Language Proficiency

It has been a few weeks during which I did not add anything to the blog. I have been travelling: attended the Third International Conference on Heritage / Community Languages at UCLA; travelled up to Victoria, BC, to meet with friends, colleagues, fellow researchers to discuss approaches to (language) learner-computer interaction in computer-assisted language learning; went to San Francisco for the meeting of the CSU World Languages Council, and then to Washington, DC, for a meeting at the Institute of International Education. After having been slowed down by a nasty flu bug, I have been working on a grant application over the last weeks. The goal of the project is to reform and augment an undergraduate language program so that its students can reach professional proficiency (ILR 3 and ACTFL calls it superior proficiency) upon graduation. The short snippet below, in which I talk about proficiency, is from this grant application.

In Applied Linguistics, proficiency is operationalized – for research, teaching, and testing – as a collective variable consisting of the complexity, accuracy, and fluency of a learner text. The make-up of complexity is diversity (a larger range of vocabulary (lexical) and a larger inventory of linguistic constructions (syntactic) are more complex) and sophistication (longer words with a more elaborate morphological structure (lexical) and longer sentences with additional adjectival phrases, modifiers, and sub-clauses (syntactic) are more complex). Linguistic constructions, sentences, and texts that deviate less often and less significantly from an expected norm are more accurate. Uttered texts that contain more linguistic constructions, for example words, per time unit or task unit and that are more coherent and cohesive are perceived as more fluent by listeners and readers. Increasing complexity and fluency of learner texts normally correlate; for example, learners with a larger accessible vocabulary tend to be more fluent. On the other hand, there are trade-off effects between accuracy and complexity; when students focus on producing more complex and longer texts, they tend to make more mistakes proportionately.

In very broad strokes, this is what, I believe, teachers can do to foster their students’ development of proficiency:

  • provide very frequent opportunities for the students’ language practice and use;
  • focus on fluency development to increase and maintain the Flagship students’ strong motivation;
  • teach for successful broad vocabulary acquisition and the mastery of a wide range of relevant linguistic constructions and patterns;
  • introduce and develop the students’ strategies of successful language use so that they can communicate effectively with L1 (first language) speakers of Russian and L2 speakers with professional language proficiency;
  • increase the Flagship students’ language awareness of patterns of form-meaning mapping, useful linguistic patterns in Russian, and different conventions of language use in relevant communicative situations;
  • improve their textual accuracy and to build a strong and positive L2 learner identity, by integrating language practice, focus-on-form, and contingent corrective feedback episodes in their teaching.

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