High-Level Proficiency in Second Language Use

Project leader

Funding source

Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (RJ)

Project Details

Start date: 01/01/2006
End date: 31/12/2011
Funding: 32800000 SEK


The programme intends to investigate the cognitive/psychological and social conditions that lead to outstanding proficiency levels in a second language, as well as which aspects of the target language's discourse structure, grammar, lexicon and phonology still cause problems at these levels. The primary goal of the programme is to contribute to theory development in the area of second language acquisition, but in many cases the knowledge generated also has clear applications in language teaching and in other types of linguistic training as well as in various societal enterprises where high- level linguistic performance is required.

Today, three areas can be identified where research about advanced levels of language proficiency is in a phase of rapid theoretical development. Several of the researchers of the programme have contributed significantly to this development.

Research in the first area is based on the so called critical period hypothesis for language learning. Among the questions that have been most salient here are 1) what ultimate attainment level can be achieve given the age at which language acquisition started, 2) whether second language learners exist who started their acquisition after puberty but still attained a native-like level of proficiency, and 3) whether learners who started their acquisition in childhood uniformly reach an ultimate level of proficiency that is parallel to that of native speakers.

The second area concerns research on the systematic structural development of the second language - or so-called developmental sequences. Questions here comprise the intertwined development of grammar, lexicon and discourse during the final phases of advanced second language acquisition, i.e. how learners at this level manage or control the structural resources of the target language. Within this area a methodological break through has been possible through the development of computerised corpora over recent years.

The third area comprises research about the development of youth varieties in urban multilingual environments. What is of particular interest here is the hypothesis that these varieties are shaped the way they are for many different intertwined reasons, not primarily because some of their speakers are second language users. Much of the research undertaken in this field focuseson how adolescents' identification and positioning in the social context are both reflected in and shaped by the social/linguistic interaction they are involved in.

The first two of these areas are presently well-integrated in second language theory development, while the third one has still not had the influence that its potential could allow. The programme aims at an integrated view on advanced second language use where detailed knowledge along psychological, linguistic structural and social dimensions is uniquely allowed to inform the specific investigations that will be carried out in each part of the programme.

The programme comprises nine individual projects. The first project deals with the role of language learning aptitude for high-level second language proficiency. This research expands on earlier results by programme researchers which imply that aptitude is a decisive factor in explaining variation in ultimate attainment among older learners, but, unexpectedly, also that it plays a role among younger learners.

The second project investigates the cognitive and social conditions of a special group of advanced second language users, polyglots. In this context, polyglots are defined as language learners who have acquired at least five languages after puberty and attained an advanced level in each of them. In current research this group has only been given attention as a matter of curiosity in spite of its potential in increasing our understanding for how aptitude and motivation interact as well as the specific conditions that allow maintenance of linguistic proficiency.

The third project similarly investigates a group of second language users and a phenomenon that has so far not been attended to in research, i.e. operators with a presumed "flawless" accent in international call centres in the context of Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) operations. Such call centres are presently established in particular in South East Asia for English speaking customers but also in the Baltic countries for Scandinavian customers. Research questions include the extent to which call centre staff (are expected to) use a native-like pronunciation, and in particular the sociolinguistic conditions relevant for the business.

Project number four investigates Swedish university students' receptive proficiency in the context of their participation in educational programmes conducted in English. The understanding of course texts among Swedish students studying biology and economy will be compared to how native English speaking students understand the same texts. In this context, a specific issue that has not been dealt with in detail in earlier research will be investigated, namely the extent to which the receptive ability can be native-like while the productive ability has still not reached this level, something that is taken as a prerequisite in the actual educational context.

Projects five to seven all work with data from large computerised corpora. Project five investigates in detail a number of phenomena which in earlier research by programme researchers have manifested themselves as characteristic problems for advanced second language users. Such problems comprise the interaction between traditional grammatical phenomena and discourse, discourse organisation in speech planning and expressions for modality. The project investigates Swedish university students' advanced second language use of French and Spanish.

The sixth project studies second language use of formulaic structures, a phenomenon that is one of major stumbling-blocks even at, or specifically at, advanced levels of proficiency. Among other things the project investigates which role informal learning contexts as compared to formal classroom contexts play for the acquisition of formulaic structures. This project investigates Swedish university students' advanced second language use of English, French, and Spanish.

Project seven investigates how the lexicon develops among second language learners, in particular at advanced levels. The project aims at characterising lexical differences between advanced second language users and native speakers in both quantitative and qualitative terms. It works with Swedish university students' advanced second language use of French and Italian.

Project eight concerns attitudes to and opinions about youth varieties of Swedish in multilingual environments. In particular investigations will deal with which (types of) varieties different groups of speakers distinguish, what linguistic features are perceived as belonging to these varieties, and what attitudes are linked to the varying usages. Both speakers who use these varieties themselves and speakers who have had more or less contact experience with them will be investigated.

Project nine finally investigates the social conditions that are relevant for language use among multilingual adolescents in different socio-cultural contexts, urban, suburban and rural. Research questions concern how the adolescents' experiences from different areas such as the school, peer group, leisure time industry, and internet motivate them in their acquisition of Swedish and other languages. A particular focus will be on how trans-national and post-national ideologies, which may be different in the actual adolescents' experiences than in those of monolingual Swedish adolescents, influence their language acquisition and language use. These issues will be interpreted, among other things, in an ethnic integration perspective.

Last updated on 2017-24-03 at 12:58