An examination of successful language use at B1, B2 and C1 level in UCLanESB speaking tests in accordance with the Common European Framework of References for Languages

Byrne, Shelley orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-0673-3139 (2016) An examination of successful language use at B1, B2 and C1 level in UCLanESB speaking tests in accordance with the Common European Framework of References for Languages. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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The concept of success in second language learning has received growing attention over the last few years. With the earlier dominance of the native speaker as a model and measure for success, learner language had previously been seen as inferior or deviant from the native speaker target and norm. However, with the arrival of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages [CEFR] (CoE, 2001), a shift in emphasis saw learner proficiency across all language use viewed in terms of what learners could do, rather than what they could not. Despite this more positive outlook, the CEFR, in its aim of being non-language specific to maintain applicability across language learning contexts, fails to effectively illustrate how its many descriptors and scales apply to learner language at different levels. Though it extensively documents what learners are able to do with their language, it fails to specify exactly how they can actually do it.
The aim of this study was therefore to examine what makes B1, B2 and C1 learners successful in their speech in accordance with the CEFR. In being successful, learners’ spoken performance should correspond with the criteria presented in the CEFR’s descriptors and scales for their current proficiency level. Employing corpus linguistics methodology, speech was chosen as a focus for this study as it i) represents the skill by which learners are most commonly judged, and ii) represents an area that has not received as much attention in corpus linguistics and learner corpus research. Via the compilation of a 70,578 token learner corpus of speaking exam data, analysis examined learners’ use of their core vocabularies and the occurrence and realisation of can-do statements for speech. The study’s research questions asked: What percentage of the words used by successful B1, B2 and C1 learners came from the first 1000 and second 1000 most frequent words in English? What were the 20 most frequent words at B1, B2 and C1 and their notable collocations, colligations and functions? What were the 20 most frequent keywords at B1, B2 and C1 and their notable collocations, colligations and functions? What were the most frequent 3- and 4-word chunks at B1, B2 and C1 and their notable collocations and functions? and What CEFR indicators are present in terms of spoken interaction, spoken production and strategies at B1, B2 and C1 and how are they realised?
Overall, the study ascertained that B1, B2 and C1 learners differed very little in their use of the 2000 most frequent words in English. Though B1 learners evidenced significantly fewer word types and tokens than their B2 and C1 counterparts, only 1 in 33 words at all three levels came from beyond the 2000 word vocabulary limit. The findings indicated that quantitative measures alone were not able to distinguish learners at different levels nor the changes for vocabulary range suggested in the CEFR. With 97% token coverage achieved, however, this core vocabulary of 2000 words did allow learners to be successful in their speech. In addition, frequent and keyword data alongside lexical chunk analysis established that lexis such as we, er, erm, think, so, like, a lot of, agree with you, exhibited several similarities and differences across the levels. They supported the argument that for learners to be successful in their speech, they need to be supplied with multifunctional lexis which not only aims to broaden their vocabularies, but which intends to deepen it too. By making learners more aware of what can be achieved with the vocabulary they already possess, transitions across proficiency levels can seem more within reach. Finally, analysis of CEFR can-do statements revealed several key points, in particular for successful pragmatics and discourse at B1, B2 and C1. It identified that the objective of interaction evolved across levels: B1 learners expressed their thoughts and opinions, B2 learners asked for the opinions of others and C1 learners, though demonstrating the same skills as B1 and B2 learners, sought mostly to elaborate more fully on the reasons for their thoughts. In terms of the combination of ideas, simplistic chains were evidenced via the use of conjunctions but whilst B1 learners concerned themselves mostly with simple addition of ideas, B2 and C1 learners looked towards utterances expressing cause-and-effect.
In sum, the study demonstrated that some of the misconceptions about learner language do have a considerable impact on learner success. Progression across proficiency levels presented itself more in the flexibility and multifunctionality of lexis, rather than its complexity or level of difficulty. It concluded that by making expectations more realistic and not by presuming that learners would do more in their speech than any native speaker, more can be learnt about what learners are able to achieve. Also, by supplementing teaching with materials based on real examples of successful learner speech, learners can be presented with more relevant, more realistic and more attainable models of language use.

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