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«Available online at Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281 Positioning proficiency: How students and teachers ...»

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Although similar discursive practices about perceived proficiencies occur everyday in classrooms, educators and researchers have not often paused to theorize or analyze the processes and consequences of these practices. The power to shape language learning does not lie in a single declaration or in words alone, but in the way these declarations are connected across personal, interpersonal, and institutional levels to future opportunities to speak and to be spoken to as participants in the target language community. Findings from this study demonstrated how students enacted their attributed proficiencies and how they replicated practices of exclusion and accommodation that they themselves had experienced. This cyclical process was likely to continue to constrain future participation in the target language unless another participant, particularly a person in a position of power, i.e. a teacher, interrupted and redirected the construction of perceived proficiency to offer new possibilities for language learning. Building upon previous research (Goldstein, 1996; Norton, 2000) that has discussed the challenges of naturalistic settings where target language communities can create undesired constraints for language learning, this study demonstrates the importance of teacher awareness and re-direction of discursive practices.

During interaction, speakers are evaluating and forming perceptions of their interlocutor’s competence, which this study named the learner’s perceived proficiency. In light of these perceptions, speakers develop certain norms for speaking with this interlocutor which involve modifications, clarifications, accommodations, code-switching, or avoidance. In this context, I found that target language speakers not only modified the kind of language they used with more novice speakers, they also excluded them from language learning affordances all together based on the social construction of perceived proficiency. This study makes a unique contribution to the field of SLA because the data analysis (including close analysis of transcripts and participation patterns in event maps) revealed how perceptions and consequent speaking norms were built in moment-to-moment talk and over time within the classroom culture.

Although the idea of perceived proficiency is implicit in much SLA work, these perceptions have been unexamined in studies that assume that target-language experts and novices will learn from one another as they interact. Findings from this study suggest that any research examining interaction and proficiency in a social context needs to supplement individual, self-reported data with the notion of socially situated, perceived proficiencies. Many SLA researchers and language educators have focused on measures of proficiency according to individual performance of certain competencies (Gass & Selinker, 2001; Thomas, 1994), but in a social setting like a school – where students are constantly playing with boundaries of identity and community – this study makes the case that perceived proficiency is more relevant to explain the ways that participants are co-constructing terms for language learning. Although a learner’s perceived proficiency is not necessarily an accurate representation of language competence, such perceptions are reified and enacted through everyday interactions that are an important part of the learning environment.

On the classroom level this study called attention to: (1) teacher and student discursive practices that work together to construct perceived proficiencies as part of classroom culture, (2) the power of these discursive practices to constrain, afford and change opportunities to participate in target languages, and (3) the ways that perceived proficiencies shift across situations. With this awareness, what can educators across diverse contexts incorporate into their classroom practices? First, it is my hope that teachers and fellow language learners will examine their own public declarations or naming of learners’ proficiencies. Teachers are in a position to strategically empower learners by publicly declaring 274 M. Martin-Beltrán / Linguistics and Education 21 (2010) 257–281 and reifying their proficiency and to remind learners of what they can do to participate in the classroom discourse communities.

Another discursive practice that needs to be reexamined is that of translation or speech accommodation for others who are perceived to have limited language proficiency. In this context I found that reliance on translation was a powerful constraint not only because of translator’s limited access to target language input, but also because this discursive practice perpetuated the positioning of students as non-legitimate participants. When translation practices became the norm during regular classroom activities, a student’s perceived proficiency in the target language was viewed as static or unchanging, despite continuous language development.

This study also suggests that educators need to change the way they think about placement and proficiency levels of students that suggest inactive placement instead of movement and growth. In contrast to static labels, this study found that students’ (perceived) proficiencies could shift quickly across different situations where activities, participants and their positioning relative to each other changed. Instead of allowing students to get tracked by institutional designations, teachers can take advantage of the shifting notions of proficiency by orchestrating different situations that allow students to take on alternating roles as proficient speakers and sources of language expertise. Finally, by understanding the discursive practices that may impact language learning in the classroom, teachers can actively create new language learning affordances for students who might otherwise be marginalized.





This study opens up new questions for further research in order to understand the impact that perceived proficiency may have on language acquisition. For example, one might ask what cues people use during interactions to form perceptions and to adapt language. How might affordances and interactions vary among speakers who have different perceptions of their interlocutors’ proficiencies? For the purposes of this paper, I have not focused on larger sociopolitical issues nor have I teased apart issues of race, class, or ethnicity; although I recognize these issues are ultimately part of how students are positioned as legitimate proficient speakers. In future research the confluence of identity markers of race, social class and ethnic affiliation (Leung et al., 1997) must be investigated to further understand the construction of language identities and perceived proficiencies.

With a better understanding of how perceived proficiency is socially constructed, we can look more closely at what educators can do in order to improve language learning contexts. Ultimately this research has implications for teacher education as we prepare teachers to question and redirect discursive practices in their classrooms. This is not to suggest that teachers alone can sustain relationships or resolve conflicts between communities that have a history of segregation and social inequalities. However, teacher educators can ensure that teachers are aware of the classroom practices that reify learners’ perceived proficiencies and language identities, which in turn, inspire or discourage future opportunities for language learning.

Appendix A. Example event map of daily round/school day of focal student Iliana (January 25, 2005) Time and place Situation Activities Participants Participation framework Languages used Languages used by Grouping Participants who are recorded and/or Who is included and excluded or ratified? by focal student others addressing focal Official language of instruction observed in close proximity to focal How are participants named? student (LOI) student *Interaction with target language-dominant speakers noted 8:40 school yard Walking in pairs from bus Iliana arrives to school by Other students arriving on bus and at Active vocal participant (ratified speaker and All Spanish All Spanish cafeteria Grouped with 4 girls around large bus breakfast are mostly Spanish listener) lunch tables Eats school breakfast dominant (I’s sister, cousin, Estela, Free choice for language (LOI Plays in school yard Veronica, Javier) n/a) Line up at classroom *NO interaction with English door dominant students

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