A Review of Leo Selivan’s (2018) “Lexical Grammar”

In the Introduction to his book Lexical Grammar, Selivan explains what lexical chunks are, why they’re so important, and how they should be used in ELT. I will argue that the explanation is confused and simplistic; that the works by scholars advocating a usage-based theory of language learning are misrepresented and misinterpreted; that Selivan fails to give any coherent account of how chunks are stored, or what part they play in learning an L2; and that he fails to make the case for using chunks “to drive grammar acquisition”.

What is a chunk? 

Selivan says “A chunk is a group of words customarily found together”. He gives these examples:

  • fixed expressions, e.g., as a matter of fact,
  • combinations of words that allow variation, such as see you later/soon/tomorrow,
  • collocations, such as pursue a career; a scenic route; a chance encounter,
  • stems that can be used to build various sentences in English, such as If I were you; It’s been a while since; It took me a long time to
  • full sentences, such as It’s none of your business; There’s no doubt about it; What are you gonna do?

 Given the wide spread covered by chunks, Selivan asks:

Is everything chunks, then? He answers:   

Yes, to a large extent. Evidence suggests that our mental lexicon does not consist of individual words but chunks. Chunks …. are stored in the brain as single units. Research shows that about 50–80% of native-speaker discourse consists of recurring multi- word combinations (Altenberg, 1987; Erman and Warren, 2000).

We may quickly note that everything is not chunks, and the claim made for the research on recurring multi- word combinations is exaggerated. Selivan goes on to say that chunks “blur the boundary between vocabulary and grammar” because of “the tendency of certain words to occur with certain grammatical structures and vice versa”. True enough.

In the next section, Selivan asks “Is there more to knowing a language than just reproducing chunks we have encountered?”, and replies by giving a summary of Hoey’s “new theory of language acquisition”.

Hoey’s Lexical Priming

Here is Selivan’s summary:

Hoey (2005) argues that as we acquire new words we take a subconscious note of words that occur alongside (collocation) and of any associated grammatical patterns (colligation). Through multiple encounters with a new word, we become primed to associate it with these recurring elements.  According to Hoey’s theory, our brain is like a giant corpus where each word is accompanied by mental usage notes. Language production is not a matter of simply combining words and rules but rather a retrieval of the language we are primed for, i.e. the patterns and combinations we have previously seen or heard. …. The theory explains why, when producing language, our first port of call is our mental store of pre-fabricated chunks. However, this does not completely negate the role of generative grammar. Knowledge of grammar rules is still important to fine-tune chunks so that they fit new contexts. Because we are only primed to repeat language we have encountered in particular contexts, if we find ourselves in a new communicative situation, we might not have any ready-made language to draw on. This is when grammar knowledge can help us produce completely new sentences.

This is actually a very poor account of Hoey’s theory, and there are several things wrong with it, but let’s focus on storing chunks. According to Selivan, Hoey says that our brain is like a giant corpus where each word is accompanied by mental usage notes. But how does that fit with the claim that our brain stores chunks as whole single units? As Tremblay, Derwing and Libben (2007) point out, ‘stored’ could mean one of two things. The words making up the chunk could be seen as individual items which are linked together through knowing that they go together. So the chunk in the middle of  would be [in -> the -> middle-> of]. On the other hand, ‘stored’ could mean that the chunk had no internal structure and would look something like [inthemiddleof]. Selliven repeatedly says that chunks are stored as single holistic units, but if so, then these units are indivisible chunks with no internal parts – they’re not linked together through knowing that they go together – and therefore they can’t be “teased apart”, or used as templates, or used to drive the process of grammar acquisition .We’ll return to this is a minute.

The confusion mounts when Selivan goes on to talk about “the role of generative grammar” (sic) in allowing learners to “fine-tune chunks so that they fit new contexts”. Selivan suggests that we are only primed to repeat language which we have encountered in particular contexts, and that consequently “if we find ourselves in a new communicative situation, we might not have any ready-made language to draw on”. He goes on: “this is when grammar knowledge can help us produce completely new sentences”. Not only does this show a complete failure to understand Hoey’s theory, it also paints an unlikely picture of L2 learners’ dichomotomous behaviour, suggesting that when they’re in “familiar contexts” they repeat language they’ve already encountered, whereas when they’re confronted with “new communicative situations”, they must resort to grammar knowledge in order to produce completely new sentences.

Chunks in Language Acquisition

According to Selivan, chunks allow learners to produce language such as I haven’t seen you for ages “when their own grammatical competence doesn’t yet allow them to generate new sentences in the present perfect”. But they do more – much more – than that:  memorised chunks also “drive the process of grammar acquisition”. The argument is (and I’m re-arranging the original text a bit) that children acquiring their L1 start out by recording pieces of language encountered during their day-to-day interaction and then repeating words (e.g. dog) or multi-word phrases (e.g. Let me do it, Where’s the ball?). They then slightly modify the encountered language to suit various communicative needs:

  • Where’s the ball?
  • Where’s the dog?
  • Where’s Daddy?

Only later, says Selivan, do abstract categories and schemas, such as the subject–verb–object word order or inversion in interrogatives, begin to form “from these specific instances of language use”.

But this is not how children learn their first language. O’Grady (2005) explains how children use a collection of abilities to learn language. They begin by distinguishing speech sounds from other types of sounds and from each other. They then use the ability to produce speech sounds in an intelligible manner, stringing them together to form words and sentences. For words, there is first of all the ability to pick the building blocks of language out of the speech stream by noticing recurring stress patterns (like the strong–weak pattern of English) and which combinations of consonants are most likely to occur at word boundaries. For meaning, they have the ability to “fast map” – to learn the meaning of a word on the basis of a single exposure to its use, using linguistic clues to infer (for instance) that a zav must be a thing, but that Zav has to be a person. For sentences, there’s the ability to note patterns of particular types (subject–verb–object constructions, passives, negatives, relative clauses), to see how they are built, and to figure out what they are used for.

Most relvant to Selivan’s central claim for chunks is O’Grady’s account of the beginning of an infant’s language learning. Right at the start, children pick what they can out of the stream of speech that flows past their ears. They often pick out single words, but sometimes they get larger bites of speech – like what’s that? (pronounced whadat) or give me (pronounced gimme). O’Grady says there’s a simple test to decide whether a particular utterance should be thought of as a multi-word sentence or an indivisible chunk with no internal parts: if there are multiple words and the child knows it, they should show up elsewhere in his speech – either on their own or in other combinations. That’s what happens in adult speech, where the three words in What’s that? can each be used in other sentences as well.

But in child language, what’s that is almost certainly an indivisible chunk. There’s no indication that the different parts of an utterance have an independent existence of their own, and there’s no evidence that they get “slightly modified to suit various communicative needs” in the way Selivan suggests.

O’Grady suggests that children have two different styles of language learning.

1. The analytic style breaks speech down into its smallest component parts, and short, clearly articulated, one-word utterances characterise the early stages of language learning. They like to name people (Daddy, Mummy) and objects (Kitty, car) and they use simple words like up, hot, hungry to describe how they feel and what they want.

2. Other children take a different approach. They memorize and produce relatively large chunks of speech (often poorly articulated) that correspond to entire sequences of words in the adult language. Whasdat?, dunno, donwanna, gimmedat, lookadat. This is called the gestalt style of language learning.

No child employs a completely analytic strategy or a purely gestalt style. Rather, children exhibit tendencies in one direction or the other. Whatever direction they tend towards, all children eventually become competent language users, and to suggest, as Selivan does, that this process can be described – and even explained – by saying that they unpack chunks that are stored as holistic units in the brain is not just absurdly simplistic, it’s also so confused as to be preposterous.

L2 Learning 

Selivan argues that the SLA process is very similar to L1 learning: L2 learners use memorized chunks to drive “the process of grammar acquisition” by “extrapolating grammar rules” from them. Selliven cites SLA studies which show that new grammatical structures are often learned initially as unanalysed wholes and later on broken down for analysis. For example, learners may learn the going to future form as a chunk, such as I am going to write about for writing essays (Bardovi-Harlig, 2002), before adapting the structure to include other verbs: I am going to take/try/make, etc. Holistically stored chunks gradually evolve into more productive patterns as learners tease them apart and use them as templates to create new sentences:

  • I haven’t seen you for ages.
  • I haven’t seen her for ages.
  • I haven’t seen him since high school
  • I haven’t heard from her for ages.

 Here we go again! Holistically stored chunks by definition can’t gradually evolve into more productive patterns. While there’s every reason to think that L2 learners unpack chunks, Selivan fails to cite the relevant literature, and fails to situate the process of unpacking, analysing and re-packing certain types of chunks in any coherent theory of SLA.

Things get worse. Selivan continues his discussion by raising the question:

Why is it that while children effortlessly acquire their mother tongue from examples using their pattern-finding ability, the process of L2 acquisition is often so laborious, with many learners never reaching native-like performance?”

One of the main reasons, says Selivan, is lack of exposure – L1 proficiency is the result of thousands of hours of exposure to rich language input, while the exposure L2 learners receive is often not suficient to enable them to identify patterns from specific examples. But even when there is plenty of input, Selivan admits that there are additional factors which may hinder the process of L2 acquisition. He focuses on salience, the lack of which, he says, may explain why certain grammatical forms are notoriously difficult for learners to acquire. Selivan points out that many grammatical cues in English (for example tense marking, the third person singular -s and articles) are not salient. And grammatical words tend to be unstressed in English, making them more difficult to perceive aurally. We stress know in I don’t know, not don’t, which results in something sounding like I dunno in spoken English. We stress taken in You should have taken an umbrella, which is reduced to You should’ve taken an umbrella, or even You shoulda taken an umbrella.

Discussion

There are a number of problems with this account. First, it relies on a usage-based theory of language acquisition, which is not accepted by the majority of scholars working in the field of SLA. Selivan should at least respond to crtiics of his preferred theory, which is still in its infancy, does not accurately describe langauge learning, and does not explain how children acquire linguistic competence. I’ll just mention a few points from Gregg’s 2003 article on emergentism:

  • Usage-based theories don’t tell us anything about children’s linguistic knowledge which comes about in the absence of exposure (i.e., a frequency of zero), including knowledge of what is not possible.
  • While N. Ellis aptly points to infants’ ability to do statistical analyses of syllable frequency, he fails to acknowledge that those infants didn’t learn that ability. How do young children uniformly manage this task: why do they focus on syllable frequency (instead of some other information available in exposure), and how do they know what a syllable is in the first place, given crosslinguistic variation?
  • How does usage-based theory account for studies showing early grammatical knowledge, in cases where input frequency could not possibly be appealed to?
  • Regarding infant L1 learning, claims by Ellis and others that “learners need to have processed sufficient exemplars…” are either outright false, or else true only vacuously (if “sufficient” is taken to range from as low a figure as 1).
  • “It is precisely because grammar rules have a deductive structure that one can have instantaneous learning, without the trial and error involved in connectionist learning. With the English past tense rule, one can instantly determine the past tense form of “zoop” without any prior experience of that verb, let alone of “zooped”…. If all we know is that John zoops wugs, then we know instantaneously that John zoops, that he might have zooped yesterday and may zoop tomorrow, that he is a wug-zooper who engages in wug-zooping, that whereas John zoops, two wug-zoopers zoop, that if he’s a Canadian wug-zooper he’s either a Canadian or a zooper of Canadian wugs (or both), etc.  We know all this without learning it, without even knowing what “wug” and “zoop” mean.” (Gregg, 2003, p. 111).

Second, as already stated, Selivan doesn’t explain how “holistically stored chunks” can “evolve into more productive patterns as learners tease them apart and use them as templates to create new sentences”. In order to be used in this way, the chunks need to be better defined, and the way in which they’re stored and retrieved has to be properly explained.

Third, Selivan fails to grasp what usage-based theory has to say about associative learning or about differences between L1 and L2 learning. His discussion of salience is completely out of place in a simplistic model which sees language learning as a process where you start by memorising chunks, then, when the occasion demands, tease them apart and use them as templates to create new sentences, and thus learn grammatical rules. Such an account doesn’t accurately describe any usage-based theory of learning, and it doesn’t explain why salience is a problem for L2 learners of English but not for infant L1 learners of English.

In brief, Selivan misrepresents and misinterprets Hoey, Tomasello, and Ellis; he makes no attempt to address the criticisms made of usage-based theories; he fails to explain the enormous disparities between the results of L1 and L2 learning; and he fails to give any coherent account of what chunks are, or what part they play in learning an L2. There is little to recommend it as an explanation of how people learn an L2.

Chunks in Language Teaching

In the final section, Selivan looks at chunks in language teaching.  He argues that “the learning of new structures” should start off as gradual exposure to and accumulation of chunks containing the target structures. As the number of stored chunks grows, chunks exhibiting the same pattern will gradually feed into the grammar system. This is when grammatical competence with a particular structure begins to emerge. To speed up the process of chunk accumulation and pattern detection, chunks need to be taught explicitly. Here are some bits of the advice offered:

  • Learners’ attention should be drawn to chunks containing certain grammatical structures. They can practise and learn the chunks lexically before moving on to any kind of grammar explanation, i.e. they should be encouraged to memorize before they analyse.
  • Many classroom activities should focus on highlighting chunks in reading and listening input. Such receptive, awareness-raising activities can be gradually combined with more productive ones, where learners manipulate the chunks to fit different communicative situations and scenarios.
  • Learners should be eased into new grammar areas through chunks. For example, Have you ever been to can be presented in the context of travel or holidays, without delving into a grammatical analysis of the present perfect. Similarly, Have you seen can be presented when discussing films in class. Start by getting learners to practise and memorize chunks containing a new grammatical structure, resisting the temptation to move too quickly into any grammar explanation.
  • Getting learners to produce new language is an essential pedagogical activity. Using new grammatical structures, however partially or provisionally understood, promotes fluency and acquisition of these structures. It also allows learners to produce language which is structurally beyond their present level of competence. It is, therefore, the teacher’s role to encourage learners to incorporate new structures in their output and ‘push’ them beyond their comfort zone.

Let’s just pause here and look at that last one. Selivan suggests that teachers should get learners to produce new language which is structurally beyond their present level of competence by using new grammatical structures which they only partially understand. Does producing memorised chunks that have been stored in the brain as single units count as producing new language? If not, how are teachers to get learners to do it?

Rather than examine Selivan’s methodology in any detail, it’s enough to note that he thinks teachers of English as an L2 should

  • continue to use coursebooks,
  • continue to use a PPP methodology to present and then practice a sequence of formal elements of the language,

but

  • get students to memorise chunks and then use those chunks as a way of easing into grammar teaching.

His version of ELT is thus subject to the same criticisms made of other types of synthetic syllabuses which are implemented using a PPP methodology. Still, there’s one particular problem that has to be faced, and that is, of course: Which chunks should be presented for memorisation and further work, and in what order? Given the impossibility of getting students to memorise the tens of thousands of chunks needed for fluent communication, how do you select and sequence the necessarily small fraction of chunks that will drive any particular course of ELT?  Selivan doesn’t answer the question, which is hardly surprising, because there is no answer. If you select some chunks and then teach them in the way Selivan suggests, even if students actually learn them all, you won’t cover enough to get anywhere near the number known by competent English users. Now doesn’t that suggest that there’s some fatal flaw in the whole project, and that there are better ways of helping students to develop communicative competence?

References 

Gregg, K. (2003) The state of emergentism in second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 19, 2.

Hoey, M. (2005) Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language. London: Routledge.

O’Grady, W. (2008) How Children Learn Language. Cambridge, CUP.

Selivan, L. (2018) Lexical Grammar. Cambridge, CUP.

Tremblay, Derwing and Libben (2007) Are lexical bundles stored and processed as single units? Proceedings of 23rd Linguistics Conference, Victoria, BC, Canada.

 

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16 thoughts on “A Review of Leo Selivan’s (2018) “Lexical Grammar”

  1. Hi Geoff,

    I read you review of Leo’s book with interest, not least because it is a book I had the pleasure of editing, so I must take some responsibility for the way its case for a lexis-oriented pedagogy has been presented. However, I am not going to re-rehearse the arguments here. I would just take issue with your claim that a usage-based (UB) theory of learning ‘is not accepted by the majority of scholars working in the field of SLA.’

    Reporting on a survey of upward of a 100 ‘scholars working in the field of SLA’, in the US, Europe and Australia, in order to ascertain the current state of applied linguistics, Kees de Bot (2015a) found that the once-dominant theoretical paradigm, what he calls ‘orthodox generative SLA’, has been taken over by ‘different approaches, such as sociocultural theory, emergentism, complexity/dynamic systems theory, and various forms of usage-based (UB) linguistics’ and that ‘proponents of a progressive Chomskian view on language are now considered as conservative’… He goes on to say that ‘now a generation of UG [universal grammar] linguists is retiring, and there is a tendency in many universities not to replace them with younger scholars of that school, but rather to appoint UB oriented linguists. As some of the interviewees in my study indicated, there is almost a sense of euphoria that the grip of the nativists on what constitutes linguistics is gone and that other approaches and more social orientations are seen as meaningful alternatives’ (de Bot 2015b, 262 – 3).

    We can, if we like, dismiss this so-called paradigm shift as a lemming-like dash to the theoretical cliff-edge, but it is simply not true to argue that UB-learning ‘is not accepted by the majority of scholars working in the field of SLA.’

    de Bot, K. (2015a) A History of Applied Linguistics 1980 – 2010. London: Routledge.
    de Bot, K. (2015b) ‘Moving where? A reaction to Slabakova et al (2014) Applied Linguistics, 36/2.

    PS. Having just written this, I took delivery of a new book on usage-based learning theory, in whcih – in the introduction – the editors note:

    ‘The inspiration for L2 instruction that usage-based ideas provide is grounded in over 20-plus years of research in psychology, psycholinguistics, cognitive science, linguistic theory (including discourse analysis), and other related fields… Quite recently, a critical mass of scholars interested in contributing to instructed SLA has been energised around usage-based theories.’

    (Tyler, A. E., Ortega, L., Uno, M., & Park, H. I. (2018) Usage-inspired L2 instruction: researched pedagogy. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.)

  2. Hi Scott,

    Let me start by saying, once again, that I respect you as a progressive force in ELT, and that I’m as beguiled as everybody else is by your charm. I’m very pleased to see your comment here, and I wish you’d answer the 5 questions that prompted this new blog.

    Selivan’s confused, incoherent account of language learning has your stamp all over it, from its content-free appeal to chaos theory, through its absurd references to generative grammar and grammatical competence, to its daft suggestion that ELT should concern itself primarily with teasing out the grammatical content of chunks. As the editor of Selivan’s book, you must take responsibility for the general incoherence and lack of cohesion of the text; its lamentable lack of scholarship; its misrepresentation of Hoey’s theory and of usage based theories of language learning; its inability to present any coherent view of SLA; and its failure to confront the problem of how to teach the tens of thousands of chunks which competent users of English display.

    In order to assess the merits of usage based theories of language learning, they need to be properly described. Selivan fails to give any coherent description of them and actually seriously misrepresents them. In your comment here, you choose to say nothing about any of this, preferring to defend usage-based theories by citing an article that says nothing about their content. Let’s look at this defence.

    I said that a usage-based (UB) theory of learning is not accepted by the majority of scholars working in the field of SLA. You cite Kees De Bot’s survey of upward of a 100 scholars working in the field of SLA which suggests that the once-dominant theoretical paradigm of “orthodox generative SLA” has been taken over by different approaches, including various usage-based (UB) theories . De Bot says that there is a tendency in many universities to appoint UB oriented linguists, and that “there is almost a sense of euphoria that the grip of the nativists on what constitutes linguistics is gone and that other approaches and more social orientations are seen as meaningful alternatives”.

    This doesn’t refute my claim. Neither does the quote you give in the PS. This is important. Do you get it? The “grip of nativists”, the “sense of euphoria” that the grip is giving way, and all the rest of it, does nothing to refute my claim. Is that clear? Let me make it clear: most people working in SLA don’t accept UB theories.

    A different, more important question is, of course: Who’s right? Nick Ellis, Tomasello and others are doing exciting work, and we should pay attention to it. But so far most SLA scholars remain unconvinced: the majority prefer to work on the assumption that we learn languages thanks to help from innate hard wiring. UB attempts to show that language learning can be explained by associate learning have so far failed, but they’re gathering steam and they might succeed. I wish them well, but their efforts don’t get any help from anything you’ve contributed so far, and they certainly don’t benefit from Selivan’s treatment of them.

    Nothing you’ve published replies to the criticisms of UB made by Gregg in his 2003 article on emergentism, and nothing you say here warrants your claim that UB theories are the new paradigm. Most importantly, in the context of Selivan’s book, you say nothing to defend his misrepresentation of UB theories, or to defend him against the criticisms I make of his book.

  3. Thank you Geoff. As I said, I’m not going to argue the toss on emergentism vs generative/nativist SLA theories. We’ll never agree but I tend to trust the judgement of proven researchers and widely-cited scholars such as Lourdes Ortega, among many (and whose co-edited collection of papers on UB I would strongly recomment, at first blush) . My sole reason for commenting on your review was to take issue with your mischeivous claim that UB-theories are generally repudiated by SLA scholars. You insist on this (‘most people working in SLA don’t accept UB theories’) without offering a shred of evidence. Not a shred. Your intransigence reminds me of Krashen’s (who I met for the first time last month) who still doggedly insists on the sufficiency of comprehensible input and contrasts his theory only with skill-acquisition theory (another vestige of the 1980s) as if nothing else had happened since. I think it may be time you and he emerged from your respective bunkers and sniffed the breeze. Something is blowing in the wind. 😉

  4. Why not argue the toss on emergentist vs nativist theories? Why not let an appeal to rational argument and evidence decide? You say “We’ll never agree” as if we’re stuck in opposing camps that can’t talk to each other. I’m prepared to be persuaded by rational argument and evidence that UB therories are right, but I’m not persuaded yet, although I’m very keen to see the UB theories prosper. It’s you, not I, who has decided where the truth lies.

    As you know, Nick Ellis and Mike Long have already found common ground, and I think there’s a good chance that we’ll end up with a theory that ditches Chomsky’s theory and adopts a view closer to O’Grady’s, with its appeal to a more general (innate!) processor – Nick Ellis is moving there. I criticise usage based theories that take a more strictly empiricist view (no such thing as mind), silly stories about flocks of birds and broccoli, and the sociolinguistic, post-modernist relativism that informs the work of people like our mutual friend David Block who reject a realist epistemology.

    I take the stance of a critical rationalist, I’m persuaded by the poverty of the stimulus argument, and by Gregg’s insistence that we need a property theory to make sense of transition theories of SLA. I recognise that we don’t have any complete theory of SLA, but I’m persuaded, so far, by the psycholinguistic theory that explains SLA as a process of interlanguage development whereby learners refine their mental representation of the target language by appeal to innate knowledge of how language works. This suggests that language learning is basically a matter of implicit learning, and has implications for ELT, to the effect that coursebook-driven ELT is fundamentally mistaken. Interestingly enough, you adopt a UB view of language learning which even more forcefully stresses the role of implicit language learning.

    I didn’t say that UB-theories are generally repudiated by SLA scholars, I said that most SLA scholars are unconvinced. You’re quite right to say that I don’t offer any evidence for this, but I’ll have a bet with you. If we look at articles published in the last 5 years about SLA in the top 10 journals, and if we also look at the contents of MA courses in applied linguistics that have modules on SLA in the top 50 universities in the world, I bet you that UB theories are not as frequently represented as cognitive theories that either ignore or reject UB theories.

    You tend to trust the judgement of scholars like Lourdes Ortega, who nowhere gives any support to the conclusions that Selivan comes to, whose conclusions about the implications of SLA studies for ELT have come under increasing fire, and who voices serious reservations about the more strident claims of UB theorists. You presumeably ignore the judgement of scholars like Doughty, Long, Robinson, Skehan, Schmidt, Cook, Carroll, Gass, R. Ellis, O’Grady, Mitchell, Myles, White, Gregg, Lightbown, Spada, and a host of others whose names don’t spring to mind, who reject UB theories.

    But anyway, let’s just suppose that I’m wrong to say that most SLA scholars reject UB. So what? The question remains: Who’s right? How do people learn an L2? We’ll only answer that question by an appeal to the evidence and to rational argument. Sniffing the breeze and detecting that something is blowing in the wind is no more than a promising start.

  5. Thanks for your considered response, Geoff. You’re right: in the end it’s not about how many scholars line up to the left or the right of the halfway line. Nor, I would hazard, is it about ‘who’s right’, since in the social sciences, matters are seldom decided unequivocally. Or by a show of hands. That’s why I do NOT ignore the judgement of the scholars you mention (many of whom occupy a prominent place on my bookshelf). Apropos, it’s worth noting that Nina Spada was one of the editors of the Tyler et al collection on UB, while Rod Ellis is quoted (by de Bot) as saying that, in the forthcoming edition of Understanding SLA ‘there will no longer be a separate chapter on [generative grammar]-based approaches to SLA, but only some paragraphs in the chapter on linguistic approaches.’ Also, I personally see a LOT of overlap between task-based approaches and usage-based ones, both of which are predicated on experiential models of learning, while decisions regarding the optimal balance between implicit and explicit learning are never going to be resolved by context-specific small-scale and/or laboratory studies, but seem best left to teachers ‘on the ground’.

  6. Hi Scott,

    Very pleased to see that there is common ground here. I take your point about nobody claiming to know the truth in the social sciences, and about Spada and R. Ellis. And of course I agree about the common ground between TBLT & UB approaches to teaching. I particularly like Nick Ellis’ commitment to making his research relevant to teachers.

    While decisions on the optimal balance between implicit and explicit learning / teaching might be best left to teachers on the ground, I think the methodological principles outlined in Long 2015 and those discussed in Thornbury & Meddings 2009 both argue against using General English coursebooks, and both advise against spending more classroom time on explicit instruction than on scaffolding relevant communicative tasks.

  7. regarding the question “Is everything chunks, then?” the studies quoted maybe be giving maximum ranges (i.e. ~50%) due to the fact that the texts used in these studies need to follow certain +editorial/academic/text conventions+.

    A recent study Nelson (2018) gives figures ranging from 1.3% to 31.8% (for 4 grams, 3 grams & 2 grams) for more +general uses+. So the claim that “everything is chunks to a large extent” is probably an excessive claim (though that is not dismissing importance of chunks).

    Nelson, R. (2018). How ‘chunky’is language? Some estimates based on Sinclair’s Idiom Principle. Corpora, 13(3), 431-460. [https://www.academia.edu/34357207/How_Chunky_is_Language_.pdf]

    ta
    mura

  8. Hi Mura,

    I didn’t see this comment till just now. Thanks for the info. on the Nelson study. It’s good to have these data and the link to the free downloadable pdf.

    Best,

    Geoff

  9. Hi Geoff,

    Despite my initial reluctance here’s my response. First of all, let me start by saying that I’m honoured that you have picked my book to pick on – among many books in the Cambridge Handbooks series, let alone among many other ELT books that have been published this year. On one hand I’m surprised by your choice, on the other hand I’m flattered because, as many colleagues on social media have pointed out to me, you choosing to critique – or rather criticise someone’s work – is a sure sign they are doing something right. So there’s that.

    Having looked through your review I see that you picked out some possible contradictions in my treatment of formulaic language, I give you that. But, as I have already pointed out in my long comment on your review of Teaching Lexically by Dellar & Walkley, you treat a practical book of activities/classroom ideas as if it was an academic treatise focusing your scathing criticism entirely on the first few pages devoted to the theoretical background. In fact, I’m actually surprised you own a copy of my book. Why would you spend your precious Euros or pounds or whatever currency it is you’ll be using after Brexit on my book? And then a gnawing suspicion creeps in, ‘Aha, he probably hasn’t even seen the book, just looked at the free preview pages on the CUP website’. But anyway, I digress…

    Going back to your self-indulgent treatment of a practical book aimed at teachers as if it was an academic volume. In a handbook like this, simplifications (which you prefer to refer to as ‘misinterpretations’) are inevitable. In fact, I had to cut my theoretical part, which is, in its current form, already quite long for the series, by half! It’s your SUBJECTIVE opinion that I misrepresent Hoey’s theory but – by the way, thanks for reminding me to send a copy to Michael Hoey and see what he has to say – this is YOUR opinion.

    You have already attacked Hugh Dellar, and possibly Scott Thornbury on the pages of this blog for allegedly misrepresenting Hoey’s theory. Interestingly, you also took to pieces Scheffler’s (2014) criticism of Hoey’s (as I said, I can no longer find anything on your blog because you’re constantly moving things around). You try to proclaim yourself as the only one who understands Hoey’s theory (the only one who understands any theory for that matter) while all the others, even critics, misrepresent it! That’s just silly, isn’t it? Perhaps, you’re the one with the problem?

    Regarding your long list of scholars who allegedly “reject” usage-based (UB) theories – Doughty, Long, Robinson, Skehan, Schmidt, Cook, Carroll, Gass, R. Ellis, O’Grady, Mitchell, Myles, White, Gregg, Lightbown, Spada – I am surprised Ferdinand de Saussure didn’t make the list! Some of these never make reference to UB theories in their work. While some others have actually edited books with chapters devoted to UB theories.

    Even if readers were foolish enough to fall for your sweeping statement – and incidentally, the UG theories that you choose to take issue with is only ONE strand of research I draw on among at least three – there is a slew of other scholars who do subscribe to the UB view, such as Bybee, Wray, Wood, Ellis, N, MacWhinney, de Bot, Tomasello and O’Grady ! In fact, one of them referred to my book as “a long overdue resource of ways to teach multiword/formulaic units” in a recent tweet.

    You keep repeating mantra “doesn’t provide a coherent account of SLA” when the book never purports to. You make a baseless accusation that I support the PPP paradigm – this is never mentioned in the book. In fact I cite Dave Willis who is critical of the PPP approach. I guess your ‘free preview’ didn’t include that bit.

    Lastly, even if we were to accept your intransigent view (supported by a random list of SLA researchers aimed to show off your erudite knowledge) that UB theories are not accepted by SLA scholars you have, in a way, complimented me again! Effectively you’re saying that I champion a left-field take on SLA, which renders the book in hand as cutting edge, nothing short of ground breaking, revolutionary indeed! Kudos to me!

  10. My PC is bust. I’m trying to use my wife’s, but it’s painfully slow. I’ll reply next week.

  11. Hey Geoff,

    I’ve not read Leo’s book but I didn’t see much perspective from you here about what you think about Chunks. I’m writing about this at the moment and there seem to be four claims in general about the lexical method:
    1. That much of language is made up of formulaic language.
    2. That it’s useful to know formulaic language for receptive L2 use.
    3. That it’s also useful to know formulaic language for productive L2 use.
    4. That formulaic language can be taught.

    While I can see a fair few papers problematising some of these concepts (e.g. it’s hard to count how much of language is formulaic) I can still see a fair amount of evidence for each of these claims and wanted to ask which of them, if any, you disagree with.

  12. Hi Leo,

    My PC is working again, so here’s my reply to yours.

    First, you complain that I treat a practical book of classroom activities as if it were an academic treatise. I do no such thing. My argument is that your Introduction gives a false account of lexical chunks, misrepresents work on a usage-based theory of language learning, fails to give any coherent account of how chunks are stored, or what part they play in learning an L2, and fails to make the case for using chunks “to drive grammar acquisition”. The Introduction of a book like yours is there to persuade the reader that the activities which it offers are derived from sound principles. So of course it isn’t an academic treatise, and I don’t treat it as such. It’s a 5,000 word essay outlining a particular approach to language, language learning and language teaching, its function is to underpin the rest of the book, and I suggest that it has several weaknesses. Surely you should address these putative weaknesses, not complain that “It’s only 5,000 words!”

    You then say that I’ve already attacked Hugh Dellar and Scott Thornbury for allegedly misrepresenting Hoey’s theory, and I’ve also criticised Scheffler’s (2014) criticism of Hoey. You continue:

    You try to proclaim yourself as the only one who understands Hoey’s theory while all the others, even critics, misrepresent it! That’s just silly, isn’t it? Perhaps, you’re the one with the problem?

    Well, in fact, I don’t proclaim any such thing, and it’s more than silly to suggest that I do.

    And to say that my criticisms are “SUBJECTIVE”; that they express MY opinion is to state no more than the blindingly obvious.

    As for my long list of scholars who reject usage-based (UB) theories, all of them have made it perfectly clear that they are against UB explanations of language learning in general and SLA in particular. When a scholar states that they adopt a nativist framework, or a cognitive-interactionist theory of SLA, it follows that they reject UB theories, even if they don’t make reference to UB theories in their work. And, of course, the fact that some of those on the list have edited books with chapters devoted to UB theories doesn’t mean that they accept UB theories.

    Yes, there are many scholars who subscribe to the UB view. I think I’ve made it clear that I’m very interested in the work being done by N. Ellis, Tomasello and others, and that I wish them well. My point regarding your book is that you misrepresent the UB view, and ignore the criticisms made by Gregg and others.

    My claim that you support the PPP paradigm is based on the fact that you endorse coursebook-driven ELT. If you don’t think the PPP approach to ELT is a good one, then I apologise for misrepresenting your view.

    So your reply doesn’t do much to answer the points I raised. Perhaps you’ like another crack at answering them.

    1. Hoey says that words are stored as in a giant corpus – each word accompanied by “mental usage notes” about collocations and colligations. Is this not at odds with your claim that our brain stores chunks as whole single units?

    2. If lexical chunks are stored as single units – indivisible chunks with no internal parts – how can they be “teased apart”, or used as templates, or used to drive the process of grammar acquisition ?

    3. You say that “generative grammar” allows learners to fine-tune chunks so that they fit new contexts. Since we are only primed to repeat language which we have encountered in particular contexts, “if we find ourselves in a new communicative situation, … grammar knowledge can help us produce completely new sentences”. Does this not contradict Hoey’s view that there can be no appeal to grammar – let alone an appeal to Chomsky’s Universal Grammar? Hoey says

    If grammar and semantics are post-hoc effects of the way lexical items have been primed, … there is no right or wrong in language. It makes little sense to talk of something being ungrammatical. All one can say is that a lexical item or items are used in a way not predicted by your priming…. everybody’s language is truly unique, in that all our lexical items are primed differently as a result of different encounters.

    4. You suggest that L2 learners have two ways of behaving: when they’re in “familiar contexts”, they repeat language which they’ve already encountered; whereas, when they’re confronted with “new communicative situations”, they resort to grammar knowledge in order to produce completely new sentences. Are you seriously suggesting that L2 learners behave in this dichotomous way? What sort of grammar knowledge do the resort to? How did they get this grammar knowledge?

    5. You say that children acquiring their L1 start out by recording pieces of language encountered during their day-to-day interaction and then repeating words or multi-word phrases. They then slightly modify the encountered language to suit various communicative needs. Only later, you say, do abstract categories and schemas, such as the subject–verb–object word order or inversion in interrogatives, begin to form “from these specific instances of language use”. At the same time, you insist that children learn language by unpacking chunks that are stored as holistic units in the brain. Is there not a contradiction here? And anyway, how do you reply to O’Grady’s account of how children learn languages, briefly summarised in the review of your book, based on empirical research, which completely contradicts your confused “explanation”?

    6. You argue that the SLA process is very similar to L1 learning: L2 learners use memorized chunks to drive “the process of grammar acquisition” by “extrapolating grammar rules” from them. But you don’t explain how L2 learners do this. Are you relying on usage-based theories of SLA to explain how “holistically stored chunks gradually evolve into more productive patterns as learners tease them apart and use them as templates to create new sentences”?

    7. You describe language learning as a process where learners start by memorising lexical chunks, then, when the occasion demands, teasing them apart and using them as templates to create new sentences, and thus learn grammatical rules. What theory of SLA does this correspond to? How does it explain why salience is a problem for L2 learners of English but not for infant L1 learners of English.

    I look forward to a reply.

  13. Hi Tim,

    Happy New Year! I hope you’re enjoying your masters.

    Regarding “chunks”, I think the 2 most important historical documents are Pawley and Syder’s (1983) “Two puzzles for linguistic theory: native selection and nativelike fluency” in J. Richards and R. Schmidt (eds) Language and Communication London, Longman, and Nattinger & Carricco’s 1992 book Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching Oxford, OUP.

    Pawley & Syder drew attention to what they called “lexicalized sentence stems” -“chunks” of formulaic language, of clause length or longer, a normal competent native speaker having many thousands of them at his disposal. A lexicalized sentence stem is a unit of clause length or longer whose grammatical form and lexical content is wholly or largely fixed; its fixed elements form a standard label for a culturally recognised concept, a term in the language; …… many such stems have a grammar that is unique in that they are subject to an idiosyncratic range of phrase structure and transformational restrictions. Pawley and Syder suggested that the existence of these lexicalized sentence stems questions the traditional compartmentalization of grammar into syntax (productive rules) and dictionary (fixed, arbitrary usages), and also presents learners with two problems: how to learn a means of knowing which of possible well-formed sentences are nativelike (the puzzle of nativelike selection), and second, how to produce lexicalised sentence stems (and often multi-clause units) without hesitating in mid-clause (the puzzle of nativelike fluency).

    Nattinger and DeCarrico, drawing on Pawley and Syder, argue that what they call the “lexical phrase” is at the heart of the English language. By using concordancers to look at large corpora, scholars uncovered recurring patterns of lexical co-occurrence. Strong and weak collocates were identified, and a range of collocations, from the completely fixed (such as many idioms and cliches) to the less predictable, described. As a result of such research, it’s now widely accepted that linguistic knowledge cannot be strictly divided into grammatical rules and lexical items, that rather, there is an entire range of items from the very specific (a lexical item) to the very general (a grammar rule), and since elements exist at every level of generality, it is impossible to draw a sharp border between them. There is, in other words, a continuum between these different levels of language.

    Raining cats and dogs is certainly specific, John saw the giraffe is certainly general. Between these two, however, lies a vast number of phrases like a day/month/year ago, the _____er the _____er, etc., which have varying degrees of generality and cannot efficiently be placed with either of these two extremes. (Nattinger and DeCarrico, 1992)

    I think the most important point is that “there is an entire range of items from the very specific (a lexical item) to the very general (a grammar rule), and since elements exist at every level of generality, it is impossible to draw a sharp border between them”. It is, IMO, not accurate or helpful to say, as Michael Lewis famously does, that language is not lexicalised grammar but rather grammaticalised lexis because no such dichotomy exists. As I’m sure you know, I’m a critic of Hugh Dellar’s attempts to persuade teachers to focus on the explicit teaching of lexical chunks, and I’ve explained why in the posts on Dellar (see Menu on the right) and here in my review of the Dellar & Walkley book:https://geof950777899.wordpress.com/2016/09/03/teaching-lexically-by-hugh-dellar-and-andrew-walkley-a-review/

    While I agree with your statemens 2,3 and 4, the question is, of course, what’s the best way for teachers to help learners with these various types of chunks? Rather than do what Dellar recommends, which is to explicitly teach as many as possible, with no clear criteria for selecting those which receive attention, I think we have to recognise that learning lexical chunks is one of the most challenging aspects of learning English as an L2 for adult learners. Dellar’s assumption that making students aware of collocations, co-text, colligations, antonyms, etc., by giving them repeated exposure to carefully-chosen written and spoken texts, using drills, concept questions, input flood, bottom-up comprehension questions, and so on, will result in the taught language becoming fully proceduralised receives little support from research findings. Quite apart from the question of how many chunks a teacher is expected to treat so exhaustively, there are good reasons to question the assumption that such instruction will have the desired result.

    In his book on TBLT, Long (2015), who sees teaching lexical chunks as an important but minor part of the teacher’s job, concludes that there is, as yet, no satisfactory answer to “the $64,000 dollar question: how best to facilitate chunk learning”. Long’s discussion of explicit approaches to teaching collocations includes the following points:

    * Trying to teach thousands of chunks is out of the question.

    * Drawing learners attention to formulaic strings does not necessarily lead to memory traces usable in subsequent receptive L2 use, and in any case there are far too many to deal with in that way.

    * Getting learners to look at corpora and identify chunks has failed to produce measurable advantages.

    * Activities to get learners to concentrate on collocations on their own have had poor results.

    * Grouping collocations thematically increases the learning load (decreasing transfer to long term memory) and so does presentation of groups which share synonymous collocates, such as make and do.

    * Exposure to input floods where collocations are frequently repeated has poor results.

    * Commercially published ELT material designed to teach collocations have varying results. For example, when lists of verbs in one column are to be matched with nouns in another, this inevitably produces some erroneous groupings that, even when corrective feedback is available, can be expected to leave unhelpful memory traces.

    I look forward to your next podcast.

    Best,
    Geoff

  14. Hi Geoff,
    just to stress how important this insight is: “it’s now widely accepted that linguistic knowledge cannot be strictly divided into grammatical rules and lexical items, that rather, there is an entire range of items from the very specific (a lexical item) to the very general (a grammar rule), and since elements exist at every level of generality, it is impossible to draw a sharp border between them. There is, in other words, a continuum between these different levels of language.”

    Nice!

    I think there is a universe of a difference to seeing language this way as opposed to the slot filler scheme. And it complicates matters on the practical side tremendously. I did my French lessons in high school with two books, one for vocabulary and the other for grammar translation stuff. It was a neat set up (and the amazing thing is that some actually did learn French that way). And today? It seems to me, that we play out language teaching on an area defined by a continuum running on X axis from implicit to explicit and Y from generative grammar to fixed lexical item. The closer we are to generative grammar, the more implicit the learning seems to occur. The more concrete an item, let’s say the name of my dog, the more explicit the learning task.

  15. Hey Geoff, I realised I never responded to this, I really appreciate the detail of this response. It seems really tough to find a way around this problem of needing to learn chunks. Do you think much of extensive reading?

  16. Hi Tim,

    I agree – it’s a really tough queston. Both Mike Long and Nick Ellis see it as one of the key questions for ELT. Extensive reading is an excellent partial solution, if you can get students to to do it. And those teachers who are convinced of its worth often DO get their students to agree to read, for example 10 to 20 books (novels, structural readers, whatever) during a 3 month course. As for dealing more explicitly with some chunks, I think a needs analysis – especially Long’s NA based on identifying target tasks – can start the process of narrowing down the candidates, and then frequency counts and valiancy can further pin point some. But it’s still a huge problem, and I really don’t think Selivan’s book does much to help solve it.

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