The Dynamics of Language Proficiency

*Suman Laudari

Recently, I reviewed a few research studies, mostly action research, conducted by graduate students in Nepal for one of my write-ups. Most of those studies, which were intervention research, were found to have claimed (explicitly and implicitly) that their intervention was useful in improving the proficiency of learners. However, upon close inspection, it was evident that there were little or no evidence to substantiate their claims; mostly these claims were based on the facts that the learners were able to follow the rules in post-production. If simply following the rules does not clearly provide evidence for language proficiency, then what it is based on which research studies make claims about learners’ proficiency. This write up aims to tease out these nuances that are related to the dynamics of how good someone is in a particular language. It aims to shed light on how we know whether someone is more or less proficient in a language? What evidences are used to make claims that somebody has native like proficiency or for that matter a low proficiency.

Research studies in the area of second language acquisition and applied linguistics use the following three criteria to define the proficiency of their research participants. .

  • Complexity (C)
  • Accuracy (A)
  • Fluency (F)

These three factors, which is also called CAF in short, have been featured as major research variables in the area of second language acquisition and applied linguistics for almost two decades now. It is believed that these factors can capture and manifest the holistic picture of L2 proficiency very well (Housen & Kuiken 2009).

Defining CAF

Complexity, as the name suggests, is the extent to which learners can use varied, elaborated and rich language i.e. how well students can use different kinds of sentences (simple, complex and compound); different number of clauses (dependent and independent clauses), and range of vocabulary in their production.

Accuracy, as the name befits, is the ability of learners to produce error free language. In other words, accuracy is to what extent the learner output is deviated from the standard norms of the target language.

And, fluency is defined as the rapidity (how rapidly) and the extent to which the learner uses pauses, hesitation and reformulation (starting over with slight/complete modification) in their production. It also refers to the ease and the smoothness (eloquences) with which someone speaks the language.

CAF have been used both as performance descriptors (description of what the output of learners looks like) for the oral and written assessment of language learners as well as indicators (indicate where learners stand in terms of their production) of learners’ proficiency underlying their performance; they have also been used for measuring progress in language learning.

House and Kuiken (2009) claim that a large number of studies have used these triads as their major components and they are regarded to be the principal epiphenomena of psycholinguisitcs, as they represent the mechanisms and processes underlying the acquisition, representation and processing of a second language. Housen  and Kuiken (2009) reveal that these three components have appeared in the SLA research separately and prominently since the 1990s as the dependent variable.

However, the review of literature suggests that they were first used in 1984 by Brumfit to mark the distinction between fluency and accuracy in focused activities.

With the progress experienced in cognitive linguistics and psychology, now CAF is used as independent variables in the research studies in SLA (Housen & Kuiken, 2009). Besides, these three facets of L2 performance are used in task based research, in studies that measure effect of onset age on L2 acquisition and effect of recast, and others. This is because they have emerged separately, and it is argued that these factors of L2 proficiency and performance can be measured separately.

Measuring CAF

Based on the convenience of researchers, different parameters have been used in different research to measure CAF. However, there are some commonly used parameters to measure CAF and they are used in various research studies (e.g. Wendel, 1997; Yuan & Ellis, 2003; Laudari, 2014).

Complexity measures: Yuan and Ellis (2003), in their often cited work, have used syntactic complexity and syntactic variety to measure the complexity. Syntactic complexity, the ratio of clauses to T unit (A T unit is a main clause plus any other subordinate clauses attached to or embedded within it) is calculated. However, different alternative measures can be used depending the nature of the product.

For syntactic variety, the total number of different verb forms are tabulated and counted. Any verbs that are repeated will be discarded as such (repeated verb forms) do not reflect the variety and the complexity in the discourse.

Accuracy Measures: Accuracy can be measured by counting the error-free clauses and correct verb forms. Error-free clauses can be computed by counting the total number of error free clauses in the participant’s discourse and then dividing it by the total number of clauses. To count the correct verb forms, the percentage of accurately used verbs in terms of tense, subject-verb agreement, and modality are tabulated and calculated

Fluency measures: Some of the common fluency measures used by Wendel (1997) and Yuan and Ellis (2003) are number of syllables per minute and meaningful syllables. Number of syllables is calculated by dividing the total number of syllables is divided by the number of seconds used to complete the task and is multiplied by 60. To compute the meaningful syllables, total number of syllables is counted and then all the words, phrases repeated, reformulated, or replaced were excluded.

Why learn about them?

It is not a bad idea to learn about CAF measures. Besides, as a second language scholar and researcher, one can get better insights of the findings of the research studies that are concerned with language proficiency with the knowledge of CAF. Secondly, being aware of these triads and being able to use them in research, we can make valid claims if we carried out research related to language production and proficiency.

Being aware about these triads and using them in our research either as dependent variables or independent variables can help us in giving our research report an international look. If we did that then that reflects that Nepalese scholars are familiar with the recent developments in the field of SLA and applied linguistics.

A note of caution, however, is that these terms have been controversial as there is no uniformity in the parameters used to measure them and scholars tend to define them in the way that serves their purpose the best. So, it is always advised that the parameters that you decide to use is similar to that of a research study published in any of the referred journals.


Housen, A. & Kuiken, F. (2009). Complexity, accuracy and fluency: Definitions, measurement and research. In A. Housen, F. Kuiken & I. Vedder (Eds.), Dimensions of L2 performance and proficiency: Complexity, accuracy and fluency in SLA. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Laudari, S. (2014). Planning and performance: The effect of form focused guided planning on learner performance. NELTA Journal 18, 92-104.

Wendel, J. (1997). Planning and second language narrative production. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Temple University, Japan.

Yuan, F. & Ellis, R. (2003). The effects of pre-task and on-line planning on fluency, complexity and accuracy in L2 monologic oral production. Applied Linguistics 24(1), 1–27.

 (Mr. Suman Laudari is a life member of NELTA and a PhD scholar at Lancaster University, UK . His research interests are motivation in second language learning, planning and task performance, and TBLT. )



One response

  1. Scdcgopal Argha | Reply

    Dear Sir Good morning Thank for it. Warm regards. Gopal Prasad Panthi SCDC/Arghakhanchi/Nepal Mobile 0977 9857028103 Email : scdcgopal@gmail.com Email: scdcgopal@yahoo.com Skype: gopalprasadpanthi23 http://www.scdc.org.np


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