Measuring Syntactic Complexity in Spoken and Written Learner Language: Comparing the Incomparable?

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Spoken and written language are two modes of language. When learners aim at higher skill levels, the expected outcome of successful second language learning is usually to become a fluent speaker and writer who can produce accurate and complex language in the target language. There is an axiomatic difference between speech and writing, but together they form the essential parts of learners’ L2 skills. The two modes have their own characteristics, and there are differences between native and nonnative language use. For instance, hesitations and pauses are not visible in the end result of the writing process, but they are characteristic of nonnative spoken language use. The present study is based on the analysis of L2 English spoken and written productions of 18 L1 Finnish learners with focus on syntactic complexity. As earlier spoken language segmentation units mostly come from fluency studies, we conducted an experiment with a new unit, the U-unit, and examined how using this unit as the basis of spoken language segmentation affects the results. According to the analysis, written language was more complex than spoken language. However, the difference in the level of complexity was greatest when the traditional units, T-units and AS-units, were used in segmenting the data. Using the U-unit revealed that spoken language may, in fact, be closer to written language in its syntactic complexity than earlier studies had suggested. Therefore, further research is needed to discover whether the differences in spoken and written learner language are primarily due to the nature of these modes or, rather, to the units and measures used in the analysis.

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