“Tasks vs. Conditions: Influences on Second Language Performance” by Professor Peter Skehan

This post was contributed by Chieri Noda, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

linguistics_50_finalWe had the pleasure of hosting a lecture by Peter Skehan, Professorial Research Fellow at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham on 27 October. Being the first Applied Linguistics student to complete a PhD at Birkbeck, Peter was the perfect speaker to kick off the series of talks marking the department’s 50th anniversary. The lecture hall was packed with attentive students and academics from not only Birkbeck but neighbouring institutions – ‘the beating heart of Applied Linguistics’ as the emcee put it.

After reminiscing about his days at Birkbeck, Peter started by giving an overview of the dimensions commonly used for measuring second language task-based performance (complexity, accuracy, fluency and lexis) and by highlighting the differences between the two contrasting approaches in cognitive research in this area, i.e. Cognition Hypothesis (Robinson, 2011) and his own Limited Attentional Capacity framework (Skehan, 2014), often referred to as the Trade-off Hypothesis. After pointing out some of the problems with the construct of task complexity on which the Cognition Hypothesis is built, he went on to establish his view that task conditions could better illuminate second language performance.

He took us through research on the effects of on-line planning, repetition and post-task planning he had done with his PhD students and co-researchers in Hong Kong. The studies can be found in a recent book he edited, Processing Perspectives on Task Performance. Particularly interesting was Zhan Wang’s 2014 study in which conditions of on-line planning (i.e. planning while speaking) were carefully controlled using slowed Mr Bean videos. The results suggested that on-line planning itself did not improve performance, but a combination of pre-task and on-line planning boosted accuracy and complexity. While at first glance this might seem to support the Cognition Hypothesis, Peter proposed that with the help of Willem Levelt’s (1989) psycholinguistic model of first language speech production, these effects could be explained to be due to two separate psycholinguistic influences, one of which raised complexity and one of which raised accuracy.

One thing that the audience had the privilege of hearing, which readers of Peter’s recent book would be missing out on, was the amusing but nevertheless insightful account of how his PhD students had been stimulated by past research and had developed their idea into well-designed research. Perhaps it was the accumulation of such experience that prompted him to share a piece of practical advice for MA and BA students in the audience. “In some ways,” suggested Peter, “the best thing to do is to find a study you half like. One that you like, but you’ve got reservations about.” He explained that students could redesign the study within the framework of the original study to correct problematic elements. He admitted this might be edging away from doing something brand new, but pushed students to master research techniques.

Peter’s talk was truly fitting as the first of our anniversary talks, not simply because it presented the findings of his extensive research over the years, but for showing us how he engaged with competing views and with his own data to drive his research forward. My doctoral research on Japanese researchers talking in English takes a conversation analytic perspective and so in terms of methodology very different from Peter’s, but his talk left me with a lot to reflect on.

  • Levelt, W. J. M. (1989). Speaking: from intention to articulation. MIT.
  • Robinson, P. (Ed.). (2011). Second language task complexity: researching the cognition hypothesis of language learning and performance. John Benjamins.
  • Skehan, P. (Ed.). (2014). Processing Perspectives on Task Performance. John Benjamins.
  • Wang, Z. (2014). On-line time pressure manipulations: L2 speaking performance under five types of planning and repetition conditions. In P. Skehan (Ed.), Processing Perspectives on Task Performance (pp. 27-62). John Benjamins.

A video of the lecture is available here.


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