Feb 18, 2011

Paths to Proficiency

Summary of my talk at the MOFET Institute on 15 February 2011

Post-intermediate EFL learners already have a command of grammar structures, reasonable vocabulary, with particularly good receptive skills, and can generally communicate well in a variety of situations. What they need now is to extend the range of vocabulary to be able to convey subtler meanings and use language appropriately, and make the all-too-difficult transition from receptive to productive use. There are several paths they can take to improve their English language proficiency and move beyond the notorious "intermediate plateau". In my workshop I highlighted the following areas which often pose difficulty for post-intermediate learners:

1. conceptual metaphors
2. formulaic language
3. multi-part verbs
4. collocational competence
These areas of difficulty have been pointed out by a number of studies which compared native-speaker and non-native speaker corpora and which were referred to in my talk.

First of all, learners often know the concrete meanings of many English words, for example "flow", "drown" and "freeze", but may not be aware that these words can all be used to talk about money ("cash flow", "drowning in debt", "wage freeze"). The explicit teaching of conceptual metaphors (Money = Liquid, Responsibility = Weight etc) can help learners unlock the metaphorical uses of the lexical items they already know and increase their lexical repertoire.

Most language teachers often hear learners speaking English without mistakes yet sounding unnatural or foreign-like. This is often due to the fact that they lack shorter, economical ways of expressing ideas native speakers are used to, such as "Long time no see", "See what I mean?", "My point exactly" etc. These pre-fabricated, "ready-made" chunks, according to some claims, account for 70% of the native speaker production.

Another important feature of the post-intermediate learner interlanguage is under-use of multi-part verbs. This has been documented by a number of corpus studies which showed that L2 English speakers tend to avoid multi-part verbs in their productive language use. Strategies of dealing with avoidance behaviour will be suggested.

Finally, I suggested that "collocational competence", the term coined by Jimmie Hill, who claims that we should aim at increasing learners' competence will the lexis they already know, lies at the centre of language proficiency. The lack of collocational competence may actually account for all of the areas of learners' difficulty mentioned above, which leads us to conclude that learning collocations is the single most important priority for our target audience.

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