About Muzhik-babushka, Six-year-old Zhenshchina and the Like: The Role of Conceptual Fluency in Advanced Proficiency Attainment

Victoria Driagina, Pennsylvania State University

Numerous national educational and intelligence agencies, as well as public press, have recently expressed grave concern with the critical lack of foreign language proficiency in the U.S. The emergent theme in the field of foreign language acquisition, including the Slavic languages field, has recently been concerned with advanced levels of proficiency attainment in undergraduate programs.

Recently F/SLA researchers (Danesi 1995; 2003; Kecskes & Papp, 2000) have argued that the questions of advanced language proficiency attainment should be addressed from a perspective that differs from the traditional standpoint which forefronts teaching grammatical knowledge or even broader communicative competence. As these researchers have observed, advanced learners’ speech differs significantly from the speech of native or expert speakers in an area that is not included in the traditional scope of verbal competence. Danesi (2003) refers to this “problem area” as conceptual fluency or the lack of thereof.

The construct of conceptual fluency lies in the realm of meaning making mechanisms mediating relations between humans and their environment and is primarily concerned with interrelationship between the first and second languages and thought processes in language learners/ multilinguals. The presentation will provide an overview of the recent literature concerned with the definition of conceptual fluency as it pertains to foreign language teaching in the undergraduate programs in the US. The presentation will also address controversies that pervade current discussions on the topic and argue for the usefulness of the construct for the field foreign language teaching in general, and Russian language classrooms in particular.

To illustrate how the construct applies to teaching/learning Russian, the presenter will employ narratives produced by advanced American speakers of Russian. The narratives were collected in an intensive language program through the elicitation task in which the students were asked to describe several pictures. The conceptual analysis focuses on the participants’ usage of such lexemes as девочка, девчонка, девушкаженщинабабушка, баба, старуха. The analysis reveals that although students might have declarative knowledge associated with the lexemes, their conceptualizations of these lexemes are often markedly non-native like in terms of imagery and contextual appropriacy. Upon presenting the analysis of the narratives, the presenter will propose a conceptually-oriented approach to vocabulary teaching as an alternative to the traditional translation or definition methods. In conclusion, the author will argue for the viability of conceptually-oriented approaches to FL teaching and research.

Danesi, M. (1995). "Learning and Teaching Languages: The Role of Conceptual Fluency." International Journal of Applied Linguistics. 5, (1), 3-20.

Danesi, M. (2003). Second Language Teaching. A View from the Right Side of the Brain. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic.