21. Language proficiency measures – what exactly are we measuring?

language-proficiency, language-dominance, cognitive-linguistic demands, bilingual-experience

Klara Marton, City University of New York & ELTE
Eve Higby, California State University, East Bay

The bilingual experience is a dynamic and multifaceted phenomenon that involves different aspects of language, including proficiency and dominance. Although language proficiency and dominance are often used as categorical variables (e.g., monolinguals, balanced bilinguals, etc.), distinctions between groups are not clear-cut, and a great deal of variation exists even within groups. Further, proficiency and dominance show strong correlations with various cognitive-linguistic abilities (e.g., Bialystok & Barac, 2012; Iluz-Cohen). Despite their crucial roles in bilingual studies, there is currently no widely accepted protocol for measuring language proficiency and dominance. Proficiency tends to be assessed subjectively with a language history questionnaire (e.g., Marian et al., 2007) or using objective measures like grammar or vocabulary tests. Both methods have their problems: subjective measures place great weight on introspective abilities and cultural differences (e.g., Tomoschuk, Ferreira, & Gollan, 2019); objective measures assess linguistic and cognitive abilities simultaneously.
The primary aim of this thematic session is to discuss how common language proficiency tasks differ in their linguistic and cognitive demands. The presentations will focus on sentence repetition, language switching, verbal fluency, and picture naming and analyze the extent to which each of these tasks reflects specific cognitive and language processes, (e.g., working memory, syntactic knowledge, etc.).
Presentation 1, by Ouchikh et al., examined two language proficiency tasks (sentence repetition and verbal fluency) and their relationship to vocabulary, syntactic knowledge, working memory, and cognitive flexibility in 8-12-year old English-Spanish bilingual children. The results showed that the two language proficiency measures did not correlate with each other. While expressive syntactic ability explained most variance in sentence repetition, cognitive flexibility played an important role in verbal fluency score.
Presentation 2, by Pazuelo et al., focused on the contributions of language proficiency and cognitive control to bilingual language switching in 4-6-year old Thai-English speaking children. Language proficiency was measured with a questionnaire and a vocabulary test; the level of cognitive control was manipulated across conditions within the switching task. The results revealed that cognitive control processes played an important role in language switching therefore, this needs to be considered when using language switching as a language proficiency measure.
Presentation 3, by Mendoza et al., introduces a new method of measuring bilingual language dominance based on the sustainability hypothesis (Rosenbaum & Bui, 2019), that does not rely on self-ratings or cognitive control abilities. Mandarin-English bilinguals completed a picture naming task and answered a set of questions that reflected perceived task difficulty. Perceived task difficulty correlated with individual differences in language proficiency as measured by picture naming, verbal fluency, and self-report.
Taken together, these presentations show that language proficiency and dominance are dynamic aspects of the bilingual experience and are strongly associated with different cognitive-linguistic abilities. Thus, it is important to consider these subjective and objective, cognitive and linguistic factors when selecting a language proficiency task for a particular study.

  1. Are different language proficiency tasks assessing the same language and cognitive abilities?, Yasmine Ouchikh, Zhamilya Gazman, Marcy Gordon, Katherine Paulino, Klara Marton
  2. The roles of cognitive control and language proficiency in bilingual language switching, Lia Pazuelo, Thorfun Gehebe, Rula Faour, Klara Marton
  3. Measuring language dominance in bilinguals based on task sustainability, Guadalupe A. Mendoza, Eve Higby, Samantha Ramos Gomez, Taomei Guo, David A. Rosenbaum