Applied Linguists and Captive Frogs (Class seven)
Yesterday’s class marked the exit of the Ear Book ( too soon! ) and the end of the listening half of Dr. Jim’s course. It also marked the abrupt entrance of the trio Complexity, Accuracy, and Fluency, featuring three lengthy academic articles kicking off the speaking half of the course. Many of us were mentally unprepared for the switch, since we had spent the weekend studying for the Ear Book midterm exam rather than reading the articles. Half the class time was devoted to the test and the other half to article discussion, but since most of us had not been heroic enough to sacrifice our midterm test grade and wade through the readings, question time was short and sweet, and discussion nearly non-existent. I left class in a daze, telling myself I would read at least one of the three articles as penance, and write it up for my blog post. So now I’m bound to keep my word, and I’ve deliberately chosen the most formidable of the three: a 23 page treatise by Peter Skehan called “Modelling Second Language Performance: Integrating Complexity, Accuracy, Fluency, and Lexis”.
It’s not a catchy title and there is not a single picture in the article, which features page-long paragraphs and terms like “complexification”. The unwavering seriousness of the paper, in fact, led me on a short search, scouring the internet for photos or videos of Skehan which might reveal something about the man behind the scholar. What I came up with was this: a single video, filmed last year at the University of London, in which Peter Skehan tells a joke aobut a voluptuous blonde and a frog. He says it’s the only joke he knows, and it turns out to be an applied linguistics joke. First one I’d ever heard, and I won’t spoil it for you–take a listen for yourself, here.
Alright, now I will get down to business and wrestle this article into submission.
The article deals with the tension between three aspects of speaking performance that are constantly competing for L2 learners’ attention and straining their cognitive resources: accuracy, fluency, and complexity. Accuracy, of course, refers to correct and error-free speech. Fluency refers to smoothness, flow, and ease of communication, and complexity refers to “advanced language”. The Trade-Off Hypothesis ( Skehan’s own hypothesis, which he defends in this paper ) states that L2 learners are severely taxed ( stressed, burdened, ) by the demands of these three competing processes, and find it difficult to perform well in all three areas simultaneously. This makes sense. All three areas require attention, and when learners are focusing intently on any one of the areas, their performance in the other two may suffer as a consequence. For instance, as a Japanese speaker, my grammar is fairly accurate and I can talk a mile a minute, but I also recognize that my general use of the language is not as complex as that of adult native Japanese speakers. If I aimed for complexity, I can easily imagine both my accuracy and my fluency suffering, along with my good humor and patience. In another often-quoted example, many serious Japanese students are sabotaged by their determination to speak accurately and to use complex words and phrases from their textbooks, leading to stop-and-start dysfluent speech.
So we’ve established the problem of tension. There are other problems going on in this article, including a rival hypothesis (which I will not touch on here) and a rival academic who apparently referred to the Trade-Off Hypothesis as “vacuous”. Aside from these two hints of drama, this is a straightforward article, intending to better define the ongoing complexity-accuracy-fluency challenge, and to re-introduce a first language acquisition model, re-interpreted by Skehan for second language learners. Skehan proposes early on, in fact, that the complexity-accuracy-fluency trio should expand to a quartet, including lexis as a fourth aspect. Although this seems unnecessary, since Skehan himself has defined complexity as “advanced language”, he argues that second language learners could benefit from considering complexity in two parts, structure and lexis. In other words, he proposes redefining the performance aspects as complexity (of structure), accuracy, fluency, and lexis (complex or low-frequency words). This, he argues, is necessary because while native speakers who use “big words” are usually masters of grammar (the two correlate), the same is not true for second language speakers. Like the serious Japanese students previously mentioned, many L2 learners who attempt to use difficult words find their grammar derailed in the process. No-one wants their grammar train to be derailed, and if a greater focus on vocabulary in general (both low and high frequency words) can free up the speaker’s resources to attend more closely to accuracy and fluency, then I have no quarrel with Skehan on this point.
Along with complexity, the concept of fluency should also be re-examined, says Skehan. And here I will include a link to something fun that arrived in my mailbox the other day from my friend Jase Levine, known as “Fluency MC”. Click on it to learn from 34 practitioners, materials developers, teacher trainers, and SLA researchers about fluency and how it can best be achieved. You’ll see that the concept of fluency is not so easily defined, and that even the experts disagree about how to become fluent. In this particular article, Skehan is interested in speech pauses (one of the most common dysfluencies), and presents evidence from his past publications showing that not only do non-native speakers pause more mid-speech, but that they pause in different places than native speakers. While native speakers naturally pause at the boundaries between clauses, L2 speakers also pause within clauses. As Skehan says, they “seem to have pauses thrust upon them” rather than initiating the pauses themselves. Interesting, eh? His point is that there are many dimensions to the aspect of fluency, and we should take care to define the concept itself thoughtfully and thoroughly. I won’t argue there, either.
As I mentioned before, this was a long and complexified article; what I did not mention was that it led to the discovery of model of language production that I’d been unaware of: The Levelt Model of first language speaking, proposed by Willem Levelt in 1989. Here’s the model, featuring the three super-heros Conceptualizer, Formulator, and Articulator.
As you can see, according to Levelt, the Conceptualizer is where the language process starts, as the speaker’s message is generated. The Formulator is the “surface” of language production, where the grammar is put together (encoded) and prepared to be phonetically implemented. The Articulator, of course, is the hero who gets to actually “speak” and send the message off to be processed by the listener.
Skehan uses Levelt’s model as a means of elucidating his CAF (or CALF if you include Lexis) findings. The model, he reminds readers, was intended to represent first language acquisition, with the Conceptualizer and the Formulator engaged in parallel processing of language. However, the model ceases to function in the same way for L2 learners, since smooth simultaneous processing is hindered by those pesky cognitive demands that speaking in a second language involves. Let’s see if I can break it down into plain language using aspects of task-based learning, since that is the paradigm that Skehan promotes. Here goes:
Learners: Help, help! We have a task! We have to plan! This stuff is abstract, and the information keeps changing! We can’t deal with all the information!
Skehan’s advice: Buck up! You are dealing with complexity. Your Conceptualizers are stressed.
Learners: Help, help! We can’t remember all these big words! And we have to use them–there’s no choice!
Skehan’s advice: Well, well, now. Your Formulators are experiencing some pressure. Try to be patient.
Learners: Heeeelp! We’ve got to finish this task in five minutes! And there’s SO MUCH! And there are no fun conversations!
Skehan: Aaah, well, that would be pressure on your Formulators again. Let’s see what we can do about this….
And then Skehan offers practical advice. Here’s what can be done when learners’ Conceptualizers are under strain, and when their Formulators cease to formulate smoothly. To begin with, the goal is to decrease pressure on both the Conceptualizer (the Information Guy, whose job is to prime the Formulator so that lexis can be more easily retrieved) and the Formulator (the Planner, who accesses the words and generates the message to be articulated). A clever teacher can arrange and adjuste learners’ tasks to ease the burdens of both. To placate the Conceptualizer, then, design tasks with concrete, static information--less is more. And keep it simple, so the learner feels grounded rather than overwhelmed. For the Formulator, Skehan suggests that teachers do the basic planning so that students can limit their focus to the task itself. Dialogs, he says, are less overwhelming than monologues. With these two factors addressed, Skehan proposes that the Formulator will be able to access difficult lexis more efficiently. Lastly, the Formulator is concerned with syntax–which means grammar–which refers to the Accuracy component of the troubled CAF trio (or the quarrelling quartet if you include Lexis). Here the task-based solution would be rehearsals. And tight structure. Lastly, more dialogues and a post-task activity will allow students to polish what they have learned in the task, thus improving their accuracy.
Well. Since this is a blog post and not a literature review, I can now bring this entry to a close in all good conscience. This is not the entirety of Skehan’s message, or even the essence of his message in a nutshell; it’s what I personally gleaned from the article, and what I hope might be interesting and inspiring to others. And if any of you reading are considering a graduate degree in TESOL, I urge you not to be afraid of Peter Skehan and his page-long paragraphs. Dig right in, break down the academic vocabulary, and find the heart of the ideas. It’ll be worth your time.