Tag Archives: communicative competence

So, just how bad is it?

'Me Tarzan, you Jane'. Is this me?

‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’. Is this me?

By citing the cases of Alberto and Wes in my last post, I may have given the impression that my Spanish is irremediably bad: that it has either pidginized to a similar degree as had Alberto’s English, or is only minimally grammatically inflected, like Wes’s.

It’s probably not as bad as that. Before I report two objective measures of my Spanish, though, here is how I rate it myself, using criteria borrowed from the literature on cognitive psycholinguistics (e.g Skehan 1998), plus one or two others that I think are important:

  • Accuracy (i.e. the extent to which my Spanish is target-like): 4/10: it’s only really accurate under conditions of zero time pressure, e.g. writing, or in non-vocalized retrospection immediately after the event, of the type ‘I said hizo. I should’ve said hice‘.  Specific problems include verb inflections, gender, pronouns, prepositions; pronunciation is heavily L1 accented; common words are frequently confused;
  • Fluency (i.e. the capacity to cope with production and reception in real time): 5/10 (although this varies widely depending on context and interlocutors); word-searching often halts speech; correct stress placement in polysyllabic words is also a problem in terms of fluid articulation; communicative effectiveness is often impeded by problems of comprehension that result from poor phonemic coding ability (also known as ‘a bad ear’).
  • Complexity (i.e. ‘the size, elaborateness, richness, and diversity of the learner’s linguistic L2 system’ ( Housen & Kuiken 2009: 464)): 4/10: vocabulary range is serviceable for day-to-day production needs, and quite good for reading relatively difficult texts; however, key areas of grammar, such as pronoun choice, reflexive verbs, past tenses, ser and estar, por and para, etc., still operate in free variation – i.e. the choice of one form over the other is random and unsystematic. There is insufficient grammatical knowledge to express complex ideas involving modality and hypothesis, or to flag the logical relationship between utterances, or to vary and embellish a simple narrative.
  • Idiomaticity: (command of formulaic language, collocation, etc) 3/10: poor command of formulaic language means I would never sound native-like, even ignoring other variables; collocations etc are still influenced by L1;
  • Appropriacy: (also known as sociolinguistic competence and includes the capacity to function in different registers): 5/10 – limited to mostly informal and one-to-one situations, due in part to difficulties choosing between tu and usted, and in using second person plural forms comfortably.
  • Strategic competence: (capacity to compensate for a limited linguistic competence, e.g. to paraphrase, to repair breakdowns, etc): 4/10: I tend either to avoid situations where this might be put to the test, or to operate on a ‘wait and see’ principle, hoping that communication breakdowns will be resolved further down the track.

For a more objective measure of my spoken Spanish, I turned to Pearson’s ‘Versant Test’, which is conducted over the phone and scored both automatically and instantly. (I was intrigued by a demonstration of the English version of this test when I saw it at a conference a few years ago). In their own words:

The Versant™ Test of Spanish, created by leading language testing experts using advanced speech processing technology, evaluates a non-native Spanish speaker’s ability to understand and to communicate appropriately in Spanish on everyday topics. Versant automated tests allow language teachers, program coordinators, and administrators to quickly, objectively, and accurately assess students’ levels of spoken Spanish skills.

And they add:

Making use of advanced speech recognition techniques, the Versant Test includes several different sections: Reading, Repeat, Opposites, Short Answer Questions, Sentence Builds, Story Retellings, and Open Questions.

The test costs $25, takes about as many minutes, and is easy to do. Moreover, it’s an interesting experience, in that, in some of its sections at least, it requires a degree of spontaneity, combined with the pressure of working against the clock, that cleverly simulates the demands of real-time speech production.

How did I do?

Here are the results (80 is the top score in each band):

Click to enlarge

Part 1: Click to enlarge

versant score 02

Part 2: Click to enlarge

What’s curious is how polarized my accuracy and fluency results are – over-generous in terms of grammatical accuracy, but a little mean, I thought, about my response to the story-telling and open questions tasks.  It also rates me more highly on the use of formulaic language than I do.  (How does it know, you may well be asking!) Anyway, I plan to take the test again in a few months’ time, to see if it can detect any improvement. For those of an empirical bent, this will constitute the pre- and post-test elements of the study.

Finally, having enrolled in a language school (of which more in the next post), I was level-tested using a customized online instrument that comprised a self-adjusting multiple-choice grammar test, followed by four short texts in C-test format. (A C-test is a kind of cloze test where the second half of every second word is blanked out and requires completion).

Here you can see a screencast of me doing the grammar section (forgive the typically Spanish background ‘jaleo’!) Those of you who speak Spanish might like to make a preliminary assessment of my level.

I was disappointed, though, that there was no test of my oral Spanish – surely easy to set up nowadays, using Skype.  When I queried this, however, I was assured that, on Day 1, my speaking would be evaluated by means of an interview.

How did I do?  On the basis of the online test, I was provisionally placed in an advanced level (C1 on the Common European Framework), the actual placement being contingent on the speaking test.

It seems, then, that both external assessments rated my Spanish more highly than I do, especially with regard to grammatical accuracy. What will this mean in terms of how I respond to formal instruction, I wonder? Specifically, will I be over- or under-challenged? Will the classroom experience penetrate the areas of my Spanish that seem to have stabilized? In what areas (accuracy, fluency etc), will I show improvement  – if any?



Housen, A., & Kuiken, F. (2009) ‘Complexity, accuracy, and fluency in second language acquisition’, Applied Linguistics, 30/4.

Skehan, P. (1998) A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fossilization: is it terminal, doctor?

Cartoon displayed with special permission from Glasbergen.com

Cartoon displayed with special permission from Glasbergen.com

If there were ever to be an SLA ‘Hall of Fame’, prime candidates would be Alberto and Wes, both of them icons of fossilization, each in their different ways.

Alberto (Schumann 1978) was a Costa Rican immigrant to the US, who had little or no contact with English speakers, and whose rudimentary English not only remained static over the 10 months he was studied, but seemed impervious to any instructional interventions. His researcher attributed this stasis to his unwillingness to ‘acculturate’, i.e. to integrate into the dominant English-speaking culture.

Wes (Schmidt 1983), a Japanese immigrant to Hawaii, likewise showed little or no grammatical development over the 3-year period in which his English was tracked, but he did exhibit a high level of communicative competence, including the capacity to manage conversations. He did this through a variety of means, such as paraphrase, use of formulaic language, and repair strategies, impelled always by his conviction that it was as much the responsibility of his interlocutors to understand him as it was his responsibility to make himself understood to them. Given that he was fully immersed in, and positively inclined towards, the host English-speaking community, the apparent fossilization of his English is attributed less to social than to psycholinguistic factors: his inability, for example, to attend to linguistic form.

A third – less well-known – candidate for the Hall of Fame might be Patty (Lardiere 2000): an Indonesian of Chinese origin who lived in Hong Kong before emigrating to the US, marrying first to a Vietnamese and then to an English speaker. Her English was tracked over 10 years, and, while it showed a high degree of syntactical accuracy (i.e. word order), there were no gains in terms of morphological features (word endings, plurals etc). The researcher attributed this to the relatively late age of contact with English, and the concomitant inability to perceive (and hence generalize from) the details. (In language acquisition, the devil is indeed in the details). Patty’s written English, it should be noted, was more accurate than her spoken.

These three stories (and there are many more, less well documented ones) tend to underscore the fact that, as Ellis (2008) puts it: ‘Fossilization is not an all-or-nothing phenomena. First, there is considerable variation in the extent to which individual learners fossilize.… [Moreover] it is perfectly possible for a learner to be fossilized in some aspects of the L2 but to continue to develop in others’ (Ellis 2008, p. 28).

However, of the three case studies cited, only Patty’s really qualifies as a case of true fossilization (and, to be fair, neither Schumann nor Schmidt use the term in their own studies) since hers was the only study that was conducted over long enough a period to suggest that the non-target-like nature of at least some of her interlanguage grammar was immutable. That, after all, is what fossilization means, surely.

Or does it?  As Long (2003) reminds us, ‘For many, “fossilization” has simply become a general, non-technical name for non-target-like ultimate attainment, that is, a performance descriptor, a broad-brush method of characterising what a learner did not do, not a competence issue, a matter of what he or she could not do, which is what made the original claim interesting’ (p.513, emphasis added).  And he adds, ‘If fossilization is to have value as a construct in SLA theory, it must refer to something other than this general age-related decline in the capacity to acquire any language’ (p.519).

doughty & longIn other words, Long is asking us to distinguish between ‘failure to acquire’ (a widespread phenomenon) and ‘loss of ability to acquire’, a much more slippery notion, since what exactly is it that is lost, and how can you prove a negative anyway?  How do we know that Patty won’t suddenly (or even slowly) make a tiny incremental change in the direction of the target?  For all these reasons, SLA scholars prefer the less terminal term stabilization: ‘Stabilization refers to a state of L2 development where fluctuation has temporarily ceased. Many L2 learners are familiar with the situation where they appear to plateau, failing to develop despite their continuing efforts to do so, and then make a ‘breakthrough’ sometime later’ (Ellis, op. cit: 30).

Ellis adds that ‘there is also another reason for preferring “stabilization” to “fossilization”. Talk of fossilization positions L2 learners as failures but, in fact, many achieve very considerable success in acquiring an L2’ (op. cit: 13). Indeed, the whole notion of a finite ‘end state’ in language acquisition has been challenged in recent years, along with the idea that native-speaker proficiency should be the measure by which learners should be judged.

From a dynamic systems perspective, that is, one in which language acquisition is viewed as an open and continually evolving system, Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008) argue that there can be no ‘end state’ as such, and hence no such thing as fossilization. This is not to say that there is no inertia in dynamic systems, only that it is not permanent.  ‘Any fossilized form should be seen against a backdrop of the boundlessness of potentiality that is the hallmark of an open, dynamic system, one in which learners actively transform their linguistic world, not just conform to it’ (p. 142, emphasis added).

In the end, as Ortega (2009: 135) summarises it, ‘the notion of fossilization, while strongly intuitive, has proved to be extremely problematic to pin down’.   If I’d thought twice, I might have called this blog ‘The (De-) Stabilization Diaries’ – but, then, would anyone have known what I was talking about?

Be that as it may, and inspired by ‘the boundlessness of potentiality’, I have enrolled in two weeks of intensive Spanish classes.  More on that shortly.


Ellis, R. (2008) The Study of Second Language Acquisition [2nd edition]. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lardiere, D. (2000) ‘Case and tense in the “fossilized” steady-state’, Second Language Research, 14.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Long, M. (2003) ‘Stabilization and fossilization in second language interlanguage development’, in Doughty, C., and Long, M. (eds.) The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Blackwell.

Ortega, L. (2009) Understanding Second Language Acquisition, London: Hodder Education.

Schmidt, R. (1983) ‘Interaction, acculturation and the acquisition of communicative competence,’ in  Wolfson, N., & Judd, E. (eds.) Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Schumann, J. (1978) The Pidginization Process: A Model for Second Language Acquisition, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

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