Linguistic correlates to communicative proficiency levels of the CEFR
The case of syntactic complexity in written L2 English, L3 French and L4 Italian
This study is a contribution to the empirical underpinning of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), and it aims to identify linguistic correlates to the proficiency levels defined by the CEFR. The study was conducted in a Swedish school setting, focusing on English, French and Italian, and examined the relationship between CEFR levels (A1–C2) assigned by experienced raters to learners’ written texts and three measures of syntactic complexity (based on length of t-unit, subclause ratio, and mean length of clause (cf. Norris & Ortega, 2009)). Data were elicited through two written tasks (a short letter and a narrative) completed by pupils of L2 English (N = 54) in years four, nine and the final year of upper-secondary school, L3 French (N = 38) in year nine and the final year of upper-secondary school, and L4 Italian (N = 28) in the final year of upper-secondary school and first year of university. The results showed that, globally, there were weak to medium-strong correlations between assigned CEFR levels and the three measures of syntactic complexity in English, French and Italian. Furthermore, it was found that syntactic complexity was homogeneous across the three languages at CEFR level A, whereas syntactic complexity was different across languages at CEFR level B, especially in the data for English and French. Consequences for the empirical validity of the CEFR framework and the nature of the three measures of complexity are discussed.