Linguistic competence across learner varieties of Spanish

Linguistic competence across learner varieties of Spanish. By Arnulfo G. Ramírez. (LINCOM studies in language acquisition 22.) Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2008. Pp. vii, 189. ISBN 9783895867903. $93.10.

Reviewed by Louisa Buckingham, University of Granada

This study establishes learner language profiles for learners of Spanish of different levels at a US tertiary institution. Comprising eight chapters, the book begins with a broad introduction to linguistic competence that takes into account such aspects as learner styles, learner strategies, and language attitudes. For this study, Ramírez has divided linguistic competence into two domains: language knowledge (lexical and syntactic competence, metalinguistic judgements) and language use (conversational acts, and descriptive and narrative discourse).

For the study, R selected twenty-five university students of Spanish, who were evenly distributed across five competence levels: basic, intermediate, advanced, superior, native speaker. To assess the learners’ relative levels of competence in each domain, R devised tasks similar to those used in second language courses. Progressing from controlled to freer exercises, the tasks include gap-fill exercises, dehydrated sentences, sentence reorganization, dialogue completion, as well as picture description and picture sequence tasks. Although the results from all tasks show incremental gains in learners’ linguistic competency from the basic to the superior levels, the nature of these gains is often of interest. For instance, results from the verb lexical task (gap-fill) show that the most substantial increase of ‘depth knowledge’ (the application of verb inflectional markers) is found between basic to intermediate levels and appears to level off at higher levels. In the exercise involving sentence formation, the basic and intermediate level learners experienced syntactic problems more frequently than morphological problems, whereas advanced and superior level learners made more morphological than syntactic mistakes.

The freer practice activity of constructing a dialogue provides the opportunity to observe pragmatic conversational features across learner levels. For example, the use of discourse markers becomes more widespread at the upper levels, as does the number of co-referential chains serving to maintain textual connectivity. The results from the final three exercises, which require a considerable degree of text production from the learners, are of greatest interest. The author cites excerpts from the learners’ texts to illustrate varying levels of competence and to shed light on strategies to which learners at different levels resort to meet the demands of particular language tasks.

This study will appeal to researchers and students of second language acquisition (not only of Spanish). Its attraction is its breadth. Rather than concentrating on the acquisition of a particular linguistic feature, the wide variety of linguistic tasks used for testing purposes produced a broad array of linguistic data. The small pool of participants from which data were collected may inspire other researchers to undertake a similar study with a learner group of different characteristics. Unfortunately, while this study is of wide interest, the frequency of errata throughout the text is disappointing.