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9.7: Gaining proficiency

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    • Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi
    • eCampusOntario

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    Gaining Proficiency

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    Learning a language as an adult is a lot of work! It takes a huge amount of effort and practice to construct another grammar in your mind. Many later language learners often feel like they never quite reach the level of fluency they’d like. Given everything we’ve learned about language so far, do you think that notion of “fluency” is maybe a little problematic? Who decides what counts as fluent? What level of proficiency in a later language is enough to count as proficient or fluent?

    As we saw in the previous sections, adult language learning is deeply intertwined with the issue of language standards. Recall from Chapter 1 that a standardized variety of a language isn’t any better than other varieties: it’s just the variety that has higher social status, and has more grammar books and dictionaries associated with it. Language teachers usually understand their job to be helping adult learners meet the standard. In fact, the government of Canada publishes standards, known as Benchmarks, for English and French proficiency. (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2012; Citoyenneté et Immigration Canada, 2012) These benchmarks define, in a lot of detail, what counts as Basic, Intermediate or Advanced proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing the two official languages. Likewise, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages publishes Proficiency Guidelines (ACTFL, 2012) with five levels, the two highest of which are Superior and Distinguished. The value judgment is right there in the name!

    As soon as you label some language users as “superior”, you’re automatically implying that some other users are “inferior”, aren’t you? It’s easy to see how the accent prejudices we learned about in Chapter 2 arise. It’s a short leap between perceiving someone as an inferior language user and viewing them as an inferior human.

    The notion of fluency is even more complicated for Indigenous languages. On the one hand, many learners want to use their language in a way that is consistent with the traditional, ancestral form. On the other hand, a language that is in regular use inevitably changes over time (see Chapter 10). Megan Lukaniec is working with archival documents to reawaken Wendat, the language of her Nation, the Huron-Wendat. She describes the tension this way:

    “In the case of reawakening dormant languages, since there are no speakers to learn from, there is simultaneously a pressure to remain as true as possible to the language as it is found in the archival documentation and a freedom to forge a new path for the language and its emerging speakers.”
    (Lukaniec & Palakurthy, 2022, p. 347)

    Wesley Leonard, a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, is likewise working to reawaken the Tribe’s sleeping language myaamia. While his work relies crucially on the archival documentation by non-Indigenous linguists, he points out the irony that the documents themselves represent yet another reenacting of colonial power, arguing, “part of colonialism entails socially dominant groups asserting the right to determine what counts as valid knowledge”. (Leonard, 2020, p. e285) In other words, the definition of fluency or proficiency in myaamia, and many other Indigenous languages, depends on how colonial linguists have documented and defined the grammar of the language.

    To add one more dimension to this complicated notion of proficiency, standardizing documents can also be useful in the work of learning and teaching Indigenous languages. Some language-learning programs like the Kanyen’kéha school Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa, use benchmarks like ACTFL’s Proficiency Guidelines or the First Nations Language Benchmarks (Johnson, 2013; Miller, 2004) as goals for learners to work towards.

    As we saw above, different learners have different goals and motivations for learning a language as an adult. Maybe your goal is to read scholarly work, to watch a film without subtitles, to have conversations with your relatives, or to pass a test. Maybe standardized benchmarks will help you reach that goal, and maybe they won’t. Whatever your goals are, you’re the one doing the work of learning a new language, so you get to decide what counts as proficient for your purposes. If you’ve learned enough to watch that film or talk to your aunties, then you get to call yourself proficient!

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)


    American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. (2012). ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012.

    Citizenship and Immigration Canada. (2012). Canadian Language Benchmarks: English as a Second Language for Adults.

    Citoyenneté et Immigration Canada. (2012). Niveaux de compétence linguistique canadiens: Français langue seconde pour adultes.

    Czaykowska-Higgins, E., Burton, S., McIvor, O., & Marinakis, A. (2017). Supporting Indigenous language revitalisation through collaborative post-secondary proficiency-building curriculum. In W. Y. Leonard & H. De Korne (Eds.), Language Documentation and Description (Vol. 14, pp. 136–159). EL Publishing.

    Davis, J. L. (2017). Resisting rhetorics of language endangerment: Reclamation through Indigenous language survivance. In W. Y. Leonard & H. De Korne (Eds.), Language Documentation and Description (Vol. 14, pp. 37–58). EL Publishing.

    Johnson, M. (2013). First Nations Language Assessment Benchmarks (FNLAB).

    Leonard, W. Y. (2017). Producing language reclamation by decolonising ‘language.’ In W. Y. Leonard & H. De Korne (Eds.), Language Documentation and Description (Vol. 14, pp. 15–36). EL Publishing.

    Leonard, W. Y. (2019, September 19). Indigenous Languages through a Reclamation Lens. Anthropology News.

    Leonard, W. Y. (2020). Insights from Native American Studies for theorizing race and racism in linguistics (Response to Charity Hudley, Mallinson, and Bucholtz). Language, 96(4), e281–e291.

    Lukaniec, M., & Palakurthy, K. (2022). Additional Language Learning in the Context of Indigenous Language Reclamation. In K. Geeslin, The Routledge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition and Sociolinguistics (1st ed., pp. 341–355). Routledge.

    Miller, J. W. (2004). Assessing First Nations language proficiency [EdD Thesis, University of British Columbia].

    Cognitive Processes in Language Learning

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    So far we’ve focused a lot on the social side of adult language learning. This section considers the psychological side: what cognitive processes occur when you’re learning a later language? Just like in L1 learning, the overall goal is to construct a mental grammar for the language. What has to happen for the mind to arrive at a useable grammar?

    One crucial ingredient seems so obvious that we might even overlook it: a language learner needs input: they need to see the language signed or written, or hear it spoken. The more input, the better, but input isn’t just about quantity – the learner also needs the input to be used communicatively, so that the mind links the forms of the language (the signs, sounds, words and phrases) with a meaningful message.

    There’s quite a lot of debate in the literature as to whether the patterns of a later language are learned from overt instruction, or unconsciously from the language input. Researchers in this subfield often contrast declarative knowledge with procedural knowledge (Levelt, 1989; Paradis, 2009; Ullman, 2005). Declarative knowledge consists of things you know explicitly, such as your postal code, how to do laundry, or how to get to your Linguistics classroom on campus. On the other hand, procedural knowledge is unconscious – it’s the kind of knowledge that allows you to recognize your sibling even if you haven’t seen them in months, or to shift your weight so you don’t lose your balance when you’re climbing stairs. (In the Exercise section at the end of this chapter, you’ll think about which parts of your grammar are declarative knowledge and which are procedural.)

    Regardless of whether your mind is learning the grammar implicitly or explicitly, the input is only useful if your mind can process it. When you first start learning a language as an adult, you can probably only pay attention to a small part of the input. Here are a couple examples of languages that are probably unfamiliar to most of you:

    • a user of Auslan (Australian Sign Language) describing an event happening in Melbourne in January 2022 [YouTube video], and
    • a user of Kaurna (an Indigenous language of South Australia) introducing himself on the radio [Audio at First Languages Australia].

    Unless you know some Auslan or some Kaurna, you probably can’t make much use of the input: you can’t recognize individual words or morphemes, and maybe you can’t even tell where words begin and end. What these two examples illustrate is that an adult learner’s intake is often considerably less than what’s available in the input. Your mind can only construct a grammar from its intake: the language input that it actually processes. And it can only process a limited amount at a time because your attention and working memory have a finite capacity.

    Because processing constraints limit the intake a learner can obtain from the input, many adult learners’ early grammars consist disproportionately of content words, rather than function words or inflectional morphemes. When you’re trying to understand or express a certain idea, the semantic content of nouns and verbs gives you more crucial information than, say, conjunctions or tense morphemes!

    Limitations on processing capacity also affect how adults produce the language they’re learning. When adult learners of signed languages are starting to sign, they tend to make systematic simplifications in their utterances. The most common articulation errors are in handshape, especially in signs produced with two hands, and all the more in signs where the two hands move independently (Marshall, 2020; Ortega & Morgan, 2015). Notice that these errors happen even though adults usually have a fully developed motor system: it’s not that the learners haven’t yet mastered the control of their articulators, it’s that they haven’t yet mastered the complex phonology of the language they’re learning.

    For both comprehension and production, gaining proficiency in a later language involves moving from conscious, effortful processing to rapid, automatic processing. And that takes practice – lots and lots of practice. The only way to build up robust neural pathways in the brain for the new grammar is to use the language. At first, an adult learner’s grammar is likely to include a lot of memorized phrases. To develop a grammar that can be used productively, generatively, you’ll want to practice using the language in complex, naturalistic settings, not just the structured dialogues of a classroom (Götz, 2013).


    When you’re learning a later language, there’s a period during which you have some degree of competence in producing and understanding, but your grammar is still quite different from that of an L1 user. This not-yet-fluent grammar is called interlanguage (Selinker, 1972), and some researchers have argued that interlanguages have a lot in common with each other, no matter what your L1 is, and no matter what later language you’re learning (Klein & Perdue, 1997). The idea is that the process of learning a later language is similar across many languages because the human mind is similar.

    This interlanguage phase has some interesting consequences when it comes to speech accents. A team of researchers in Chicago worked with international students who had just arrived in the USA to begin graduate programs (Bent & Bradlow, 2003). The students had arrived from many different countries and spoke many different languages as their L1. The researchers asked these adult English learners to record a set of simple English sentences, and had some L1 English speakers do the same. Then they mixed the sentences with white noise, played them back to a variety of listeners, and asked the listeners to write down what they heard.

    For each talker, the researchers calculated an intelligibility score. The word intelligibility sounds like it refers to some objective, acoustic measure of speech clarity, but in this case what it means is how many errors listeners made in writing down what a talker said. If listeners make few errors, you have a high intelligibility score, and if listeners make a lot of mistakes, your intelligibility score is low.

    The obvious prediction is that that the L1 English speakers would have the highest intelligibility scores. And that was partly true: for L1 English listeners, the L1 English talkers were the most intelligible. But that was not the case for the later learners! When the listeners were adult learners of English with L1s as diverse as Bulgarian, Dutch, Greek, Hindi, Spanish, and many others, the late-learning English talkers were more intelligible than the L1 English talkers! Bent and Bradlow (2003) called this effect the “interlanguage speech intelligibility benefit” (2003, p. 1608). They argue that, because the effect was observed even when the talker and listener had unrelated L1s, the benefit is probably not due to similarities in the L1s, but due to shared experience in learning English as a later language – in other words, the talker and listener probably have some common properties in their interlanguage.

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)


    Bent, T., & Bradlow, A. R. (2003). The interlanguage speech intelligibility benefit. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 114(3), 1600–1610.

    Expression Australia. (2022, January 4). Rainbow Project Midsumma Video.

    Gambay: Australian First Languages Map. (n.d.). Retrieved July 5, 2022, from

    Götz, S. (2013). Fluency in Native And Nonnative English Speech. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

    Klein, W., & Perdue, C. (1997). The Basic Variety (or: Couldn’t natural languages be much simpler?). Second Language Research, 13(4), 301–347.

    Levelt, W. J. M. (1989). Speaking: From intention to articulation. MIT Press.

    Marshall, C., Bel, A., Gulamani, S., & Morgan, G. (2020). How are signed languages learned as second languages? Language and Linguistics Compass, e12403.

    Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa. (n.d.). Retrieved August 18, 2022, from

    Ortega, G., & Morgan, G. (2015). Phonological Development in Hearing Learners of a Sign Language: The Influence of Phonological Parameters, Sign Complexity, and Iconicity. Language Learning, 65(3), 660–688.

    Paradis, M. (2009). Declarative and Procedural Determinants of Second Languages (Studies in Bilingualism Vol. 40). John Benjamins Publishing Company.

    Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. IRAL : International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 10(3), 209–231.

    Tavakoli, P., & Wright, C. (2020). Second Language Speech Fluency: From Research to Practice (1st ed.). Cambridge University Press.

    Ullman, M. T. (2005). A cognitive neuroscience perspective on second language acquisition: The declarative/procedural model. In C. Sanz (Ed.), Mind and Context in Adult Second Language Acquisition: Methods, Theory, and Practice (pp. 141–178). Georgetown University Press.

    Learning a New Modality

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    One of the biggest differences between first language learning and later language learning is that, when you start learning a language as an adult, you already know at least one other language! The mental grammar of your L1 can influence the mental grammar that you’re developing in your later language: this is called transfer (Weinreich, 1953). If the grammar of your L1 includes a structure that’s similar to your later language, your learning might be facilitated by positive transfer: your mind can transfer that part of your L1 grammar and apply it to your later language.

    But if the structures in the grammar that you’re learning are different from those in your L1, then you might experience negative transfer (also known as interference). In this case, the grammatical knowledge from your L1 could make it more difficult to learn the structures of your new language. And of course, you might experience both positive and negative transfer to your new language from various elements of your L1 grammar.

    Suppose the new language you’re learning also has a new modality. Maybe your L1 is spoken and the new language you’re learning is signed. You might think there wouldn’t be much transfer from one grammar to the other, but there’s evidence that, for adult learners of signed language, iconity can have both positive and negative transfer effects in their developing grammar.


    A word’s iconicity has to do with the similarity between the form and the meaning of a word.

    For a lot of words, the relationship between form and meaning is entirely arbitrary. For example, the word for the vegetable that’s called onion [ʌnjən] in English is Zwiebel [tsvibəl] in German and κρεμμύδι [kɾɛmydi] in Greek. There’s nothing particularly oniony about the spoken forms of any of those three words: the connection between the sounds and the meaning is arbitrary.

    But some words have a form that isn’t totally arbitrary; instead it has some iconic relationship with the word’s meaning. In spoken languages, we sometimes observe iconicity in the forms of words that refer to sounds. Here are some examples from Japanese (Dingemanse et al., 2015)

    [koɾo] コロ a small light object rolling in a single circle
    [koɾokoɾo] コロコロ one or more small light objects rolling around continuously
    [ɡoɾo] ゴロ a large irregular object rolling in a single circle
    [ɡoɾogoɾo] ゴロゴロ one or more large irregular objects rolling around continuously

    These words illustrate two elements of iconicity: the reduplication of the form iconically represents the repetition of the sound, and the the distinction between voiceless [koɾo] and voiced [ɡoɾo] represents the difference between a small, pleasant sound and a loud, rumbly noise.

    Iconic forms are more common in signed languages than in spoken languages because the visual modality allows many elements of word meaning to be represented visually (Taub, 2001). Consider, for example, the words for beard in British Sign Language (BSL), Turkish Sign Language (Türk İşaret Dili) and Icelandic Sign Language (Íslenskt táknmál). The three signs are all different from each other, but all three of them iconically represent the shape and location of a beard.

    Iconicity affects signed language learning

    For fluent signers, high iconicity facilitates word recognition and word production in both ASL (Thompson et al. 2009) and BSL (Vinson et al. 2015). But for later learners of signed languages, the effects of iconicity are more mixed.

    In one study (Marshall & Morgan, 2015), adult learners of BSL were asked to describe scenarios where two objects changed location. (For example, at first a ball is in front of a pen, and then the ball is moved behind the pen.) These learners made plenty of mistakes when signing their descriptions, but most of their mistakes were in the handshape, which is an arbitrary component of the sign. They almost never made mistakes in the location or orientation of the signs, which iconically represent the location and orientation of the objects. So in this study, the iconicity of the location and orientation parameters facilitated the learners’ productions of phrases that referred to spatial relationships.

    On the other hand, iconicity can also interfere with adults’ learning. Ortega & Morgan (2015) asked beginner BSL learners to watch videos of individual signs then imitate each sign as accurately as possible. The researchers coded the accuracy of the learners’ productions. Unsurprisingly, the learners were less accurate at imitating signs that were more complex. But for the signs with the greatest complexity, the learners signed iconic words much less accurately than arbitrary ones. The researchers offered a couple possible explanations for this surprising result.

    Maybe the iconicity of the signs made it easier for learners to remember their meanings, so they paid less attention to the forms and were therefore less accurate in signing them. On the other hand, it’s possible that the existence of an iconic non-language gesture interfered with learning the iconic sign. For example, after seeing a video of the sign for write, the learners did not imitate the BSL handshape, but instead used a gesture that imitated their handshape and movement when actually writing.

    It’s clear from these results that beginner signers are transferring some of their existing, iconic, non-language knowledge to their learning of a signed language. Sometimes that transfer facilitates their learning, and sometimes it interferes. In the next couple sections we’ll look at other ways that existing knowledge transfers to a learner’s developing grammar for their new language.



    Dingemanse, M., Blasi, D. E., Lupyan, G., Christiansen, M. H., & Monaghan, P. (2015). Arbitrariness, Iconicity, and Systematicity in Language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19(10), 603–615.

    Marshall, C. R., & Morgan, G. (2015). From Gesture to Sign Language: Conventionalization of Classifier Constructions by Adult Hearing Learners of British Sign Language. Topics in Cognitive Science, 7(1), 61–80.

    Taub, S. F. (2001). Language from the body iconicity and metaphor in American Sign Language. Cambridge University Press.

    Thompson, R. L., Vinson, D. P., & Vigliocco, G. (2009). The link between form and meaning in American Sign Language: Lexical processing effects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35, 550–557.

    Vinson, D., Thompson, R. L., Skinner, R., & Vigliocco, G. (2015). A faster path between meaning and form? Iconicity facilitates sign recognition and production in British Sign Language. Journal of Memory and Language, 82, 56–85.

    Weinreich, U. 1953. Languages in contact: Findings and Problems. New York: Linguistic Circle of New York.

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