Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Using Speaking Test Data to Define the Advanced Proficiency Level for L2 Arabic Speakers

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Using Speaking Test Data to Define the Advanced Proficiency Level for L2 Arabic Speakers

Article excerpt

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Introduction

While learners' developing proficiency levels across the three communicative modes (interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational) are undoubtedly intertwined to varying degrees, second language (L2) learners are often particularly focused on acquiring a high level of speaking proficiency (Harlow & Muyskens, 1994; Walker, 1973). Rivera and Matsuzawa (2007) found that speaking was the number one foreign language learning goal identified by the 48 learners whom they surveyed, including students of both commonly taught and some less commonly taught languages. Studies of learners of Arabic have also reported similarly high levels of interest in developing speaking abilities (Belnap, 1987; Husseinali, 2006; National Middle East Language Resource Center, 2011; Vivrette, 2010). This may be due in no small part to the perceived relationship between learning Arabic and securing employment after graduation: Winke and Weger-Guntharp (2006) surveyed 326 learners of Arabic across 11 institutions and found that an interest in using Arabic in future professional pursuits was one of the motivations respondents cited most frequently. On the National Middle East Language Resource Center's 2011 survey of 1,055 Arabic students enrolled in language courses in the United States, 64% reported agreement with the statement "I am determined to achieve a level of proficiency in Arabic that would allow me to function in it comfortably in my professional activities" (p. 4). This clearly indicates students' desire to reach a high level of functional ability, although it is unclear what professions and related levels of language proficiency they were imagining when responding to this statement. When setting expected language proficiency goals, many U.S.-based foreign language programs refer to the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines (Norris & Pfeiffer, 2003). Based on these guidelines, the ACTFL Advanced level is thought to represent the threshold at which learners are able to use their language outside the classroom in a professional capacity (Liskin-Gasparro, 1993),1 although Swender (2003) noted that in some professions, a proficiency level of Intermediate Mid or Intermediate High may be sufficient.

ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interviews (OPIs), or the computer-based version, the OPIc, are widely used to evaluate speaking skill in foreign languages in secondary and university-level programs (Norris & Pfeiffer, 2003). With respect to Arabic, the OPI is the most widely used means of evaluating speaking ability (Eisele, 2006). ACTFL-certified testers conduct the interview with test takers following standard protocols, with 95% of such interviews conducted over the telephone, and the resulting speech samples are rated independently and separately by two testers (Swender, 2003). The present study examined the quantity and quality of vocabulary use among L2 speakers of Arabic using measures of speech rate and lexical diversity on samples taken from recordings of ACTFL OPIs. As a mixed-methods study, it used quantitative measures of vocabulary production and lexical diversity and a qualitative review of advanced learners' descriptions to construct a better understanding of what L2 learners at this level are capable of producing in response to OPI tester questions and follow-up probes.

Literature Review

Vocabulary

Much research attention has been devoted to the factors that predict the ability to use language for real purposes. A number of studies have focused on the importance of vocabulary across various languages (Ellis, 2013; Macaro, 2003; see also Sparks, 2015). The persistent interest in vocabulary is unsurprising, as vocabulary recognition and production have been shown to correlate with achievement in both first language (L1) and L2 learning (Daller & Xue, 2007; Schmitt, 2010; Zareva, 2005).

Crossley, Salsbury, McNamara, and Jarvis (2011) tested whether computerized lexical indexes based on vocabulary breadth, depth of knowledge, and lexical retrieval and processing ability could predict human ratings of L2 English speech, using samples from 29 learners with varied L1s. …

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