Usage-based (UB) theories see language as a structured inventory of conventionalized form-meaning mappings, called constructions, Thus, the first thing one needs to get a handle on is Construction Grammar, which is summarised in Wuff & Ellis (2018). I’ve just been reading Smiskova-Gustafsson’s (2013) doctoral thesis and her brief summary of Nick Ellis’ UB theory reminded me of why I find it so wierd. Acording to N. Ellis, detecting patterns from frequency of forms in input is the way people learn language: when exposed to language input, learners notice frequencies and discover language patterns. Those advocating Construction Grammar insist that the regularities that learners observe in the input emerge from complex interactions of a multitude of variables over time, and that, therefore, the regularities in language we call grammar are not rule-based; rather, they emerge as patterns from the repeated use of symbolic form-meaning mappings by speakers of the language. “Therefore, grammar is not a set of creative rules but a set of regularities that emerge from usage” (Hopper, 1998, cited in Smiskova-Gustafsson, 2013). Emergent structures are nested; consequently, any utterance consists of a number of overlapping constructions (Ellis & Cadierno, 2009, cited in Smiskova-Gustafsson, 2013). Linguistic categories are also emergent, – they emerge bottom-up and thus not all linguistic structures fall easily into prescribed categories. In other words, some linguistic structures are prototypical, while others fit their category less well.
Examining some of the abstract constructions developed by UB scholars, Smiskova-Gustafsson’s (2013) notes that frequency of forms interacts with psycholinguistic factors, most importantly, prototypicality of meaning. She gives the example of the verb-argument construction “V Obj Oblpath/loc”, or VOL, an abstract construction that enables syntactic creativity by abstracting common patterns from lexically specific exemplars such as put it on the table:
The exemplar itself is a highly frequent instantiation of the VOL construction, and the verb put that it contains is prototypical in meaning. This means that put is the verb most characteristic of the VOL construction and so the one most frequently used. Other verbs in VOL are used less; the type/token distribution of all verbs used in the VOL construction is Zipfian (i.e., the verb put is the one most frequently used, about twice as frequently as the next verb). Such prototypes are crucial in establishing the initial form/meaning mapping – in this case, the phrase put it on the table, meaning caused motion (X causes Y to move to a location). Repeated exposure to other instantiations of the VOL construction will gradually lead to generalization and the establishment of the abstract productive construction (Smiskova-Gustafsson (2013, p. 18).
Got it? If you find that taster a rather abstract and obtuse way to try to explain how input can of itself contain all the information learners need to learn English as an L2 (for example), then try reading Wuff & Elllis (2018), or the Approaches book in the graphic above. But what about chunks? From a UB perspective, chunks are “conventionalized formmeaning mappings, the result of repeated use of certain linguistic units, which then give rise to emergent patterns in language at all levels of organization and specificity” (Smiskova-Gustafsson, 2013, p. 21). Chunks go from word sequences that are semantically opaque (spill the beans) or structurally irregular (by and large) to everyday usage such as in my opinion, or nice to see you. And here’s the rub: as Smiskova-Gustafsson (2013, p. 21) points out, “if we take a usage-based perspective, where all units of language are conventionalized, identifying chunks would become pointless, since we could say that all language is in fact a chunk”. The natural, seamless flow of native-like language use can thus be seen as “formulaicity all the way down” (Wray, 2012 p. 245, cited in Smiskova-Gustafsson, 2013, p. 22): language consists of almost endless overlapping and nesting of chunks, as in this example:
In winter Hammerfest is a thirty-hour ride by bus from Oslo, though why anyone would want to go there in winter is a question worth considering.
thirty hour ride by bus from
[thirty hour [[ride][ by bus]] from]]
chunks: thirty hour ride, ride by bus, by bus, by bus from, etc.
though why anyone would want to go there
[though [why] anyone would] [want to] go] there]
chunks: though why, why anyone would, why anyone would want to, want to go, etc. ( Smiskova-Gustafsson, 2013, p. 11).
Since learners of English as an L2 tend to use English in terms of grammar and individual words, and often combine words in awkward ways, their lack of the ability to produce “natural, seamless flows of native-like language use” must be because they don’t have the necessary procedural knowledge of the Construction Grammar which underpins the “conventionalized English ways” of expressing any particular concept.
The question is, of course, Is this a good way to see language and language learning? If it is, then how do teachers of English as an L2 help their students develop proficiency? How do they teach students English, if it amounts to no more – and no less! – than procedural knowledge of Construction Grammar, the pre-requisite for the proficient use of tens of thousands of overlapping and nested chunks? To be thorough, if teachers accepted the UB approach, then instead of following the confused and contradictory advice offered by Dellar & Walkley or by Selivan, they would first have to understand Construction Grammar, then understand UB theories of language learning, and then articulate methodological principles and pedagogical practices for implementing a principled lexical approach. Were teachers to attempt this, I suggest that they’d find Construction Grammar more difficult and less useful than the grammar described in Swan’s Practical English Usage; Ellis’ UB theory more difficult and less useful than the theories described in Mitchell & Myles (2019) Second Language Learning Theories; and accounts of methodological principles and pedagogical practices found in Teaching Lexically or Lexical Grammar less convincing than the account of them found in Chapter 3 of Long’s (2015) SLA & TBLT.
UB theories are increasingly fashionable, but I’m still not impressed with Construction Grammar, or with the claim that language learning can be explained by appeal to noticing regularities in the input. As to the latter, I recommend Gregg’s (2003) article; seventeen years later, I’ve still not read a convincing reply to it. Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that there’s no consensus among SLA scholars on the question of whether language learning is done on the basis of input exposure and experience or by the help of innate knowledge of learners, and it’s still not clear whether grammatical learning is usage-based or universal grammar-based.
Meanwhile, it seems sensible for teachers to continue to regard English as a language with grammar rules that can help students make well-formed (often novel) utterances, and to help their students by giving them maximum opportunities to use English for their own relevant, communicative purposes, while encouraging inductive learning of chunks. Likewise, it seems foolish to accept the counsel of teacher trainers who misrepresent the complexities of a UB approach and who recommend teachers to focus on the impossible task of explicitly teaching lexical chunks.
Dellar, H. and Walkley, A. (2016) Teaching Lexically. Delta.
Gregg, K. R. (2003) The State of Emergentism in SLA. Second Language Research, 19,2, 95-128.
Selivan, L. (2018) Lexical Grammar. CUP.
Smiskova-Gustafsson, H. (2013). Chunks in L2 development: a usage-based perspective. Groningen: s.n.
Wuff. S. and Ellis, N. (2018) Usage-based approaches to second language acquisition. Downloadable here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322779469_Usage-based_approaches_to_second_language_acquisition