used to calculate the statistical norms for the MLAT were collected in 1958. The MLAT was administered to approximately nineteen hundred students in grades nine to twelve and thirteen hundred students from ten colleges and universities. For adult norms, the MLAT was administered to about one thousand military and civilian employees of the government. The test was given to the subjects before starting a language course in a school or university or and intensive training program of the US Government. Their performance in the language program was later compared to their score on the MLAT to determine the predictive validity of the test.

If you are going to sit the Modern Language Aptitude Test or would like to try your hand at the test, you can access over 600 questions here.

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