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LINGUIST List 24.1647

Thu Apr 11 2013

Review: Applied Linguistics; Language Acquisition: Housen et al. (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>

Date: 21-Mar-2013
From: Marije Michel <m.michellancaster.ac.uk>
Subject: Dimensions of L2 Performance and Proficiency
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-4696.html

EDITOR: Alex Housen
EDITOR: Folkert Kuiken
EDITOR: Ineke Vedder
TITLE: Dimensions of L2 Performance and Proficiency
SUBTITLE: Complexity, Accuracy and Fluency in SLA
SERIES TITLE: Language Learning & Language Teaching 32
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Marije Michel, Lancaster University

In this book the editors have brought together an engaging set of chapters
focusing on complexity, accuracy and fluency (CAF) in second language
acquisition (SLA) research. The different contributors address second language
(L2) performance and/or proficiency by means of CAF from a theoretical,
methodological or empirical perspective. As a result, the volume gives a
comprehensive overview of current L2 research that is based on CAF. It extends
the work presented in a special issue of 'Applied Linguistics' focusing on CAF
edited by Housen & Kuiken (2009) and is a welcome addition to the field --
researchers using CAF in their own work will benefit from the knowledge
presented here. In the following I first briefly review each chapter, then
present an evaluation.

In chapter 1, (Complexity, accuracy and fluency: Definitions, measurement and
research), Alex Housen, Folkert Kuiken and Ineke Vedder introduce the book by
reviewing research into the central concepts, that is, linguistic Complexity
(structural and lexical), Accuracy and Fluency, in short CAF. They stress that
much earlier work has used CAF as dependent variables to measure L2
performance and proficiency. For example, L2 performance has been evaluated by
means of the number of subordinate clauses per total number of clauses as a
measure for structural complexity or a type-token based ratio for lexical
complexity. Likewise, accuracy is accounted for using a global measure like
‘error free clauses’ or more specifically the ‘target-like use of articles’.
Similarly, fluency has been measured by referring to speaking rate (e.g., the
average number of syllables per second produced), as well as pausing and
repairing behavior. The editors highlight that more recent work has put CAF in
the focus of attention. That is, researchers have turned to investigating the
constructs of complexity, accuracy and fluency themselves and come up with
more precise definitions and better measures. As major challenges for CAF
research they raise issues like the definition of CAF as theoretical
constructs but also their operationalization as empirical variables, the
relationship of CAF with underlying cognitive processes in the L2 and their
manifestation in L2 performance and proficiency. Finally, the editors give a
short summary of each chapter.

In chapter 2 (Defining and operationalising L2 complexity) Bram Bulté and Alex
Housen present a detailed analysis of the construct itself the authors show
how highly complex and multidimensional complexity is. They develop a
taxonomic model that helps to unravel different aspects of complexity, e.g.,
the distinction between experienced relative complexity (difficulty) and
absolute objective complexity. The latter is defined by a large number of
different units (for example, syntactic nodes) and the number and type of
interrelations between those units (for example coordinated or subordinated
clauses). They then present more in-depth analyses of two constructs
underlying linguistic complexity: structural/grammatical complexity on the one
hand and lexical complexity on the other hand. In the second part they
critically review 40 empirical studies that used complexity as dependent
variables to measure L2 performance. The authors come to the conclusion that
'none of the complexity measures employed or recommended in the L2 research is
unproblematic, neither in its computation nor in its interpretation.' (p. 40)
and they recommend future work on L2 complexity.

In chapter 3 (Complexity, Accuracy and Fluency from the perspective of
psycholinguistic Second Language Acquisition research) Richard Towell
investigates the relationship of these performance based constructs with
underlying representations, processes and mechanisms of L2 acquisition. The
chapter first outlines Towell and Hawkins’ (1994) model of SLA that
distinguishes (i) (innate) linguistic competence from (ii) learned linguistic
knowledge and (iii) the mental representations for the procedures to process
linguistic information. The author then analyses each of the CAF constructs
using the model. For example, he explains that the development of accuracy and
complexity depends on the relationship between linguistic competence and
learned linguistic knowledge, while fluency holds stronger bonds with
proceduralization of linguistic processes. Finally, Towell shows how the
interpretation of L2 data benefits from relating them to the psycholinguistic
model. He concludes that it would be desirable that more future work tries to
link theoretical SLA research focusing on psycholinguistic models and
empirical work investigating L2 performance.

In chapter 4 (Complexity, accuracy and fluency: The role played by formulaic
sequences in early interlanguage development), Florence Myles starts by noting
that in SLA it is often assumed that a structure is acquired as soon as it is
present in L2 performance. However, extensive research on formulaic sequences
suggests that, especially at beginning stages of development, L2 learners use
complex language without analyzing the underlying units and structures, that
is, formulaic sequences. After that, the author explains how the use of
formulaic sequences affects CAF. For example, formulaic sequences tend to be
more complex, generally accurate and fluent than the rest of a learner's
production. Myles then presents corpus data from learners at the beginner and
post-beginner levels of French, leading to the conclusion that the complexity,
accuracy and fluency of beginners’ L2 performance is often illusory: 'During
this early stage, the correspondence between the semantic and phonological
representation is rudimentary, and does not involve syntax' (p.89). Future
work therefore needs to take care in interpreting beginner performance by
means of CAF and it would benefit from taking formulaic sequences into

Malin Agren, Jonas Granfeldt and Suzanne Schlyter wrote chapter 5 (The growth
of complexity and accuracy in L2 French: Past observations and recent
applications of developmental stages). They first review earlier work on
developmental stages of L2 development and give a full description of six
morphosyntactic stages for L2 French based on the model by Bartning and
Schlyter (2004). In the second part of their chapter the authors focus on
recent applications of the stages-model. Here they use the model to examine
the development of plural marking and agreement in written French and to
define L2 proficiency in both written and spoken French by means of CAF and
the model. Finally, they introduce a newly developed software that can be used
to automatically establish the developmental stage of an L2 learner's
performance. The authors conclude that future work could examine in more
detail the relations between CAF and the developmental stages that were
presented here.

Following these more theoretical accounts of CAF as constructs, chapters 6 to
12 present empirical work using CAF as dependent variables to evaluate L2

Chapter 6 (The effect of task complexity on functional adequacy, fluency and
lexical diversity in speaking performances of native and non-native speakers)
by Nivja de Jong, Margarita Steinel, Rob Schoonen, Arjen Florijn and Jan
Hulstijn compare in a large-scale study task performances of 208 L2 learners
of Dutch with the performance of 59 native speakers. Participants performed
eight different tasks that were manipulated by means of formality of context,
their descriptive or persuasive nature, task complexity and interaction
(monologic vs. dialogic). Results indicate that native speakers used more
diverse vocabulary and were functionally more adequate in the complex tasks.
Different results for different components of fluency were found. Non-natives
speakers performed more poorly in complex tasks in terms of all fluency
measures and functional adequacy but, like native speakers, their lexical
diversity was higher on complex tasks. Generally, effects of task complexity
were more pronounced in L2 speakers than L1 speakers. The authors conclude
that apart from CAF measures, future research would benefit from evaluating
functional adequacy and from distinguishing different aspects of fluency of
task-based performance too.

Folkert Kuiken and Ineke Vedder present in chapter 7 (Syntactic complexity,
lexical variation and accuracy as a function of task complexity and
proficiency level in L2 writing and speaking) data of three studies that
examined task-based performance of Dutch students learning French or Italian.
The authors use both global and specific measures of syntactic complexity,
lexical variation and accuracy. Results reveal that more complex tasks
generally produced more accurate performance whereas findings with regard to
syntactic complexity and lexical adequacy were mixed based on target language
and language proficiency. Mode (written vs. spoken) did not create large
differences in task performance as measured by complexity and accuracy while
global and specific measures revealed interesting complementary information.
The authors discuss their findings in relation to Robinson's (2005) Cognition
Hypothesis and conclude that 'although a relationship between specific task
features and specific performance effects exists, the claim of the Cognition
Hypothesis that task complexity promotes linguistic complexity in general, is
not confirmed by these findings' (p.166).

Chapter 8 (The effects of cognitive task complexity on L2 oral production) by
Maya Levkina and Roger Gilabert is also framed around Robinson's (2005)
Cognition Hypothesis. They focus on (combined) effects of two task-complexity
factors (pre-task planning time and an increased number of elements) on oral
performance by Spanish and Russian L2 learners of English. Data were analyzed
by means of standardized measures for syntactic and lexical complexity,
accuracy and fluency. The results showed no significant effects on accuracy or
syntactic complexity -- which the authors attribute to the insensitivity of
their measures. Data on lexical complexity and fluency partially corroborate
earlier research showing that longer pre-task planning and simpler tasks
result in more fluent speech while shorter pre-task planning and more complex
tasks increase lexical complexity. These effects seem to strengthen each
other; that is, differences in task performance were strongest between
performance on the simple task with long planning time on the one hand and the
complex task with short planning time on the other hand. The authors conclude
that knowledge about task effects on performance is important for L2 pedagogy
because it allows informed decisions e.g., about planning time or task

In chapter 9 (Complexity, accuracy, fluency and lexis in task-based
performance: A synthesis of the Ealing research) Peter Skehan and Pauline
Foster summarize and synthesize the findings of seven earlier investigations
into task-based performance. Participants of all studies were lower
intermediate L2 speakers of English and one study included a native speaker
baseline too. The authors are interested in the overarching conclusions of
their earlier work regarding how task features and conditions (e.g., task
structure, planning time) affect L2 performance by means of CAF. Their first
conclusion is that future work needs to be very careful when choosing measures
because each instrument reveals different and often complementary information.
Secondly, the overall review allows them to draw firmer conclusions about the
effect of planning time; that is, it increases accuracy and complexity but has
differential effects on underlying aspects of fluency -- which again calls for
complementary measures. Finally, they state that there are many more factors
of task design that affect performance such that plenty of future research is
needed in order to further develop theoretical frameworks like the Trade-off
Hypothesis (Skehan 2009).

Chapter 10 (Measuring and perceiving changes in oral complexity, accuracy and
fluency: Examining instructed learners’ short-term gains) presents work by
Alan Tonkyn investigating whether CAF is able to detect gains in oral
performance of participants taking a 10 weeks pre-sessional English for
Academic Purposes (EAP) class. A total of 30 different CAF measures targeting
grammatical and lexical complexity, accuracy and fluency were used to
objectively measure gains from class initial to class final interviews of
students. In addition, speech performance was subjectively rated by
experienced raters using the IELTS speaking rating scale. Results reveal that
precise and global CAF measures (e.g., number of words, general frequency of
errors, length of pause-free run) can be used to show short-term gains of
intermediate L2 learners of English. These align with subjective ratings but
appear more sensitive than the global rating scales. Furthermore, the study
shows how CAF measures at times can 'correct' halo-effects of single raters.

In chapter 11 (The development of complexity, accuracy and fluency in the
written production of L2 French) Cecilia Gunnarsson uncovers the differential
development of writing performance of five Swedish L2 learners of French. The
author used writing logs and video-taped think-aloud protocols to investigate
the development of her participants' writing over a time of 30 months. The
chapter focuses on a comparison of two written performances and reveals large
individual differences in the development from time 1 to time 2. While some
learners showed gains in accuracy at the expense of fluency others prioritized
fluency at the cost of accuracy. Complexity measures did not generate any
obvious patterns. The author discusses her findings in terms of Skehan's
(2009) Trade-off Hypothesis and Levelt's (1989) distinction of
conceptualization and formulation.

Stefania Ferrari describes in chapter 12 (A longitudinal study of complexity,
accuracy and fluency variation in second language development) the development
of four adolescent L2 learners and two native speakers of Italian.
Participants performed various monologic and dialogic tasks over three years.
Results show how gains in e.g., complexity create trade-offs in other
components, be it accuracy or fluency. Generally, monologic tasks created
greater complexity but lower fluency than dialogic performance. From the
detailed comparison of the L2 and L1 speakers the author concludes that 'the
ability to vary one's language according to the demands of different
communicative activities [a skill L1 speakers have] develops very slowly and
does not seem to be fully acquired even by highly proficient L2 learners'

In the final chapter (Epilogue), the editors recap the content of the volume
and conclude: 'Researchers […] seem to agree on the usefulness and validity of
complexity, accuracy and fluency as research constructs. However, this is
where the consensus ends and the controversy begins' (p.300) As there is still
a lack of agreement on, e.g., the definition of the three constructs, the
editors remind us to be careful when using CAF and especially when
interpreting findings based on CAF. Future research will yield more insights.

'Dimensions of L2 performance and proficiency -- Complexity, Accuracy and
Fluency in SLA' is a welcome addition to SLA research, especially since the
last volume on CAF (Wolfe-Quintero, Inagaki and Kim, 1998) is no longer
available. Research gathered here constitutes a comprehensive review of recent
work into dimensions of L2 performance and proficiency. It is in particular
rich in addressing relevant issues from many different perspectives, combining
theoretical accounts on CAF as topic of investigation (e.g., the search for a
definition of complexity in Bulté & Housen), looking at L2 learner performance
of beginner levels (Myles) or at various stages of development (Agren et al.),
synthesizing reviews of earlier studies that used CAF as a dependent variable
(e.g., Kuiken & Vedder and the Ealing Studies of Skehan & Foster), original
investigations into task effects expressed by CAF (e.g., de Jong et al.,
Levkina & Gilabert), as well as interesting developmental accounts for
short-term group gains (e.g., Tonkyn) or the longitudinal development of
multiple cases (Ferrari).

A further strength is the inclusion of many different linguistic contexts with
a variety of source and target languages, investigating oral and written
production, focusing on monologic and dialogic performance of native speakers
and L2 learners at various levels of proficiency when performing a large
variety of different tasks. For researchers interested in using CAF it will be
a valuable source on theoretical and methodological issues to consider in
future work.

Especially the editors’ introduction summarizes the main areas of debate as
well as current definitions of the constructs will be of interest to
researchers and may be of use for introducing CAF-based SLA research at the MA
level. Each individual chapter is valuable, at times only for specific
audiences, e.g., Towell's psycholinguistic account of CAF or Gunnarsson's
review of individual development of written L2 production. The fact that
well-known scholars and young researchers both present their perspectives on
CAF shows again the volume’s wide scope.

There are a few critical points to mention. First, the audience is a research
community: SLA practitioners may struggle with the theoretically-oriented
content. Second, even though the title suggests that the book addresses
performance and proficiency, there is more on the former and the latter is not
that well covered. Finally, a third point may be considered a strength: a
reader hoping to find answers about CAF could be disappointed since the
studies open many more new questions than they answer. As such, the volume is
an interesting research oriented collection of innovative work that critically
reviews the constructs of complexity, accuracy and complexity in second
language research.

Bartning, I., & Suzanne Schlyter, S. (2004). Itinéraires acquisitionnels et
stades de développement en français L2. Journal of French Language Studies,
14, 281-299. doi:10.1017/S0959269504001802.

Housen, A., & Kuiken, F. (2009) Special Issue: Complexity, accuracy, fluency
(CAF) in second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics, 30(4).

Levelt, W. J. (1989). Speaking: From Intention to Articulation. Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press.

Robinson, P. (2005). Cognitive complexity and task sequencing: Studies in a
componential framework for second language task design. International Review
of Applied Linguistics, 43(1), 1-32.

Skehan, P. (2009). Modeling second language performance: Integrating
complexity, accuracy, fluency and lexis. Applied Linguistics, 30(4), 510-532.

Towell, R., & Hawkins, R. (1994) Approaches to Second Language Acquisition.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Wolfe-Quintero, K., Inagaki, S. and Kim, H. (1998). Second Language
Development in Writing: Measures of Fluency, Accuracy, and Complexity.
Honolulu, University of Hawai’i: Second Language Teaching and Curriculum

Marije Michel is a lecturer for second language learning and teaching at the
Department for English Language and Linguistics at Lancaster University in the
UK. She holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics from the University of Amsterdam in
the Netherlands. Her research focuses on cognitive and interactive aspects of
task-based performance in adult second language learners as she investigates
effects of task complexity and priming during task-based interactions.
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