Conversational Styles in Language Proficiency Interviews


  • Requests for reprints may be sent to the author at the Department of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 600 North Park Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53706. E-mail: RFYoung@FacStaff.Wisc.Edu

  • An earlier version of this article was presented in a colloquium on Discourse Issues in Oral Proficiency Assessment held at the American Association for Applied Linguistics annual conference in Baltimore, MD, 5–8 March 1994. Agnes He, Catherine Davies, Jane Zuengler, and two anonymous Language Learning reviewers provided helpful comments on earlier drafts of the article. I am also grateful to Mike Milanovic for help with data collection and to Brian Turton and Hyunuk Kim for help with transcription.


This study compares the conversational styles of intermediate and advanced learners of ESL in language proficiency interviews. Eleven intermediate learners and 12 advanced learners participated in a regular administration of the Cambridge First Certificate in English oral interview. I analyzed interview discourse constructed by both interviewer and nonnative speakers (NNSs), using a quantitative model of topical organization. I found differences in the amount of talk and rate of speaking (advanced learners talked more and faster than intermediate learners), in the extent of context dependence (advanced learners elaborated more in answers to questions), and in the ability to construct and sustain narratives (advanced learners did so, intermediate learners did not). There were no differences between the two groups in the frequency of initiation of new topics, nor in the reactivity to topics introduced by the interviewers. Interviewers did not vary in their interviewing style with the two groups. Some of these findings contradict what designers of language proficiency interviews claim to be proficiency-related differences between NNSs. The discrepancies may be due to the format of the interview and/or to differing expectations of the interview by interviewers and NNSs from different cultures.