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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Modeling Speaker Proficiency, Comprehensibility, and Perceived Competence in a Language Use Domain

  • Author(s): Schmidgall, Jonathan Edgar
  • Advisor(s): Bachman, Lyle F
  • et al.

Research suggests that listener perceptions of a speaker's oral language use, or a speaker's comprehensibility, may be influenced by a variety of speaker-, listener-, and context-related factors. Primary speaker factors include aspects of the speaker's proficiency in the target language such as pronunciation and grammatical accuracy, and domain-related skills (e.g., teaching skills). Listener factors include proficiency in the target language, attitudes towards the speaker, familiarity with the speaker's native language or accent, familiarity with the speaker's topic, and familiarity with non-native speakers or speech in general. Finally, a variety of contextual factors may play a role including the norms of interaction or interpretation, speech form and content, and purpose of communication. Although previous research has identified many of these factors, none of the studies reviewed have attempted to integrate many of these factors into a larger conceptual model. Research that has examined the relationships between several of these factors has been limited by small sample sizes, constrained or inauthentic speech samples, and homogenous groups of speakers or listeners.

The primary purpose of this study was to examine the relationships among naïve listener perceptions of oral language use and speaker, listener, and contextual factors within a single model, using the framework of structural equation modeling. The conceptual model evaluated by this study may be viewed in several different ways: first, as an interactive model of oral language use centered on listener perceptions of the speaker; second, as a model of the relationships among teacher- and student-related factors that influence a teacher's comprehensibility to students in an academic domain.

The results of this study support an interactional perspective on oral language use which holds that both speaker- and listener-related factors influence comprehensibility. In this study, comprehensibility was predicted by speaker-related factors including components of oral proficiency and teaching effectiveness, and listener-related factors such as perceptions of the speaker's personality, attitude towards the speaker, and interest in the speaker's topic. The results have practical implications for language teaching and education policy, and emphasize an important consideration for oral proficiency assessments in this domain: providing sufficient information about "real world" constructs to make appropriate decisions.

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