Saturday, July 16, 2011

Linguists examine obstacles to native-like proficiency in foreign language acquisition

The use of English as a second and foreign language is steadily increasing, and although English and German have common roots, even advanced German learners of English find it difficult to achieve a native-like level of proficiency in English. "It appears that many of the obstacles that advanced learners find difficult to overcome are related to linguistic variation, to contexts in which fixed grammatical rules are not available, and several alternatives of expression are possible," explains Professor Marcus Callies of the Department of English and Linguistics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). He investigates the specific linguistic phenomena that advanced students of English in particular experience as difficult, and is convinced that the outcome of his research will not only help improve the training of university students who will become teachers of English at German high schools, but also assist early-career researchers to further develop their academic writing skills.

"So far, comparatively little research has been carried out with regard to the distinct challenges and the remaining obstacles that advanced learners face when trying to attain native-like competence in English," says Callies, Professor at the Department of English and Linguistics. "For example, we do not know how several well-known determinants of language variation operate in foreign language acquisition and to what extent such linguistic knowledge is transferred from the native to the foreign language." One example is the order of elements in a sentence with regard to their complexity (or "weight") and information content. In German as well as in English, weighty, complex elements that tend to contain new information are usually placed at the end of the sentence. However, despite these parallels, even advanced learners still tend to have considerable problems in this area, possibly because they are not aware of the existence and effects of syntactic weight as a determinant of variation, and thus, cannot make use of their knowledge to benefit learning.

Callies is currently compiling an electronic text corpus that will be used as a database for research on lexico-grammatical variation in advanced learner varieties. He already presented the "Corpus of Academic Learner English (CALE)" project at a conference in Oslo in June 2011. Since September 2010, academic texts produced by students of English at Mainz University are being collected for CALE. The texts are classified into seven academic text types such as research papers, reading reports, reviews, and abstracts. The texts are submitted in electronic format, pre-processed, and then annotated with linguistic metadata and student biodata. The corpus is being continuously enlarged, and it is planned to extend it to approximately one to two million words. There is currently no comparable corpus that allows research into academic writing in advanced foreign language learning. Thanks to the theoretical and methodological combination of second language acquisition and learner corpus research, CALE will facilitate the quantitative and qualitative investigation of patterns of lexico-grammatical variation in advanced learners.

Moreover, the project has some major implications for foreign language teaching because the research findings will be used to provide recommendations for foreign language teachers and learners by developing teaching materials and suggestions for teaching units in practical language courses (e.g. "Academic Writing"). Thus, the outcome is particularly relevant to the training of foreign language teachers, as the majority of students will ultimately work as teachers of English and pass on the skills they have acquired. It is also planned to provide support for other students and academics: "Unlike the Anglo-American education system, German secondary schools and universities do not usually provide courses in academic writing in the students' mother tongue, so that first-year students have basically no training in academic writing at all," notes Callies. While the scientific community expects research findings to be published in English, the appropriate skills need to be acquired by the individual researcher in a process of learning by doing. Courses in academic writing skills are only rarely offered. "This is why we want to provide suggestions for the improvement of curricula and develop concepts for academic writing courses," says Callies.

There are plans to extend the project and form an international research network, first within Europe and later possibly with partners outside Europe. There is already collaboration with universities in Portugal, Spain, and China. Researchers will then be able to determine whether native speakers of German, Spanish, or Chinese share the same problems in advanced foreign language acquisition. In June 2011, Maria Belen Diez-Bedmar, an expert in the field of learner corpus research from the University of Jaen in Spain, visited the Callies team to exchange experiences and discuss future collaborations.

Callies' team is still looking for partners to contribute to the corpus. These can originate from any field of study, including the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and economics. "We would like to incorporate other disciplines and will be happy to accept English texts that were not produced at university," says Callies. Contributors should have advanced English skills, i.e. nine years of school English and preferably additional English training.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Linguists examine obstacles to native-like proficiency in foreign language acquisition". EurekAlert. Posted: July 6, 2011. Available online:

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