Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Exploring Oral Proficiency Profiles of Heritage Speakers of Russian and Spanish

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Exploring Oral Proficiency Profiles of Heritage Speakers of Russian and Spanish

Article excerpt


Ample anecdotal information exists about the oral proficiency profiles of heritage lan- guage learners (HLLs), and it is sometimes assumed that HLLs are capable of accom- plishing a full range of linguistic tasks because of their authentic-sounding lan- guage and apparent ease of communication. However, such assumptions are not sup- ported by the broad spectrum in actual pro- ficiency levels among HLLs-a range that includes those who understand but do not speak the language, those who can effective- ly carry out an assortment of basic daily tasks, and those who can use the language accurately and appropriately across a range of sophisticated professional and personal tasks and contexts. Given the complexities associated with teaching and evaluating HLLs, this study was carried out by the ACTFL in conjunction with the National Heritage Language Resource Center (NHLRC) at the University of California- Los Angeles (UCLA) to gather reliable data about the range and variety of profiles of HLLs' oral proficiency.

Review of Literature

Assessing the proficiency of HLLs is a par- ticularly challenging task, and within the existing literature, a number of assessment measures have been considered. Fairclough, Belpoliti, and Bermejo (2010) reported that a large number of American universities continue to use second language (L2) assess- ments as placement exams for incoming students in Spanish heritage language pro- grams. In addition, while self-assessment may not provide the most robust measure by itself, many heritage language programs use self-assessment or self-assessment in combination with oral interviews as a means of placing students or as a method of pre- liminary screening for separating HLLs from L2 students. Carreira and Kagan (2011), e.g., reported that of the 1,732 HLLs of 22 languages in their study, almost 68% felt that they were advanced or close to native speak- ers in listening comprehension and 44% felt they were advanced or native-like in speak- ing; in comparison, a much smaller number (27 and 19%, respectively) answered that their reading and writing proficiencies were advanced or native-like (pp. 40-64).

Shortly after the development of the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) protocol and rating system, Valdés (1989) suggested that using the OPI to assess HLLs may not be appropriate because the test was originally designed to assess L2 learners who started learning the language from zero. Valdés also argued that OPI testers may unfairly penalize speakers of nonstandard or stigmatized language varieties, as did Draper and Hicks (2000), who stated that the use of the OPI for Spanish HLLs "has the potentialtoleadtothedenigrationofa rating based on the variety of the language spoken" (p. 32).

However, in 1995, Valdés also asserted (p. 322) that proficiency assessments for HLLs must provide information about the range of functions that can be successfully carried out by bilingual speakers in different contexts and, in 2001, the Heritage Language Research Priorities Conference Report con- cluded that existing "assessment instruments should be analyzed and reviewed or new in- struments devised" (UCLA, 2001, p. 16) to assess the competencies of HLLs, including oral competency. In an investigation of the oral proficiency of Russian HLLs for place- ment purposes, Kagan and Friedman (2003) concluded that the OPI could be effectively used in the case of Russian HLLs and by extension perhaps also in those languages that have fewer manifested dialects or dialec- tal differences. Similarly, Martin (2010) ar- gued that, since both the ACTFL proficiency scale and the ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) scale are based on functional communicative ability and are totally inde- pendent of a specific curriculum or how or where a language was acquired or learned, standard instruments such as the OPI could serve as an effective general assessment tool for any adult learner, including HLLs. …

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