I'm sure many of you have heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect which basically states that people with low skills in a given area tend to overestimate their skill level relative to the general population. My question is how this capacity to assess one's own skills may be affected by language skills.

I am a TA at a German university in a first-year engineering course and I have a few students whose native language is not German. The class is entirely in German and relies on technical vocabulary more than e.g. math or physics. So obviously these students will have a harder time in the class [citation needed], and I'm not concerned about their skill level per se (that issue is covered in another question), but about their ability to judge how well they are doing in that class compared to other students, and also compared to what we expect of them.

Answering with your own personal experience and advice is of course welcome, but pointers to research on the subject would be greatly appreciated. It might support our department in helping these students better in the future.

PS: Feel free to suggest another stackexchange site if you consider this question unfit for academia.sx

  • I don't think you need an extension of Dunning-Kruger for your goal. You need to do two things. (1) Give them more support for language development, and (2) design your materials, especially your assessment materials, and provide accommodations, so that you're testing their STEM knowledge, not their knowledge of German. Jan 18, 2018 at 20:42
  • Is your question "Do L2 speakers of the language of instruction rate themselves differently on skills taught in class (higher or lower) than L1 speakers?" Jan 18, 2018 at 22:18
  • Is this a course where they're not getting feedback throughout the term (homework, exams, projects, ...) with numerical marks? I would think your feedback should clue them in just as well as it would a fluent German speaker, unless they can't understand your feedback.
    – Kimball
    Jan 18, 2018 at 22:43
  • @Azor-Ahai: My question is "Is an L2 speaker's self-assessment less reliable* than an L1 speaker's?". *: "less reliable" as in a larger deviation from their actual knowledge/skills/performance. That does not necessarily mean generally lower or higher (even though I'm afraid they're usually optimistic). I hope that's clear. Jan 19, 2018 at 0:18
  • @Raketenolli I'm not sure how your rephrasing is much different than what I suggested, but thanks for clarifying. Jan 19, 2018 at 0:24

1 Answer 1


I've taught esl for international students trying to get into graduate school. One thing that I noticed is that the students did not know there is a difference between conversational English and academic English. They were totally convinced that since they could tell me their name and where the bathroom is that they were ready to begin graduate school. Literal ideas are easy to share in a second language but abstract ideas require real mastery.

Perhaps in your situation the students have the same misunderstanding in regards to conversational and academic German. When you lack expertise in any subject everything tends to look the same.

Another potential concern could be language ego which essentially means that nobody wants to look dumb using another language. This may also cause students to inflate their language ability in order to fake competence they lack. Toning down the complex German and explaining everything in the simplest way possible with the simplest words will encourage them to indicate when they don't get it.

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