Proficiency Testing and Measuring Fluency

In this Video Sky and Evan demonstrate how the quest for rapid fluency can be measured in a systematic, universal, and accessible way using the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Oral Proficiency Interview (ACTFL.org OPI).

The WAYK system is based on the notion that fluency can be attained rapidly, passed on easily, and measured scientifically.  Our efforts to promote transparent testing and rating must have a universal scale or calibrated measurement to critically assess our efforts and expenditures in time, human resources, and budget.  If we find  a more efficient route to fluency (both linguistic and cultural) then we must be prepared to discuss, improve, and adapt our approaches to creating vibrant healthy language communities.

We cannot understate the importance of community training in the ACTFL testing system.

Disclaimer: WAYK is not affiliated with, or supported by, ACTFL… We are just HUGE fans!

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9 thoughts on “Proficiency Testing and Measuring Fluency

  1. Any system of tests and testing quickly becomes an end in itself for teachers and pupils alike. With language, students confuse ‘making the grade’ with ‘real-world’ ability in and use of the target language. When the language is ‘little-used’ or revived or not essential for communication because its speakers are all bilingual, then its ‘real-world’ domain will be highly constrained, sometimes entirely contrived, so the danger of tests taking over is almost inevitable.

  2. What strikes me about this example, as a complete outsider, is that I see a ‘white man’ judging a ‘native’ and saying ‘you got that wrong’. Isn’t this the very essence of colonialism? Who gave you the right to judge other people?

  3. The nice thing about ACTFL is that it focuses on real world ability and the layers of conversations that one is able to have in the target language. In the case of language revitalization, focusing on the aspects of the language that elicit that everyday model of fluency helps create an environment to speak where contrivance isn’t an issue. And even if these situations are contrived, that isn’t a bad thing. What is important about a test like ACTFL is that it isn’t engaging the teacher or the student in that traditional dichotomy, and again, helps create a real world environment to engage in.

    It’s a tricky situation that you describe. And very reductive. I’m sorry that that is the way that you see that video. Sitting in that chair across from Evan in the video and knowing him for the past three years and learning from him, I can say that he was not judging me (as a Native person) or has ever judged me, and I haven’t seen him judge any one or promote some sort of colonialist agenda. It’s the complete opposite. Our roles exist as the language learner and the fluent speaker and I welcome and insight that he has into the language that will help me speak this or any other language more fluently and eloquently.

    There is a danger in quickly labeling things as “colonized” or describing situations as the “essence of colonialism.” With the work that we do, those concepts are very much on our minds and affect the way we interact with other cultures and languages, western, indigenous, or anything else. Every situation is a learning situation, and with one of the core techniques of WAYK being “How Fascinating,” we aim to navigate these issues in the best and healthiest ways possible.

    I appreciate and thank you for your comments and the position you provide, and if there’s anything that we, as WAYK, can take and learn from them, we will.

    sky

  4. Well I may very well have misjudged through lack of context, in which case I appologise. If someone claims to speak a language that I know, then I can within a few minutes of conversation reach a fair judgement of their abilities (up to my own level). However: (1) that is only my personal opinion; and (2) any other speaker could make their own independent evaluation with no great effort. Why then is there any need for formal tests. The only people who really care if you are competent in language X are people who actually themselves use that language, and they can easily check you out when they meet you. And if they never do meet you then it hardly matters.

    Intergenerational transmission of the Cornish language ceased early in the eighteenth century and it’s probable that no fluent speakers survived beyond 1800. There are however extensive written sources which have allowed the language to be ‘revived’ over the past century. I put revived in quotes though because it is a language people learn in classes, generally as adults and often in middle age. Occasionally a family will speak it to their kids, but with no natural community of speakers beyond the household it can’t really play any part in their social lives as young adults. The movement is dominated by schoolteachers and a system of graded tests is well established. For many years people have gone to classes, learned the language and passed their tests … but if you profiled Cornish speakers and didn’t know the history you’d think it was a ‘dying language’, that is most speakers middle-aged or beyond. All that has been achieved by decades of effort is to perpetuate this ‘dead-and-alive’ situation.

    Contrived. What I was thinking was this. It takes two to have a conversation, so if in a given place, lets say half the population speak the local minority language and everyone is bilingual, then only about one in four conversations you’d hear in the street would be in the local language, not half. For half the conversations to be in the local language you’d need maybe 70% of the population fluent. And as the proportion falls, the public visibility (audibility?) plummets and the language soon becomes invisible. The general population will then have no interest in learning it because as they perceive the world, “nobody speaks it any more”. There can be hundreds or even thousands of speakers, but if they are only a tiny fraction of the total population they will be invisible. They can only interact in the language in contrived situations which always feel a bit artificial. Even relative strong minority languages with official support (e.g. Welsh) have this problem to some extent.

    I welcome you thoughts …

  5. With the need for formal tests, it definitely is tied to the politics of language revitalization. Language programs need teachers and a way to evaluate those teachers and give them whatever certification needed to teach in a school. And teaching an endangered language in a school is a huge step in creating awareness for the status of that language and gain support for its revitalization. Also, for me getting my foreign language requirement met using an endangered indigenous language was very important to me in that it does reinforce that there still is an indigenous presence and it is a valid presence. Grants that support a tribe’s efforts for revitalization projects have to have a way to show progress to continue receiving support. So rather than have a traditional sort of testing system to rely upon to attempt to quantify that data, it is great to have a system like ACTFL that basically encourages conversational fluency over memorization of words and phrases, and hopefully more communities will choose that model.

    And the point you made, which I totally understand:
    “The only people who really care if you are competent in language X are people who actually themselves use that language, and they can easily check you out when they meet you. And if they never do meet you then it hardly matters.”

    But if the number of speakers in the language doesn’t allow such a passive relationship, then the focus doesn’t become one’s own personal fluency, but how one engages in the language and perpetuates a higher level of fluency. The use of ACTFL in WAYK isn’t to test people to say that they are level x in language y, but to help engage the student in their learning and to help demystify language learning, as well as having tools to teach others.

    From what you say about the Cornish language, it is a very similar situation to that which I was talking about with Indigenous languages here. There are people that want these languages to live, and memorizing word lists and simple phrases isn’t going to cut it, and that is unfortunately what a lot of people associate with fluency.

    I do understand your point about the contrived situation, and that is an issue. I think the issue of “nobody speaks it” is an interesting one and I wonder how much of it stems from the “value” placed on that culture by the dominate one and how much work is perceived in having to learn a language. It can be a dreadful experience and just time spent sitting in classrooms reading out of text books. Contrived scenarios and conversations are everywhere in every kind of learning, but the key is to give the students the ability to expand on those conversations in ways that engages them while being guided by the teacher; avoiding grammatical concepts they’re not ready for and teaching them the ones that they are and will help them learn the next piece, while keeping things fun and interesting, which is what WAYK is all about. While you can’t teach someone that doesn’t want to learn, you can give them tools and techniques that puts them in control over their learning, and that might make all the difference.

  6. Just my 2 cents/pence/kuruş…

    It’s not just about having people who know the language. It’s about having the environment to speak it in. This is why conventional language lessons simply don’t cut it.

    I’m a bilingual living in Turkey. I’m English, but my wife is Turkish and so are 90% of my friends. The remaining 10% are also British expats. When we have guests over at our place the conversation is in Turkish, of course. Funny thing is, when I turn to one of my English friends, even if I’m saying something just to him, if he has fluent Turkish I’ll speak to him in Turkish without realising it. Its the same reason first generation immigrant kids often don’t achieve proficiency in their parents’ tongue, because it isn’t the dominant language of their lives.

    For a language like Cornish where there are no noticeable physical differences between a Cornishman or woman and us bog standard English, it doesn’t matter if 10%, 20% or even 30% of the townspeople are fluent in Cornish. The number of times, say, two strangers in the street will ask each other something in Cornish will be zero.

    Part of the reason I’m so excited about WAYK (I’ve only just discovered it this week) is the “community” dimension. It’s an inclusive, enjoyable, social activity rather than dry, taxing, one-way, one-level-only, write-down-two-words-and-go-home language lesson. In other words it doesn’t just give people the skills, it gives them the environment to use them.

    Language courses, as their name suggests, ‘run their course’, after which any progress fizzles because there is no environment in which to use the language. I see potential in WAYK, on the other hand, to be a perennial local pastime akin to, say, a dancing club, with just a smidgen of funding and a bit of community spirit. If you can keep the ball rolling, it can become an epicentre for poetry readings, amateur dramatics, and so on. You’re not just learning words and phrases to mutter into the void, you’re communicating with other people, which I think makes absolute sense.

    • With regard to Cornish, a few years ago at least, there were so few fluent speakers that we mostly knew one another by sight, so people did indeed sometimes meet by chance in the street and speak Cornish, it happened to me on a number of occasions. I can’t really comment on the situation at the moment as I’ve been a bit out of the loop for the past few years. There are supposed to be more speakers now so they probably don’t all know one another, OTOH there are more overall and at least some of them know one another.

      There is however a *big* problem with language teaching at least in English speaking countries. Languages are taught as academic subjects, like say history or maths, not as practical skills like say driving a car. If driving lessons were like language classes then after several years of tuition you’d still be doing three-point turns and the like in the college car park or some other ‘safe’ controlled environment. Whereas in fact, once you’ve got basic control of the vehicle the instructor takes you out on the public road. First on quiet stretches, later where there’s more traffic, intersections, lights and so on. You learn out in the real world. Now the point is with driving a car there are real risks to life and limb involved, whereas when learning a language the worst that can happen is you make a fool of yourself. So why aren’t learners taken out to environments where the language is spoken, or if that’s not feasible, then at least saturated with media (films, TV etc.) in the target language? I’m part way through a ponderous report about how Welsh learners are often unable to connect with the local Welsh-speaking communities in their area. In Ireland apparently the situation is even worse. Anyway I’ve said enough 😉

  7. It’s not that some language teachers haven’t been trying! My professional organization and I have been trying to change the language learning experience for learners and make it more accessible and user-friendly. I never dreamed when we started this project, all the resistance we would face. I think it is a case of “Believe it and you will see it!” We have to start visualizing the experience and keep proving to learners and the school community that there is a better way to learn. All these “academic habits” of waiting for the teacher to teach it and using the textbook as the source of the target language. It is also what many parents hold as beliefs. “Well, when I was in school we had to…” We know now from brain scans and other research that language fluency doesn’t occur with one set activity. It has to be integrated into the learners life. I encourage you to support ACTFL and other organizations that have our learners’ best interests at heart. Curricula for languages is everywhere now via web access. Why are we still buying huge printed textbooks? Direct those funds to innovative resources and dynamic proficiency testing for all modes of communication.

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