LINGUIST List 24.1647

Thu Apr 11 2013

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

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 21-Mar-2013
From: Marije Michel <>
Subject: Dimensions of L2 Performance and Proficiency
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EDITOR: Alex HousenEDITOR: Folkert KuikenEDITOR: Ineke VedderTITLE: Dimensions of L2 Performance and ProficiencySUBTITLE: Complexity, Accuracy and Fluency in SLASERIES TITLE: Language Learning & Language Teaching 32PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Marije Michel, Lancaster University

SUMMARYIn this book the editors have brought together an engaging set of chaptersfocusing on complexity, accuracy and fluency (CAF) in second languageacquisition (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 acomprehensive overview of current L2 research that is based on CAF. It extendsthe work presented in a special issue of 'Applied Linguistics' focusing on CAFedited by Housen & Kuiken (2009) and is a welcome addition to the field --researchers using CAF in their own work will benefit from the knowledgepresented here. In the following I first briefly review each chapter, thenpresent an evaluation.

In chapter 1, (Complexity, accuracy and fluency: Definitions, measurement andresearch), Alex Housen, Folkert Kuiken and Ineke Vedder introduce the book byreviewing research into the central concepts, that is, linguistic Complexity(structural and lexical), Accuracy and Fluency, in short CAF. They stress thatmuch earlier work has used CAF as dependent variables to measure L2performance and proficiency. For example, L2 performance has been evaluated bymeans of the number of subordinate clauses per total number of clauses as ameasure for structural complexity or a type-token based ratio for lexicalcomplexity. 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., theaverage number of syllables per second produced), as well as pausing andrepairing behavior. The editors highlight that more recent work has put CAF inthe focus of attention. That is, researchers have turned to investigating theconstructs of complexity, accuracy and fluency themselves and come up withmore precise definitions and better measures. As major challenges for CAFresearch they raise issues like the definition of CAF as theoreticalconstructs but also their operationalization as empirical variables, therelationship of CAF with underlying cognitive processes in the L2 and theirmanifestation in L2 performance and proficiency. Finally, the editors give ashort summary of each chapter.

In chapter 2 (Defining and operationalising L2 complexity) Bram Bulté and AlexHousen present a detailed analysis of the construct itself the authors showhow highly complex and multidimensional complexity is. They develop ataxonomic model that helps to unravel different aspects of complexity, e.g.,the distinction between experienced relative complexity (difficulty) andabsolute objective complexity. The latter is defined by a large number ofdifferent units (for example, syntactic nodes) and the number and type ofinterrelations between those units (for example coordinated or subordinatedclauses). They then present more in-depth analyses of two constructsunderlying linguistic complexity: structural/grammatical complexity on the onehand and lexical complexity on the other hand. In the second part theycritically review 40 empirical studies that used complexity as dependentvariables to measure L2 performance. The authors come to the conclusion that'none of the complexity measures employed or recommended in the L2 research isunproblematic, 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 ofpsycholinguistic Second Language Acquisition research) Richard Towellinvestigates the relationship of these performance based constructs withunderlying representations, processes and mechanisms of L2 acquisition. Thechapter first outlines Towell and Hawkins’ (1994) model of SLA thatdistinguishes (i) (innate) linguistic competence from (ii) learned linguisticknowledge and (iii) the mental representations for the procedures to processlinguistic information. The author then analyses each of the CAF constructsusing the model. For example, he explains that the development of accuracy andcomplexity depends on the relationship between linguistic competence andlearned linguistic knowledge, while fluency holds stronger bonds withproceduralization of linguistic processes. Finally, Towell shows how theinterpretation of L2 data benefits from relating them to the psycholinguisticmodel. He concludes that it would be desirable that more future work tries tolink theoretical SLA research focusing on psycholinguistic models andempirical work investigating L2 performance.

In chapter 4 (Complexity, accuracy and fluency: The role played by formulaicsequences in early interlanguage development), Florence Myles starts by notingthat in SLA it is often assumed that a structure is acquired as soon as it ispresent in L2 performance. However, extensive research on formulaic sequencessuggests that, especially at beginning stages of development, L2 learners usecomplex language without analyzing the underlying units and structures, thatis, formulaic sequences. After that, the author explains how the use offormulaic sequences affects CAF. For example, formulaic sequences tend to bemore complex, generally accurate and fluent than the rest of a learner'sproduction. Myles then presents corpus data from learners at the beginner andpost-beginner levels of French, leading to the conclusion that the complexity,accuracy and fluency of beginners’ L2 performance is often illusory: 'Duringthis early stage, the correspondence between the semantic and phonologicalrepresentation is rudimentary, and does not involve syntax' (p.89). Futurework therefore needs to take care in interpreting beginner performance bymeans of CAF and it would benefit from taking formulaic sequences intoaccount.

Malin Agren, Jonas Granfeldt and Suzanne Schlyter wrote chapter 5 (The growthof complexity and accuracy in L2 French: Past observations and recentapplications of developmental stages). They first review earlier work ondevelopmental stages of L2 development and give a full description of sixmorphosyntactic stages for L2 French based on the model by Bartning andSchlyter (2004). In the second part of their chapter the authors focus onrecent applications of the stages-model. Here they use the model to examinethe development of plural marking and agreement in written French and todefine L2 proficiency in both written and spoken French by means of CAF andthe model. Finally, they introduce a newly developed software that can be usedto automatically establish the developmental stage of an L2 learner'sperformance. The authors conclude that future work could examine in moredetail the relations between CAF and the developmental stages that werepresented here.

Following these more theoretical accounts of CAF as constructs, chapters 6 to12 present empirical work using CAF as dependent variables to evaluate L2performance.

Chapter 6 (The effect of task complexity on functional adequacy, fluency andlexical diversity in speaking performances of native and non-native speakers)by Nivja de Jong, Margarita Steinel, Rob Schoonen, Arjen Florijn and JanHulstijn compare in a large-scale study task performances of 208 L2 learnersof Dutch with the performance of 59 native speakers. Participants performedeight 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 morediverse vocabulary and were functionally more adequate in the complex tasks.Different results for different components of fluency were found. Non-nativesspeakers performed more poorly in complex tasks in terms of all fluencymeasures and functional adequacy but, like native speakers, their lexicaldiversity was higher on complex tasks. Generally, effects of task complexitywere more pronounced in L2 speakers than L1 speakers. The authors concludethat apart from CAF measures, future research would benefit from evaluatingfunctional adequacy and from distinguishing different aspects of fluency oftask-based performance too.

Folkert Kuiken and Ineke Vedder present in chapter 7 (Syntactic complexity,lexical variation and accuracy as a function of task complexity andproficiency level in L2 writing and speaking) data of three studies thatexamined 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 tasksgenerally produced more accurate performance whereas findings with regard tosyntactic complexity and lexical adequacy were mixed based on target languageand language proficiency. Mode (written vs. spoken) did not create largedifferences in task performance as measured by complexity and accuracy whileglobal and specific measures revealed interesting complementary information.The authors discuss their findings in relation to Robinson's (2005) CognitionHypothesis and conclude that 'although a relationship between specific taskfeatures and specific performance effects exists, the claim of the CognitionHypothesis that task complexity promotes linguistic complexity in general, isnot confirmed by these findings' (p.166).

Chapter 8 (The effects of cognitive task complexity on L2 oral production) byMaya Levkina and Roger Gilabert is also framed around Robinson's (2005)Cognition Hypothesis. They focus on (combined) effects of two task-complexityfactors (pre-task planning time and an increased number of elements) on oralperformance by Spanish and Russian L2 learners of English. Data were analyzedby means of standardized measures for syntactic and lexical complexity,accuracy and fluency. The results showed no significant effects on accuracy orsyntactic complexity -- which the authors attribute to the insensitivity oftheir measures. Data on lexical complexity and fluency partially corroborateearlier research showing that longer pre-task planning and simpler tasksresult in more fluent speech while shorter pre-task planning and more complextasks increase lexical complexity. These effects seem to strengthen eachother; that is, differences in task performance were strongest betweenperformance on the simple task with long planning time on the one hand and thecomplex task with short planning time on the other hand. The authors concludethat knowledge about task effects on performance is important for L2 pedagogybecause it allows informed decisions e.g., about planning time or tasksequencing.

In chapter 9 (Complexity, accuracy, fluency and lexis in task-basedperformance: A synthesis of the Ealing research) Peter Skehan and PaulineFoster summarize and synthesize the findings of seven earlier investigationsinto task-based performance. Participants of all studies were lowerintermediate L2 speakers of English and one study included a native speakerbaseline too. The authors are interested in the overarching conclusions oftheir earlier work regarding how task features and conditions (e.g., taskstructure, planning time) affect L2 performance by means of CAF. Their firstconclusion is that future work needs to be very careful when choosing measuresbecause each instrument reveals different and often complementary information.Secondly, the overall review allows them to draw firmer conclusions about theeffect of planning time; that is, it increases accuracy and complexity but hasdifferential effects on underlying aspects of fluency -- which again calls forcomplementary measures. Finally, they state that there are many more factorsof task design that affect performance such that plenty of future research isneeded in order to further develop theoretical frameworks like the Trade-offHypothesis (Skehan 2009).

Chapter 10 (Measuring and perceiving changes in oral complexity, accuracy andfluency: Examining instructed learners’ short-term gains) presents work byAlan Tonkyn investigating whether CAF is able to detect gains in oralperformance of participants taking a 10 weeks pre-sessional English forAcademic Purposes (EAP) class. A total of 30 different CAF measures targetinggrammatical and lexical complexity, accuracy and fluency were used toobjectively measure gains from class initial to class final interviews ofstudents. In addition, speech performance was subjectively rated byexperienced raters using the IELTS speaking rating scale. Results reveal thatprecise and global CAF measures (e.g., number of words, general frequency oferrors, length of pause-free run) can be used to show short-term gains ofintermediate L2 learners of English. These align with subjective ratings butappear more sensitive than the global rating scales. Furthermore, the studyshows how CAF measures at times can 'correct' halo-effects of single raters.

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

Stefania Ferrari describes in chapter 12 (A longitudinal study of complexity,accuracy and fluency variation in second language development) the developmentof 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 othercomponents, be it accuracy or fluency. Generally, monologic tasks createdgreater complexity but lower fluency than dialogic performance. From thedetailed comparison of the L2 and L1 speakers the author concludes that 'theability to vary one's language according to the demands of differentcommunicative activities [a skill L1 speakers have] develops very slowly anddoes not seem to be fully acquired even by highly proficient L2 learners'(p.294).

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

EVALUATION'Dimensions of L2 performance and proficiency -- Complexity, Accuracy andFluency in SLA' is a welcome addition to SLA research, especially since thelast volume on CAF (Wolfe-Quintero, Inagaki and Kim, 1998) is no longeravailable. Research gathered here constitutes a comprehensive review of recentwork into dimensions of L2 performance and proficiency. It is in particularrich in addressing relevant issues from many different perspectives, combiningtheoretical accounts on CAF as topic of investigation (e.g., the search for adefinition of complexity in Bulté & Housen), looking at L2 learner performanceof 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), originalinvestigations into task effects expressed by CAF (e.g., de Jong et al.,Levkina & Gilabert), as well as interesting developmental accounts forshort-term group gains (e.g., Tonkyn) or the longitudinal development ofmultiple cases (Ferrari).

A further strength is the inclusion of many different linguistic contexts witha variety of source and target languages, investigating oral and writtenproduction, focusing on monologic and dialogic performance of native speakersand L2 learners at various levels of proficiency when performing a largevariety of different tasks. For researchers interested in using CAF it will bea valuable source on theoretical and methodological issues to consider infuture work.

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

There are a few critical points to mention. First, the audience is a researchcommunity: SLA practitioners may struggle with the theoretically-orientedcontent. Second, even though the title suggests that the book addressesperformance and proficiency, there is more on the former and the latter is notthat well covered. Finally, a third point may be considered a strength: areader hoping to find answers about CAF could be disappointed since thestudies open many more new questions than they answer. As such, the volume isan interesting research oriented collection of innovative work that criticallyreviews the constructs of complexity, accuracy and complexity in secondlanguage research.

REFERENCESBartning, I., & Suzanne Schlyter, S. (2004). Itinéraires acquisitionnels etstades 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 acomponential framework for second language task design. International Reviewof Applied Linguistics, 43(1), 1-32.

Skehan, P. (2009). Modeling second language performance: Integratingcomplexity, 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 LanguageDevelopment in Writing: Measures of Fluency, Accuracy, and Complexity.Honolulu, University of Hawai’i: Second Language Teaching and CurriculumCenter.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERMarije Michel is a lecturer for second language learning and teaching at theDepartment for English Language and Linguistics at Lancaster University in theUK. She holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics from the University of Amsterdam inthe Netherlands. Her research focuses on cognitive and interactive aspects oftask-based performance in adult second language learners as she investigateseffects of task complexity and priming during task-based interactions.

Page Updated: 11-Apr-2013