Learning And Proficiency of EFL Learners

By: Dr. M. Maniruzzaman

Introduction
The learning situation or the classroom essentially plays a momentous role in the learning of the foreign language since the learner has no access to the target language beyond the classroom door (Brown 2001). That is, it is the classroom where the foreign language (FL) learner receives the input from the teacher, practises the target language skills with the teacher and the fellow learners and shows his/her performance in the language before his/her teacher and classmates.
Gardner (1985a) notes that for the FL learner the language classroom might be the only place in which the learner encounters the target language and the teacher might be the prime user of the language. He then maintains - 'consequently, the course and the teacher can become closely associated with the language material, and attitudes toward them could thus become highly influential' (1985a: 7). He accordingly predicts that where learner reaction to the learning situation is positive, other factors being equal, the learner will have a pleasant experience with the target language and will be encouraged to continue. Besides, Haque (1989), Gordon (1980) and Naiman et al. (1978) reveal significantly positive associations between indices of learner attitudes towards the teacher and the language course and proficiency in the target language.
Moreover, as a teacher of the English language, I have had the opportunity to observe that there is some degree of interaction between the factors of the learning situation - the teacher, the course, the fellow learners and the prevailing atmosphere - and the proficiency of the learner of English as a foreign language (EFL), especially in his/her productive skills - writing and speaking.
However, the findings of the studies conducted by Maniruzzaman (1998), Parkinson and Howell-Richardson (1990), Kleinmann (1978) and Chastain (1975) are found to be inconsistent with those of the investigations carried out by Haque (1989), Gordon (1980) and Naiman et al. (1978).
Hence, the present study was designed to examine the interaction between the learning situation and the proficiency of Bengali-speaking EFL learners in their writing and speaking skills. To carry out the investigation, three hypotheses were formulated:

H1. The learner's classroom anxiety would have significantly negative impact on his/her proficiency in writing and speaking.
H2. The learner's attitudes towards his/her teacher would have significantly positive relations to his/her proficiency in writing and speaking.
H3. The learner's attitudes towards the language course would have significantly positive associations with his/her proficiency in writing and speaking.

Method

Subjects
This study was conducted with 41 tertiary level students - 25 males and 16 females - learning the English language in the Language Centre at Jahangirnagar University. Though the subjects were from the different departments of Jahangirnagar University, they possessed some features in common - belonging to a similar age group, already having twelve years of formal instruction in EFL at the rate of about four hours every week and studying throughout in the Bengali medium.

Instrumentation
To test the hypotheses of the present study, three major predictor variables were determined - EFL classroom anxiety, attitudes towards the teacher and attitudes towards the course. The major criterion variables in the study were the subjects' scores on a structure test, a vocabulary test, a composition test and a speaking test.
To ascertain the subjects' association with the learning situation consisting of classroom anxiety and attitudes towards the teacher and the course, a questionnaire was modelled on the relevant items of the Attitude/Motivation Test Battery originally developed by Gardner (1985b) and next modified by Maniruzzaman (1998). The questionnaire has four parts:
Part-I following "General instructions" has some levels that elicited information from the learners about their names, roll nos., etc.
Part-II consists of ten items using the Likert Scale (1932). It measured the subjects' discomfort and tension while participating in the EFL class. A high score on this test (maximum = 70) reflected a subject's anxiety in the classroom.
Part-III has four subtests related to the attitudes of the subjects towards their teacher:
i)English Teacher Evaluation. The ratings on ten evaluative scales were summed to reflect the subjects' general evaluative reaction to their teacher. The items were scored in the direction indicated below such that a high score (maximum = 70) indicated a positive evaluation. The scales are- friendly-unfriendly, unreliable-reliable, inconsiderate-considerate, good-bad, pleasant-unpleasant, efficient-inefficient, polite-impolite, insincere-sincere, dependable-undependable, and cheerful-cheerless.
ii)English Teacher Rapport. Teacher-learner rapport was measured by five scales keyed in the "rapport" direction - trusting-suspicious, insensitive-sensitive, unapproachable-approachable, impatient-patient, and disinterested-interested. The higher the score (maximum = 35) was on this measure, the greater the perceived rapport and warmth of the teacher would be.
iii)English Teacher Competence. The subjects' perception of the teacher's competence was measured by five scales - organized-disorganized, industrious-unindustrious, unintelligent-intelligent, incapable-capable, and competent-incompetent. A high score (maximum =35) was perceived as indicating that the subjects rated the teacher competent.
iv)English Teacher Inspiration. On this five item test - colourful-colourless, unimaginative-imaginative, exciting-dull, tedious-fascinating, and interesting-boring, the subjects rated the extent to which they felt that their teacher inspired them to learn EFL. High scores (maximum =35) indicated high levels of inspiration and interest.
Part-IV is composed of four subtests concerned with the subjects' attitudes towards their course:
i)English Course Evaluation. The learners' general evaluation of their course was assessed with ten items scored such that the higher the score (maximum =70), the more positive the evaluation. The items are good-bad, disagreeable-agreeable, pleasurable-painful, satisfying-unsatisfying, awful-nice, pleasant-unpleasant, enjoyable-unenjoyable, unrewarding-rewarding, worthless-valuable, and appealing-unappealing keyed positively.
ii)English Course Difficulty. Ratings on five scales - simple-complicated, elementary-complex, effortless-hard, clear-confusing, and difficult-easy - were summed to provide an estimate of the perceived difficulty of the course. A high score (maximum = 35) indicated that the course was easy while a low score indicated that the course was difficult.
iii)English Course Utility. This subtest comprises five scales - educational-noneducational, meaningful-meaningless, necessary-unnecessary, useless-useful, and unimportant-important. A high score (maximum = 35) was associated with a high level of perceived utility of the course.
iv)English Course Interest. Five scales - fascinating-tedious, monotonous-absorbing, interesting-boring, exciting-dull, and colourful-colourless - were summed such that the higher the score (maximum = 35) the more interest the subjects had in the course.
Both Part-III and Part-IV were assessed by means of a Semantic Differential Format postulated by Osgood et al. (1957).
This investigation also required an assessment of the proficiency of the subjects in their writing and speaking skills. The proficiency of each of the subjects was ascertained by a four-part test reflecting the objectives of the syllabus of the course they were taking. The proficiency test used in this study was constructed by the present researcher and validated and standardized on samples of students participating in the same course earlier. That is, the test had sufficient validity, reliability and practicality. The four parts of the test are as follows:
Part-I being constituted of Structure Test-I and Structure Test-II has 30 multiple choice items covering the structures the students at the tertiary level are supposed to have mastered. In this measure, the objective test format was used, and an effort was made to put the test items in the context of a short narrative cum conversation so that language in use would, as mach as possible, be tried out.
Part-II embodies Vocabulary Test having 20 multiple choice items. This test was designed to show the range of vocabulary the learners at the tertiary level had mastered. The vocabulary items in the measure were selected on the basis of the assumption that the subjects had already learned them.
Part-III includes Composition Test designed to assess the subjects' linguistic competence in organizing and presenting relevant ideas in writing. Controlled compositions are error-provoking while free compositions are error-avoiding. In this investigation, spontaneous prediction procedure was followed, and the subjects were asked to write a free composition on any one of the topics - "Your future plan", "Importance of English" and "Family life".
Part-IV is made up of three types of speaking tests. Speaking Test-I was used to determine the subjects' ability to express different attitudes, feelings and emotions. Speaking Test-II and Speaking Test-III were exploited to ascertain the subjects' competence in communicating in real life situations.

Data collection and analysis
The questionnaire for tapping the subjects' association with the learning situation was translated into Bengali so that the subjects could overcome the difficulties caused by the English version. After an explanation of the purposes of the study and preliminary instructions, the questionnaire was administered. The different parts of the proficiency test were given at different times as normal class tests.
The data collected by using the questionnaire and the proficiency test were first scored by hand. Total scores were then computed on each of the subtests for each individual subject. The analysis of the data taken from those subjects who had responded to both the questionnaire and the proficiency test was performed by using the Pearson's product-moment correlation coefficients available in the SPSSX (Statistical Packages for the Social Sciences) programme module. The level of significance set for the statistical tests in this research was at the *p<.01/**p<.001 level.

Findings and interpretations
Three hypotheses related to the interaction between the learning situation and the proficiency of the subjects in their writing and speaking skills were formulated to interpret the findings of the statistical analysis of the data.

H1. The learner's classroom anxiety would have significantly negative impact on his/her proficiency in writing and speaking.
To test the hypothesis, a Pearson's product-moment correlation was computed between classroom anxiety and the dependent variables. The Pearson's product-moment correlation coefficients have been shown in Table 1:

Table1: Pearson's product-moment correlation coefficients computed between classroom anxiety and the measures of proficiency in writing and speaking:

Predictor VariablePearson's product-moment correlation coefficients (r)
Structure
Test
Vocabulary
TestComposition
TestSpeaking
Test
Classroom Anxiety -.44**
-.46**-.42**-.49**
N = 41 Level of Significance *p<.01
**p<.001

According to the finding displayed in Table 1, Classroom Anxiety had negative associations with Structure Test r being -.44, Vocabulary Test r being -.46, Composition Test r being -.42, and Speaking Test r being -.49. All the correlations were significant at p<.001 level. Hence, the hypothesis "the learner's classroom anxiety would have significantly negative impact on his/her proficiency in writing and speaking" was accepted.
This finding discloses that the subject having a greater amount of classroom anxiety had less proficiency in their writing and speaking skills, and is consistent with those of the studies conducted by Bailey (1983), Horwitz (1986), Trylong (1987), Haque (1989) and Walker (1997). The result also lends support to Krashen's (1981, 1982 and 1985) postulate that as a mental block anxiety resists learning. It, moreover, corroborates the argument that 'studies have consistently shown that anxiety is one of the best predictors of success in the second language' (MacIntyre and Gardner 1991: 96). Nonetheless, the present finding contradicts those of the investigations carried out by Chastain (1975), Kleinmann (1978), Parkinson and Howell-Richardson (1990) and Maniruzzaman (1998).
The current finding may be attributed to a number of factors commonly found in the foreign language classroom in Bangladesh: mostly untrained teachers, the teacher-dominated classroom atmosphere, problems with the selection and grading of the teaching/learning items, irrelevant and inadequate materials, the deductive teaching process, insufficient involvement of the learner, the defective testing system and little use of modern equipment. These factors compel the learner to have a phobia about achieving the target language skills as well as showing optimal performance in the productive skills.

H2. The learner's attitudes towards his/her teacher would have significantly positive relations to his/her proficiency in writing and speaking.
To examine the hypothesis, a Pearson's product-moment correlation coefficient was run on the independent variable related to the teacher and the dependent variables. The Pearson's product-moment correlation coefficients have been demonstrated in Table 2:

Table2: Pearson's product-moment correlation coefficients computed between the variables related to the teacher and the measures of proficiency in writing and speaking:

Predictor VariablesPearson's product-moment correlation coefficients (r)
Structure
Test
Vocabulary
TestComposition
TestSpeaking
Test
English Teacher Evaluation .35**
.30**
.29**
.36**

English Teacher Rapport
.32**
.31**
.30**
.33**

English Teacher Competence
.36**
.34**
.28**
.36**

English Teacher Inspiration
.32**
.35**
.31**
.31**

N = 41 Level of Significance *p<.01
**p<.001

As shown in Table 2, English Teacher Evaluation, English Teacher Rapport, English Teacher Competence and English Teacher Inspiration had significantly positive correlations with Structure Test r being .35, .32, .36 and .32 respectively, with Vocabulary Test r being .30, .31, .34 and .35 respectively, with Composition Test r being .29, .30, .28 and .31, and with Speaking test r being .36, .33, .36 and .31 respectively. Therefore, the hypothesis that the learner's attitudes towards his/her teacher would have significantly positive relations to his/her proficiency in writing and speaking is deemed to have been accepted.
The finding can be supported by the conclusions drawn by Neidt and Hedlund (1967), Burstall (1970), Gordon (1980) and Haque (1989). Neidt and Hedlund (1967) in a study among the students of German at the University of California, Burstall (1970) in an experiment with some students in Britain, Gordon (1980) in an investigation with Belizean ESL students, and Haque (1989) in a study with the ninth grade students of Dhaka city revealed significant and positive associations between the measures of the subjects' attitudes towards the teacher and their proficiency in the different skills of the target language.
The present result that the learner's attitudes towards the teacher significantly predict his/her proficiency in EFL may be explained by pointing to the fact that the teacher is the only person who provides the learner with the input, with whom the learner practises the skills of the target language, and whom the learner mainly shows his/her performance in the productive skills.

H3. The learner's attitudes towards the language course would have significantly positive associations with his/her proficiency in writing and speaking.
To try out the hypothesis, a Pearson's product-moment correlation coefficient was run on the independent variables concerned with the course and the dependent variables. The Pearson's product-moment correlation coefficients have been exhibited in Table 3:

Table3: Pearson's product-moment correlation coefficients computed between the variables concerned with the course and the measures of proficiency in writing and speaking:

Predictor VariablesPearson's product-moment correlation coefficients (r)
Structure
Test
Vocabulary
TestComposition
TestSpeaking
Test
English Course Evaluation .30**
.30**
.29**
.36**

English Course Difficulty
.12
.13
.10
.12

English Course Utility
.31**
.33**
.32**
.33**

English Course Interest
.36**
.33**
.32**
.35**

N = 41 Level of Significance *p<.01
**p<.001

The correlation coefficients presented in Table 3 disclose that English Course Evaluation was significantly positively correlated with Structure Test, Vocabulary Test, Composition Test and Speaking Test r being .30, .30, .29 and .36 respectively. English Course Difficulty was insignificantly positively associated with Structure Test, Vocabulary Test, Composition Test and Speaking Test r being .12, .13, .10 and .12 respectively. English Course Utility had significantly positive correlations with Structure Test, Vocabulary Test, Composition Test and Speaking Test r being .31, .33, .32 and .33 respectively. Finally, English Course Interest was also significantly positively correlated with Structure Test, Vocabulary Test, Composition Test and Speaking Test r being .36, .33, .32 and .35 respectively. Thus, the hypothesis that the learner's attitudes towards the language course would have significantly positive associations with his/her proficiency in writing and speaking may be thought over to have been largely accepted.
This finding lends support to those uncovered by Neidt and Hedlund (1967), Burstall (1970), Gordon (1980) and Haque (1989), and can be explained by considering the point that the subjects were substantially aware of the different aspects of their course. That is, course evaluation, utility and interest significantly and positively affected the learners' proficiency in their writing and speaking while course difficulty had a little impact on their proficiency in the same skills.

Conclusions and recommendations
To sum up, the investigation produces three important findings.
Firstly, classroom anxiety had significantly negative correlations with all the tests of the subjects' proficiency in EFL writing and speaking. This finding suggests that classroom anxiety considerably hampers learners' proficiency in the productive skills of the target language.
Secondly, the subjects' attitudes towards their teacher were significantly positively associated with all the measures of their proficiency in writing and speaking. This result is suggestive of the fact that the teacher's evaluation, rapport, competence and inspiration have substantial impact on the learner's proficiency in writing and speaking.
Thirdly, the subjects' attitudes towards their course were in most cases significantly and in all the cases positively correlated with the measures of their proficiency in writing and speaking. This finding indicates that course evaluation, utility and interest largely and course difficulty slightly influence the learner's proficiency in the productive skills of the foreign language they learn.
Based on the findings, the present researcher makes several recommendations.
As classroom anxiety seriously hinders and reduces the learner's proficiency in the productive skills of the target language, some effective measures, such as systematic desensitization, guided participation, creating friendly atmosphere, ensuring large involvement of the learner, cognitive restructuring, self-assessment (Oscarson 1997), and so on have to be taken to alleviate it. Further, the strategy of cooperative learning (Macaro 1997) can be exploited to increase the learner's motivation and retention, to help him/her develop a positive image of self and others, to provide a vehicle for critical thinking and problem solving, and to encourage collaborative social skills. Moreover, the learner should be taught what he/she lacks, needs and is interested in, and how he/she should be motivated to achieve proficiency in the skills of the target language. In other words, the teaching items, materials, equipment and assessment system should conform to the learner's needs and interests.
The teacher in an EFL classroom is the only person who provides the learner with the input, with whom the learner practises the skills of the target language, and whom the learner mainly shows his/her performance in the productive skills. Therefore, the teacher should be well trained, professionally qualified and widely experienced, and keep him/herself abreast of the contemporary foreign language teaching methods, approaches and trends. He/she should act the role of 'facilitator' providing support for learning, 'counsellor' where the emphasis is placed on one-to-one interaction and 'resource' in which he/she is seen as a source of knowledge and expertise (Voller1997). That is to say, the teacher should provide environmental, emotional and linguistic support (Walker 1997).
Last but not least, since course evaluation, utility, interest and difficulty tremendously affect the learners' proficiency in their writing and speaking, the teaching items, techniques, materials and equipment should match the learner's level, needs, wants and interest.


Works Cited
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Brown, E. Teaching by Principles. New York: Longman, 2001.
Burstall, C. French in the Primary School: Attitudes and Achievement. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales, 1970.
Chastain, K. 'Affective and ability factors in second language acquisition'. Language Learning 25, 1975: 153 - 61.
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Haque, S. M. F. Attitudes, Motivation and Achievement in English as a Second Language: A Case Study of High School Students in Dhaka City, Bangladesh. Ph. D. Thesis. University of Durham, England, 1989.
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Osgood, C. E., G. J. Suci and P. H. Tannenbaum. The Measurement of Meaning. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1957.
Parkinson, B. and C. Howell-Richardson. 'Learner diaries.' C. Brumfit and R. Mitchell (eds.). Research in the Language Classroom. ELT Documents 133, Modern English Publications, 1990.
Trylong, V. L. Aptitude, Attitudes, and Anxiety: a Study of their Relationships to Achievement in the Foreign Language. Ph. D. Dissertation. Purdue University, 1987.
Voller, P. 'Does the teacher have a role in autonomous learning?' P. Benson and P. Voller (eds.). Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning. London: Longman, 1997: 98 - 113.
Walker, E. Foreign Language Anxiety in Hong Kong Secondary Schools: Its relationship with the Age-Related factors, Schools Form and Self-Perception. Ph. D. Thesis. University of Hong Kong, 1997.

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