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On Knowing a Language: Communicative Competence, Proficiency

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Alina Van Nelson

on 9 September 2013

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Transcript of On Knowing a Language: Communicative Competence, Proficiency

Common synonyms: expertise, ability, or competence – implies a high level of skill, well-developed knowledge, or a polished performance. The terms of competence and performance invite a linguistic discussion, as they are fundamental to Chomsky’s theory of transformational-generative grammar:
- competence: a native speaker’s implicit or explicit knowledge of the system of the language.
- performance: a native speaker’s actual production and comprehension of language in specific instances of language use; often imperfect, which suggested, for Chomsky, that it was necessary to describe language in an idealized abstract description rather than flawed natural speech.

1980: Michael Canale and Merrill Swain review and summarize various responses to this distinction in language acquisition (“Theoretical Bases of Communicative Approaches to Second Language Teaching and Testing”): two notable expansions of Chomsky’s theory
a. 1972: Dell Hymes: “On Communicative Competence”: Chomsky ignored some of the factors that influence language use; he proposes “communicative competence”, which incorporates sociolinguistic and contextual competence as compensators of the grammatical competence that Chomsky described.
b. 1970: Campbell and Wales: “The Study of Language Acquisition”: while these authors accept Chomsky’s distinction, they remark that it doesn’t include any reference to the appropriateness of an utterance to the context in which it is uttered, nor to the sociocultural significance. They advance the term of “communicative competence”, since the degree to which a person’s production or understanding of the language is appropriate to the context in which it takes place is even more important than its grammaticality.
As Canale and Swain note, during the 1970s, there is some disagreement between researchers regarding the difference between grammatical/linguistic competence and communicative competence.
c. 1972: Sandra Savignon: “Communicative Competence: An Experiment in Foreign Language Teaching” – one of the best-known studies about communicative competence. Savignon takes on comparing the results of various types of practices. “Communicative competence…on or more interlocutors” (p. 4) This study suggests that linguistic accuracy should be considered as only one of the major constituents of a communicative exchange.
d. 1983/1997: Savignon: Communicative Competence: Theory and Practice”: emphasis on the interpersonal trait that involves two or more persons negotiating meaning together (either orally or by written communication). It also accepts its relativity, the fact that one’s success on communicating may vary from situation to situation. Competence = “a presumed underlying ability”; performance = “the overt manifestation of that ability”. Since only performance is observable, it becomes the main criteria through which competence is developed, maintained and evaluated.
e. 1978: Munby: “Communicative Syllabus Design” – communicative competence should include grammatical competence. Canale and Swain agree that grammatical competence and sociolinguistic competence are important elements in any theory of communicative competence. They emphasize that second language learning is more effective when grammatical usage is not abstracted from meaningful context and all components are integrated in language teaching.
f. 1983: Canale: “From Communicative Competence to Communicative Language Pedagogy”: communicative competence consists of 4 major components: grammatical (linguistic code: grammar and vocabulary), sociolinguistic (communicative functions), discourse (ability to use ideas to achieve cohesion in form and coherence in thought), and strategic (compensation for lacks in the other competences) competences. The author warns the reader about the danger of such a controversial term as communicative competence and of the poor distinction between communicative competence and actual communication.
g. 1990: Lyle Bachman: “Fundamental Considerations in Language Testing” a modified theoretical model of communicative language ability: 1. Language competence; 2. Strategic competence; 3. Psychophysiological competence. (p. 8)

Prior to the 1970s communicative competence movement, proficiency was described in terms of accuracy. After this, it is comprised as a whole range of abilities that must be described in a graduated fashion in order to be meaningful. This is how the idea of levels emerged. The ACTFL Provisional Proficiency Guidelines (1982) – the first attempt to define and describe levels of functional competence for the academic context in a comprehensive way.
Describes the move from description of language teaching goals as list of topics to be covered toward a goal as what students could actually do with the language. This is how the emphasis fell on assessing language proficiency. April 1978: Jimmy Carter forms the President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies, whose report recommends a national criteria and assessment program be established. Throughout the years, ACTFL came up with a description of proficiency scales (http://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/public/ACTFLProficiencyGuidelines2012_FINAL.pdf) meant to help assess performance as well as designing curriculum at various levels. It is important to note that they emerged primarily from the perceived needs of practitioners in both government and academic settings concerned with language instruction effectiveness.
4 interrelated assessment criteria: global tasks/functions = real-world tasks that the speaker can do in the language; context (=circumstances or settings in which a person uses language)/content (=topics or themes of conversation); accuracy (=the acceptability, quality and precision of the message conveyed); text type (=the quantity and the organizational aspects of speech).
On Knowing a Language: Communicative Competence, Proficiency, and the Standards for Foreign Language Learning
1967: John Carroll: “Foreign Language Proficiency Levels Attained by Language Majors Near Graduation from College” – finds that the average graduate with a foreign language major can speak and comprehend the target language only at about an FSI Speaking rating of 2+ (on a scale of 5 with 10 descriptors).
1984: Judith Liskin-Gasparro reports that out of 30 students enrolled in first and second-year high school in Spanish, none of them reached the level 1 (some reached 0+ but most scored 0 – no function in target language).
1986: Sally Magnan – study at the University of Wisconsin – interviewed 40 foreign language students – students proficiency increased from first to second year (first-year students ranging from Novice Mid to Intermediate Mid/High; second year: Intermediate Low to Advanced). Third-year: Intermediate Mid/High to Advanced/Advanced High. Not much difference in fourth-year. The author underlines the importance of the correlation between oral proficiency and level of study.
Minus: language acquisition takes a while
Plus: some students achieve intermediate level skills after just one year.
Magnan’s results were confirmed by other studies as well (Kaplan, Cramer and Terrio, Wing and Mayeski). The only factor that influenced the results was assessment training that was offered to some of the students, which suggests that teachers without assessment are overrating their students. (Levine, Haus, and Cort) This seems to indicate that the relationship between the length of instruction and ratings is relative, depending on various factors. Most research also indicates the difficulty of reaching a Superior level of proficiency in and undergraduate program of studies (an immersion group with 3,000 to 7,000 hours of exposure was Advanced/Advanced Plus).

- the difficulty of understanding, clarifying and clearly articulating one’s beliefs in the past 4-5 decades, due to the significant expansion of knowledge and debate in the language teaching profession
- The goal of this textbook: to review and summarize past and current language acquisition theories
- The main question: “How to help students in the context of a second language classroom become proficient in that language?”, from which three other questions emerge:
- 1. What does “proficient” mean?
- 2. How does one become proficient in a language?
- 3. What characterizes a classroom environment in which opportunities to become proficient are maximized?

Defining Language Proficiency:
1. From Grammatical Competence to Communicative Competence:
2. Communicative Competence and the Notion of Proficiency:
3. The Move Toward National Standards: Defining and Assessing Proficiency:
4. Assessing Language Proficiency Using the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines:
Proficiency and Language Acquisition Theory:

1985: Rod Ellis: “Understanding Second Language Acquisition”: establishes 4 macro-stages of linguistic development:
1. Stage One: interlanguage forms resemble those of pidgin languages
2. Stage Two: Learners start to use sentence forms similar to the target language ones. Production is still inaccurate however.
3. Stage Three: grammatical morphemes are used systematically and meaningfully.
4. Stage Four: learners acquire complex sentence structures and use them with greater facility and precision.
Ellis warns about linguistic breakdown.
Sequence of development / order of development in language acquisition (can vary from learner to learner: data gatherers / rule formers).

Issues in Language Proficiency Assessment: Caveats, Clarifications, and New Directions
A. Questions Regarding Oral Proficiency Assessment:

1980: Lantolf and Frawley: “Oral Proficiency Testing: A Critical Analysis”
Two major contention points: the analytic approach it uses (ignores the empirical reality and uses circular definitions of proficiency) + the use of “native-speaker yardstick” (this construct being neither unitary nor reliable).
They question whether the criteria used in oral proficiency testing are the same as those used by native speakers engages in communication with nonnatives.

Although the term “educated native speaker” disappeared from the Guidelines, Bachman and Savignon (1986) show that in some of the definitions, a prototypical native speaker group exists. They recognize the usefulness of some metric system, but object to usage of context and content descriptors in the scale definitions, leaving more liberty to raters in assessing individual needs and interests of a particular candidate.

Subsequent research proved that different speech styles and functions are tapped with different kinds of oral interactions.
The interrater reliability seems to have stabilized in the 1990s.

B. The Notion of Language Proficiency: Some Further Clarifications:

1. Proficiency is not a theory of language acquisition
2. Proficiency is not a method of language teaching
3. Proficiency is not a curricular outline or syllabus
4. Proficiency does not imply a preoccupation with grammar and error

Some Research Findings about Oral Proficiency:
Defining the Content of Instruction: Standards for Foreign Language Learning
By 2000, there is political recognition of the lack of foreign language instruction in the core educational curriculum in US.
The content standards: the five Cs: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, Communities.
This document, updated in 1999 (Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st century), emphasizes collaboration, local freedom and responsibility in designing curricula, and reflects more broadly conceived purposes and objectives for language study.

The five Cs: Integrated Goals for Foreign Language Learning

In the Communication framework, it is important to observe that the four skills traditionally involved in language learning (writing- reading, speaking-listening) don’t disappear but are blended in the context of communication. The communication itself becomes a complex factor:

1. Interpersonal
2. Presentational
3. Interpretive

In the Cultures framework, cultural literacy becomes crucial, as it allows student to develop awareness of the perspectives of the respective culture. This awareness is supported through learning about practices and products integrated in various perspectives about that culture.

The Connections area renders possible the cultural awareness.

The Communities standards encourage communication on a variety of contexts and in cultural appropriate ways. (use of technologies, for example)

The authors of the national standards emphasize the need for performance standards that are to be created in individual states and school districts.
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