Language proficiency as symbol-making capacity: The case of a second language speaker

1.1 Social, cultural, linguistic and educational mediation
Paper in a Symposium (Symp)
Tuesday Aug 29   03:00 PM to 03:30 PM (30 minutes)
As is well known, a fundamental principle of Vygotsky’s theory is that humans mediate much of their social and psychological behavior via the meanings that are evoked through verbal signs. Vygotsky and Luria (1930) characterize signs as “symbolic actions” that are strongly related to “practical intelligent action.” In discussing the rise of symbolic action in onto- and phylogenesis, Vygotsky draws an important distinction between verbal signs created in human social interaction and signals that are instinctual and are a primary means of “interchange or contact” in the animal world (Vygotsky, 1987). Although Vygotsky pursues the sign/signal distinction from time to time in his discussion of human/animal phylogenesis, Voloshinov (1973), in my view, carries forward the distinction that is relevant for linguistics in general and for applied linguistics in particular. Voloshinov observes that while signs are implicated in “the process of understanding,” signals are implicated in “the process of recognition.” He points out that in foreign language learning, “signality and recognition still make themselves felt … and remain to be surmounted.” In this presentation, I consider the case of a second language (L2) speaker (M) who implicitly seemed to appreciate the distinction between signals and signs as he engaged in a series of verbal interactions designed by researchers to investigate his level of language proficiency. In one interaction, referred as “interview,” M spoke in his L2, English, with a degree of grammatical accuracy that would have been recognized by language tester as displaying a high degree of proficiency. In the other interaction, referred to as “conversation,” the same speaker produced highly ungrammatical speech, which would surely have been rated as manifesting a low level of proficiency. However, when considering the substance of the interactions, it is clear that in the interview M recognized that its goal for him was to produce a sample of accurate language, while in the conversation, which focused on religion, a topic of intensive interest for M, the goal was to engage in deep understanding. In essence, in the interview, M generated signals, while in the conversation he created symbols. From the perspective of the target language English, the symbols were ungrammatical in form, but they nevertheless conveyed genuine meaning and therefore manifested “practical intelligent action.” To the extent that M produced accurate signals in the interview his performance would be rated as proficient. But how are we to rate M’s performance in the conversation where he created meaningful symbols? I argue that as a symbol maker M was highly proficient, which means that we need to reconsider our understanding of proficiency that is based on signal generation and allow for a perspective that acknowledges symbol-making ability.
The Pennsylvania State University