Linguistic complexity, accuracy and fluency in second language acquisition

Project Details


Research in second langauge acquisition is faced with two paradoxes (Ellis 1994:107). The first, the paradox of formal instruction, concerns the complex relationship between explicit and implicit knowledge in second language acquisition (SLA). This paradox is currently being investigated in two FWO-sponsored research projects carried out by the Research Group on Foreign Language Learning and Teaching (FLLT) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Project 1: Linguistic and psycholinguistic aspects of formal language instruction and their roles in the foreign language learning process, project supervisor M. Pierrard; Project 2: Linguistic and psycholinguistic determinants of the efficiency of explicit instruction in the process of second language acquisition, project supervisors: M. Pierrard and A. Housen). With the project proposed here, this research group wishes to expand the scope of its research to include the second paradox, here called the fluency-accuracy-complexity paradox of second language acquisition (cf. Ellis 1994). This paradox entails that the three central parameters of language proficiency - fluency, accuracy and complexity- seem to develop independently in the process of second language learning. Some second language (L2) learners develop high levels of fluency but low levels of complexity and accuracy in their L2 performance; conversely, others learn to produce accurate and complex utterances in their L2 but their production lacks fluency.
The research project proposed here will attempt to find a theoretically and empirically motivated explanation for this paradox by studying the development of these three parameters in the language production of Dutch-speaking learners of French and English. The empirical findings will be related to three types of factors which form the key components of an integrated model of second language acquisition and processing. These components are the following:
(a) Contextual factors: the quantity and quality of L2 input and output. This causes variation in fluency, complexity and accuracy between different groups of L2 learners (intergroup variation).
(b) Individual factors: personality features (e.g. degree of extraversion) and socio-psychological features (e.g. strength and direction of language motivation) of the individual learner. These factors are responsible for individual variation between learners of the same group (inter-individual variation).
(c) Psycholinguistic factors: the cognitive and psycholinguistic processes and mechanisms that operate in the acquisition and processing of L2 knowledge. We hypothesise that these factors are responsible for the asynchronous development of accuracy, fluency and complexity in the interlangauge performance of individual learners (intra-individual variation).
The focus in this research project will primarily be on the third component, i.e., the role of psycholinguistic factors in the development of linguistic L2 proficiency. It is hypothesized that the development of language proficiency involves four processes: acquisition, implementation/activation, automatisation/proceduralisation, restructuring.

1. Acquisition of new linguistic knowledge (mental representations: symbols, rules, structures) through analysis of the L2 input and the integration of the relevant information as declarative knowledge in the long-term memory.
2. Implementation (activation) of linguistic knowledge for language performance (production and comprehension). According to Levelt (1989) and De Bot (1992) language production involves the working of three components: a conceptualizer, a formulator and an articulator. These components operate on the basis of procedural knowledge.
3. Automatisation of originally declarative knowledge so that it becomes available as procedural knowledge. Several stages and subprocesses are distinguished here, such as composition (compilation and proceduralization) and tuning (generalisation and discrimination) (Anderson 1983, 1993). Automatisation/proceduralisation frees processing capacity which then becomes available for acquiring and implementing new knowledge (McLaughlin 1987; Van Patten 1987).
4. Restructuring of existing procedural knowledge as a result of acquisition, implementation and automatisation of new declarative knowledge (Mclaughlin 1987, 1990; Karmiloff-Smith 1986).
Effective start/end date1/01/0331/12/06

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  • Philosophy, ethics and religious studies


  • roman culture