The Future of Education

Edition 14

Accepted Abstracts

Measuring the Syntactic Complexity and Accuracy in Performance of L3 Writers with Different L2 Proficiency

Wei Li, School of Foreign Languages, Harbin Institute of Technology (China)


The study contributes to the assessment and evaluation of writing competence of adult foreign language learners. It focuses on the learning output in form of written texts in classroom contexts by L3-learners in German with Chinese (L1) and different English (L2) proficiency and examines the grammatical maturity in composing in the target language, in which grammatical accuracy and complexity as performance descriptors are systematically measured. To evaluate learners’ development both in SLA research as well as in multilingual context, syntactic complexity and accuracy as indicators of learner’s proficiency are widely used. Quantifiable measures of specific linguistic properties of L3 written production reflect the differences between learners regarding syntactic competence in the target language and reveal the difficulties in the L3 learning.

Data from writing sampling were collected from writing tasks in classroom during the course time. Analysis of 117 theme-based essays focuses on sentence structure and phrase structure as well as syntactic correctness, in which selected parameters including mean length of T-unit, mean length of clauses, subordinated clauses per T-unit, phrase length, use of passive voice and frequency of word order errors (error-free clause ratio) are analyzed statistically and compared between groups.

The results from the current research show a great variety of syntactic features in most learners’ writing samples. Both groups of students demonstrated syntactic competence beyond the use of simple declarative sentences with a canonical SVO structure. Complex target structures at phrasal, clausal and sentential levels are identified in large amount in learners’ production. Whereas no significant difference in the aspect of syntactic complexity was found between two groups, students of English Linguistics performed considerably better in syntactic accuracy than their peers with basic competence in their L2. Writing samples generated by students with academic English competence were characterized by consistently high quality regarding correctness of using diverse and complex linguistic structures in L3. These findings prove the “Linguistic Interdependence Hypothesis” and “Linguistic Threshold Hypothesis” by Cummins [1, 2] by arguing that learners with stronger English background, especially English-majoring, profit more from: (1) their CALP-competence in source language(s), (2) psychotypological similarities between the L2 and L3 and (3) strategies in foreign language learning. Suggestions for tackling problems and difficulties in acquiring German as L3 after English are made.


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