There are a number of reasons why we sometimes need to describe a person’s language competence using a single number. Most of these are connected to the need for a shorthand to differentiate people, in summative testing or in job selection, for example. Numerical (or grade) allocation of this kind is so common (and especially in times when accountability is greatly valued) that it is easy to believe that this number is an objective description of a concrete entity, rather than a shorthand description of an abstract concept. In the process, the abstract concept (language competence) becomes reified and there is a tendency to stop thinking about what it actually is.
Language is messy. It’s a complex, adaptive system of communication which has a fundamentally social function. As Diane Larsen-Freeman and others have argued patterns of use strongly affect how language is acquired, is used, and changes. These processes are not independent of one another but are facets of the same complex adaptive system. […] The system consists of multiple agents (the speakers in the speech community) interacting with one another [and] the structures of language emerge from interrelated patterns of experience, social interaction, and cognitive mechanisms.
As such, competence in language use is difficult to measure. There are ways of capturing some of it. Think of the pages and pages of competency statements in the Common European Framework, but there has always been something deeply unsatisfactory about documents of this kind. How, for example, are we supposed to differentiate, exactly and objectively, between, say, can participate fully in an interview (C1) and can carry out an effective, fluent interview (B2)? The short answer is that we can’t. There are too many of these descriptors anyway and, even if we did attempt to use such a detailed tool to describe language competence, we would still be left with a very incomplete picture. There is at least one whole book devoted to attempts to test the untestable in language education (edited by Amos Paran and Lies Sercu, Multilingual Matters, 2010).
So, here is another reason why we are tempted to use shorthand numerical descriptors (such as A1, A2, B1, etc.) to describe something which is very complex and abstract (‘overall language competence’) and to reify this abstraction in the process. From there, it is a very short step to making things even more numerical, more scientific-sounding. Number-creep in recent years has brought us the Pearson Global Scale of English which can place you at a precise point on a scale from 10 to 90. Not to be outdone, Cambridge English Language Assessment now has a scale that runs from 80 points to 230, although Cambridge does, at least, allocate individual scores for four language skills.
As the title of this post suggests (in its reference to Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man), I am suggesting that there are parallels between attempts to measure language competence and the sad history of attempts to measure ‘general intelligence’. Both are guilty of the twin fallacies of reification and ranking – the ordering of complex information as a gradual ascending scale. These conceptual fallacies then lead us, through the way that they push us to think about language, into making further conceptual errors about language learning. We start to confuse language testing with the ways that language learning can be structured.
We begin to granularise language. We move inexorably away from difficult-to-measure hazy notions of language skills towards what, on the surface at least, seem more readily measurable entities: words and structures. We allocate to them numerical values on our testing scales, so that an individual word can be deemed to be higher or lower on the scale than another word. And then we have a syllabus, a synthetic syllabus, that lends itself to digital delivery and adaptive manipulation. We find ourselves in a situation where materials writers for Pearson, writing for a particular ‘level’, are only allowed to use vocabulary items and grammatical structures that correspond to that ‘level’. We find ourselves, in short, in a situation where the acquisition of a complex and messy system is described as a linear, additive process. Here’s an example from the Pearson website: If you score 29 on the scale, you should be able to identify and order common food and drink from a menu; at 62, you should be able to write a structured review of a film, book or play. And because the GSE is so granular in nature, you can conquer smaller steps more often; and you are more likely to stay motivated as you work towards your goal. It’s a nonsense, a nonsense that is dictated by the needs of testing and adaptive software, but the sciency-sounding numbers help to hide the conceptual fallacies that lie beneath.
Perhaps, though, this doesn’t matter too much for most language learners. In the early stages of language learning (where most language learners are to be found), there are countless millions of people who don’t seem to mind the granularised programmes of Duolingo or Rosetta Stone, or the Grammar McNuggets of coursebooks. In these early stages, anything seems to be better than nothing, and the testing is relatively low-stakes. But as a learner’s interlanguage becomes more complex, and as the language she needs to acquire becomes more complex, attempts to granularise it and to present it in a linearly additive way become more problematic. It is for this reason, I suspect, that the appeal of granularised syllabuses declines so rapidly the more progress a learner makes. It comes as no surprise that, the further up the scale you get, the more that both teachers and learners want to get away from pre-determined syllabuses in coursebooks and software.
Adaptive language learning software is continuing to gain traction in the early stages of learning, in the initial acquisition of basic vocabulary and structures and in coming to grips with a new phonological system. It will almost certainly gain even more. But the challenge for the developers and publishers will be to find ways of making adaptive learning work for more advanced learners. Can it be done? Or will the mismeasure of language make it impossible?