Performing the Function of Language

BYU hosted an American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages workshop, where Troy Cox explained the reasoning and processes behind the Oral Proficiency Interview system.

PROVO, Utah (June 7, 2016)—When World War II ended, the United States suddenly found itself a leading figure in the world community. With this new status came the need for U.S. citizens to be sent to embassies around the world, and for that, the government needed  a way to determine language skills for potential employees.


Troy Cox walks educators through the Oral Proficiency Interview classifications.

The classification system the government developed quickly trickled down to higher education, becoming today’s Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) exam. In an American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages workshop, Troy Cox explained to an audience of hopeful evaluators and educators that this test is less focused on the academic study of language than on the functionality of language. “It’s not what a learner knows about the language,” he said. “What’s important is what they can do with the language.”

An OPI consists of either a face-to-face or telephone conversation with a second-language  evaluator. Following standardized protocol, the evaluator asks questions that elicit responses that demonstrate the speaker’s control of the language. “We’re looking at . . . what they can consistently do at one level, not at the next, higher level,” Cox said.

By analyzing the “floor” (the base level the speaker can communicate at) and the “ceiling” (the extent of the speaker’s control of the language), the evaluator can give the speaker a classification: novice, intermediate, advanced or superior. A novice is what Cox called a parrot: they have memorized words and phrases, but they do not possess the ability to connect those words and phrases together.

At the intermediate level, the speaker has the ability to create with the language, handling simple transactions and day-to-day life. Cox referred to this level as the “linguistic survivor,” saying, “This is the person we could send to travel in the country and have confidence that they would make it back alive.”

At the advanced level, the speaker should be able to narrate and describe concrete ideas in all time frames and handle complicated situations. Finally, at the superior level, the speaker can support opinions and hypotheses and handle linguistically unfamiliar situations.

To determine which level the speaker should be classified as, Cox told his audience to “stick with the FACTs”: function, accuracy, content and text type. By establishing where the speaker aligns in all of these categories, the evaluator can determine which category the speaker should be classified as, as well as which subcategory best fits the speaker’s ability.

Cox explained how over the course of the four-day conference, educators would have a chance to explore the intricacies of the OPI system and practice it for themselves. From there they would have the tools to administer an OPI in their respective languages and rate students along a nationally recognized scale while giving them benchmarks to strive for in the application of language.

The OPI system goes beyond the classroom and into real world experience. As Cox said, it “has really been a professional game changer for me in terms of how to conceptualize language and how I can help people improve in it.” By focusing on functionality and how to improve student creation with foreign languages, Cox hopes that BYU’s legacy of producing outstanding second-language speakers will continue to grow.

Alison Siggard (English Education ’17)

Alison covers events for the College of Humanities. She is a senior studying English teaching with a minor in music.