P is for (Thomas) Prendergast

6 08 2017

Thomas Prendergast.jpgThe mention of Thomas Prendergast in my last post sparked a couple of enquiries. Who was he and what was his method?

For all his working life, Thomas Prendergast (1806 – 1886) was, like his father before him, a civil servant in the East India Company, during which time he learned at least two of India’s indigenous languages, Hindustani and Telugu. On retirement in his fifties, he returned to England where (now blind) he spent his remaining years developing what he called his ‘Mastery’ system, published in 1864 as The Mastery of Languages or, the Art of Speaking Foreign Tongues Idiomatically, along with accompanying teaching materials in a variety of languages.

Essentially, his method involved the cumulative memorization of a set of exemplary sentences and the subset of sentences that can be derived (or ‘evolved’) from each of them. With remarkable foresight, Prendergast had observed that children seem to achieve fluency by memorizing entire sequences of words – what we would now call chunks or constructions. They are also able to combine and re-combine these elements in creative ways. Accordingly, Prendergast set about trying to identify the most frequent constructions, albeit only those that qualified as well-formed sentences. Prendergast’s sentences were not graded from the simple to the more complex. Rather, they were deliberately contrived to pack in as much syntax as possible, the test of their usefulness being the number of less complex sentences that could be generated from them. Because children are able to derive the grammar from constructions without explicit instruction, Prendergast was adamant that all grammar explanation was ‘prohibited’.

Prendergast’s Mastery system seems to have enjoyed some degree of success in its time and was adapted to the teaching of a number of languages. It was soon overtaken, however, by the arrival of the Reform Movement, and the kind of ‘direct method’ that was popularized by M. Berlitz.

Nevertheless, in many ways, Prendergast’s system prefigured developments in methodology that were way ahead of their time. One of these was the use of what later came to be known as substitution tables: i.e. tables that display the way that words and sentence elements can be combined. Also, his belief that mastery of a limited ‘core’ of structures and vocabulary could serve as a foundation for later proficiency contrasted with his contemporaries, for whom principles of selection or grading were largely ignored. But perhaps most remarkable was his insight that fluency, at least in part, results from having a memorized store of fixed and semi-fixed formulaic utterances. Unfortunately, by supposing that these ‘chunks’ consisted of whole, syntactically well-formed sentences, his method – in Howatt’s words – ‘turned the wrong corner’ (2004, p. 176). It would take another half-century before this misstep would be corrected, and the units of fluent production would be re-envisaged, neither as words nor sentences, but as ‘word groups’ (Palmer 1921).

Nevertheless, to give you a flavour of just how innovative Prendergast was, here is a selection of quotes:

On grammar

‘Although no one has ventured to maintain that the words “language” and “grammar” are synonymous, there prevails the notion that a knowledge of grammar is equivalent to a knowledge of the language to which it relates’ (1868, pp. 78-79).

‘Grammar is sometimes defined to be the law by which language is regulated; but in reality, grammar is deduced from language, and is not the regulator, but the regulatee’ (1864, p. 191).

‘No definition of the term “grammar” enables us to understand why that science should be studied first’ (1868 p.65).

‘The definition which styles it “the art of speaking correctly” has so little truth in it, that many persons who are well-versed in grammar are either incapable of speaking at all, or else, when compelled, are so embarrassed by the conflicting recollections of rules, exceptions, cases, tenses, moods, and genders, that they cannot help speaking incorrectly. The grammar itself is the cause of their speaking ungrammatically’ (1868, p.79).

‘Usage is the only law. Usage constitutes the whole code’ (1864, p. 203).

 Mastery title pageOn acquisition

Studying a language is not acquiring it’ (1864, p. 200).

‘Some say that we must think in a foreign language before we can speak it well … But it is not by thinking in a language, but by not thinking in it, that children speak it idiomatically and fluently’ (1868, pp. 233-4).

‘Illiterate people and children acquire the power of speaking the most difficult languages with fluency, by learning a very few practical sentences, and by ringing the changes on them’ (1864, p. 209).

‘Children and imbeciles succeed, in spite of their ignorance of grammar and books’ (1864, p. 209).

 On vocabulary learning and chunks:

‘[Oral] composition is not the compounding of sentences according to the prescriptions of the grammarian; but it is the putting together of idiomatic phrases by intelligent efforts of memory’ (1868, p.32).

‘[Children] import an idiomatic combination of words, together with the ideas belonging to it; they immediately begin to employ it for practical purposes without alteration; and they repeat it so often that it becomes stereotyped in the memory’ (1864, p.34).

‘Language is a tree which is propagated not by seeds, but by cuttings; not by words but by sentences’ (1864, p. 19).

On idiomaticity

‘Many adults live abroad for years without ever attaining this power of expressing themselves idiomatically; and many teachers are staggered by their most advanced pupils’ total incapacity in this respect. The failure arises solely from their not having committed idiomatic sentences to memory at first.’ (1868, p.44)

On memorization:

‘To reproduce sentences verbatim, is to speak idiomatically; and therefore the genuine colloquial knowledge of a language is attained by repeated efforts of the memory, not by vigorous exertions of the reasoning faculties’. (1864, p.48)

‘When a man has committed to memory a few well selected sentences, each containing different constructions, and has acquired the power of putting them together in all their variations, one rapid perusal of the grammar will suffice to convince him that he is already in possession of the whole syntax of the language’ (1864, pp. 209-210).

‘In learning anything by heart, repetitions are indispensable, and the more they are distributed throughout the day, the smaller will be the number required to impress the foreign phrases on the memory’ (1870, pp 6-7).

On task repetition:

‘It is useful [for the learner] to frequent public places as a listener; to ask several people in succession for the news of the day after having carefully read it all beforehand; […] but especially to engage strangers in conversation in subjects which he has previously discussed with others, in order that he may repeat his own questions and observations, with additions and improvements. These second-hand conversations are by far the most instructive. (1864, p. 93)

On partial competence:

‘A language learned in miniature … may seem, at first sight, to be miserably defective; but a vast reduction of labour is effected by this plan, and it creates a great facility for the beginner in supplementing all his deficiencies’ (1864, p. 131).


Howatt, A.P.R. (with H.G. Widdowson) (2004) A history of English language teaching (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Palmer, H.E. (1921) The Principles of Language-study. London: Harrap.

Prendergast, T. (1864) The Mastery of Languages, or the Art of speaking Foreign Tongues idiomatically. London: R. Bentley.

Prendergast, T. (1868) Handbook to the Mastery Series, New York: Appleton and Co.

Prendergast, T. (1870) The Mastery Series: French (new edition). New York: Appleton & Co.


S is for SLA

1 03 2015

The criteria for evaluating the worth of any aid to language learning (whether print or digital, and, in the case of the latter, whether app, program, game, or the software that supports these) must include some assessment of its fitness for purpose. That is to say, does it facilitate learning?

But how do you measure this? Short of testing the item on a representative cross-section of learners, we need a rubric according to which its learning potential might be predicted. And this rubric should, ideally, be informed by our current understandings of how second languages are best learned, understandings which are in turn derived — in part at least — from the findings of researchers of second language acquisition (SLA).

This is easier said than done, of course, as there is (still) little real consensus on how the burgeoning research into SLA should be interpreted. This is partly because of the invisibility of most cognitive processes, but also because of the huge range of variables that SLA embraces: different languages, different aspects of language, different learners, different learning contexts, different learning needs, different learning outcomes, different instructional materials, and so on. Generalizing from research context A to learning context B is fraught with risks. It is for this reason that, in a recent article, Nina Spada (2015) urges caution in extrapolating classroom applications from the findings of SLA researchers.

Cautiously, then, and following VanPatten and Williams’ (2007) example, I’ve compiled a list of ‘observations’ about SLA that have been culled from the literature (albeit inflected by my own particular preoccupations). On the basis of these, and inspired by Long (2011), I will then attempt to frame some questions that can be asked of any teaching aid (tool, device, program, or whatever) in order to calculate its potential for facilitating learning.

Exposure to input is necessary

Here, then, are 12 observations:

  1. The acquisition of an L2 grammar follows a ‘natural order’ that is roughly the same for all learners, independent of age, L1, instructional approach, etc., although there is considerable variability in terms of the rate of acquisition and of ultimate achievement (Ellis 2008), and, moreover, ‘a good deal of SLA happens incidentally’ (VanPatten and Williams 2007).
  2. ‘The learner’s task is enormous because language is enormously complex’ (Lightbown 2000).
  3. ‘Exposure to input is necessary’ (VanPatten and Williams 2007).
  4. ‘Language learners can benefit from noticing salient features of the input’ (Tomlinson 2011).
  5. Learners benefit when their linguistic resources are stretched to meet their communicative needs (Swain 1995).
  6. Learning is a mediated, jointly-constructed process, enhanced when interventions are sensitive to, and aligned with, the learner’s current stage of development (Lantolf and Thorne 2006).
  7. ‘There is clear evidence that corrective feedback contributes to learning’ (Ellis 2008).
  8. Learners can learn from each other during communicative interaction (Swain et al. 2003).
  9. Automaticity in language processing is a function of ‘massive repetition experiences and consistent practice’ in ‘real operating conditions’ (Segalowitz 2003; Johnson 1996).
  10. A precondition of fluency is having rapid access to a large store of memorized sequences or chunks (Nattinger & DeCarrico 1992; Segalowitz 2010)
  11. Learning, particularly of words, is aided when the learner makes strong associations with the new material (Sökmen 1997).
  12. The more time (and the more intensive the time) spent on learning tasks, the better (Muñoz 2012). Moreover, ‘learners will invest effort in any task if they perceive benefit from it’ (Breen 1987); and task motivation is optimal when challenge and skill are harmonized (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

On the basis of these observations, and confronted by a novel language learning tool (app, game, device, blah blah), the following questions might be asked:

  1. ADAPTIVITY: Does the tool accommodate the non-linear, often recursive, stochastic, incidental, and idiosyncratic nature of learning, e.g. by allowing the users to negotiate their own learning paths and goals?
  2. COMPLEXITY: Does the tool address the complexity of language, including its multiple interrelated sub-systems (e.g. grammar, lexis, phonology, discourse, pragmatics)?
  3. INPUT: Does it provide access to rich, comprehensible, and engaging reading and/or listening input? Are there means by which the input can be made more comprehensible? And is there a lot of input (so as to optimize the chances of repeated encounters with language items, and of incidental learning)?
  4. NOTICING: Are there mechanisms whereby the user’s attention is directed to features of the input and/or mechanisms that the user can enlist to make features of the input salient?
  5. OUTPUT: Are there opportunities for language production? Are there means whereby the user is pushed to produce language at or even beyond his/her current level of competence?
  6. SCAFFOLDING: Are learning tasks modelled and mediated? Are interventions timely and supportive, and calibrated to take account of the learner’s emerging capacities?
  7. FEEDBACK: Do users get focused and informative feedback on their comprehension and production, including feedback on error?
  8. INTERACTION: Is there provision for the user to collaborate and interact with other users (whether other learners or proficient speakers) in the target language?
  9. AUTOMATICITY: Does the tool provide opportunities for massed practice, and in conditions that replicate conditions of use? Are practice opportunities optimally spaced?
  10. CHUNKS: Does the tool encourage/facilitate the acquisition and use of formulaic language?
  11. PERSONALIZATION: Does the tool encourage the user to form strong personal associations with the material?
  12. FLOW: Is the tool sufficiently engaging and challenging to increase the likelihood of sustained and repeated use? Are its benefits obvious to the user?

Is it better than a teacher?

This list is very provisional: consider it work in progress. But it does replicate a number of the criteria that have been used to evaluate educational materials generally (e.g. Tomlinson 2011) and educational technologies specifically (e.g. Kervin and Derewianka 2011). At the same time, the questions might also provide a framework for comparing and contrasting the learning power of self-access technology with that of more traditional, teacher-mediated classroom instruction. Of course, the bottom line is: does the tool (app, program, learning platform etc) do the job any better than a trained teacher on their own might do?

Any suggestions for amendments and improvements would be very welcome!


Breen, M. P. 1987. ‘Learner contributions to task design’, republished in van den Branden, K., Bygate, M. & Norris, J. (eds) 2009. Task-based Language Teaching: A reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Low.

Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kervin, L. & Derewianka, B. (2011) ‘New technologies to support language learning’, in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) Materials Development in Language Teaching (2nd edn). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lightbown, P.M. (2000) ‘Classroom SLA research and second language teaching’. Applied Linguistics, 21/4, 431-462.

Long, M.H. (2011) ‘Methodological principles for language teaching’. In Long, M.H. & Doughty, C. (eds) The Handbook of Language Teaching, Oxford: Blackwell.

Muñoz, C. (ed.) (2012). Intensive Exposure Experiences in Second Language Learning. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Nattinger, J.R. & DeCarrico, J.S. (1992). Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Segalowitz, N. (2003) ‘Automaticity and second languages.’ In Doughty, C.J. & Long, M.H, (eds) The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Segalowitz, N. (2010) Cognitive Bases of Second Language Fluency. London: Routledge.

Sökmen, A.J. (1997) ‘Current trends in teaching second language vocabulary,’ in Schmitt, N. and McCarthy, M. (Eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spada, N. (2015) ‘SLA research and L2 pedagogy: misapplications and questions of relevance.’ Language Teaching, 48/1.

Swain, M. (1995) ‘Three functions of output in second language learning’, in Cook, G., & Seidlhofer, B. (eds) Principle and Practice in Applied Linguistics: Studies in Honour of H.G.W. Widdowson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swain, M., Brooks, L. & Tocalli-Beller, A. (2003) ‘Peer-peer dialogue as a means of second language learning’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 23: 171-185.

Tomlinson, B. (2011) ‘Introduction: principles and procedures of materials development,’ in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) Materials Development in Language Teaching (2nd edn). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

VanPatten, B. & Williams, J. (eds) 2007. Theories in Second Language Acquisition: An Introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

This is a revised version of a post that first appeared on the eltjam site:  http://eltjam.com/how-could-sla-research-inform-edtech/


The End

9 06 2013

So this is it, folks: I’m closing down the blog for the summer… and for good. After 3 years, 150 posts, nearly 7000 comments, and innumerable hits, visits, views, however you want to describe and count them, plus one e-book spin-off (but no sign of a second edition of An A-Z!), I think it’s time to call it a day.

But that’s not the end of blogging.  In the autumn (or in the spring, if that’s your orientation) I’ll be resuming with an altogether different theme and format, provisionally titled The (De-)Fossilization Diaries.  Watch this space!

At some point between now and then I’ll lock the comments on this blog, but it will hang around a little longer. If you think you might miss it if it suddenly disappeared, you could always buy the book! 😉

Meanwhile, thanks for following, commenting, subscribing, tweeting… I have so enjoyed hosting this blog, not least because of the active and widely-distributed online community that has grown up around it. Blogging is my favourite medium by far, and, despite claims to the contrary by some curmudgeons, it seems to be very much alive and well.

bunyolsNow, to give you something to chew on over breakfast, I’ve done a quick cut and paste of some of the one- (or two-) liners that capture many of the core themes of this blog. (You can hunt them down in context by using the Index link above).

1. If there are no languages, only language, what is it that we teach? … The short answer, perhaps, is that we would facilitate a kind of creative DIY approach – semiotic bricolage, perhaps – by means of which learners would become resourceful language users, cutting and pasting from the heteroglossic landscape to meet both their short-term and their long-term goals. (L is for Language)

2. The tension – and challenge – of successful communication is in negotiating the given and the new, of exploiting the predictable while coping with unpredictability. To this end, a phrasebook, a grammar or a dictionary can be of only limited use. They are a bit like the stopped clock, which is correct only two times a day. (M is for Mobility)

3. Creating the sense of ‘feeling at home’, i.e. creating a dynamic whereby students feel unthreatened and at ease with one another and with you, is one of the most important things that a teacher can do. (T is for Teacher Development)

4. A reliance on the coursebook IN the classroom does not really equip learners for self-directed learning OUTSIDE the classroom, since nothing in the outside world really reflects the way that language is packaged, rationed and sanitised in the coursebook.(T is for Teacher Development)

5. The language that teachers need in order to provide and scaffold learning opportunities is possibly of more importance than their overall language proficiency (T is for Teacher Knowledge)

6. A critical mass of connected chunks might be the definition of fluency. (Plus of course, the desire or need to BE fluent). (T is for Turning Point)

7. Education systems are predicated on the belief that learning is both linear and incremental. Syllabuses, coursebooks and tests conspire to perpetuate this view. To suggest otherwise is to undermine the foundations of civilization as we know it. (T is for Turning Point)

8. If I were learning a second language with a teacher, I would tell the teacher what I want to say, not wait to be told what someone who is not there thinks I might want to say. (W is for Wondering)

9. Irrespective of the degree to which we might teach grammar explicitly, or even base our curriculums on it, as teachers I think we need to know something about it ourselves. It’s part of our expertise, surely. Besides which, it’s endlessly fascinating (in a geeky kind of way). (P is for Pedagogic grammar)

10. Every language divides up the world slightly differently, and learning a second language is – to a large extent – learning these new divisions.(P is for Pedagogic grammar)

11. The meaning of the term student-centred has become too diffuse – that is to say, it means whatever you want it to mean, and – whatever it does mean – the concept needs to be problematized because it’s in danger of creating a false dichotomy. (S is for Student-centred)

12. There is a responsibility on the part of teachers to provide feedback on progress, but maybe the problem is in defining progress in terms of pre-selected outcomes, rather than negotiating the outcomes during the progress. (O is for Outcomes)

13. Language learning, whether classroom-based or naturalistic, whether in an EFL or an ESL context, is capricious, opportunistic, idiosyncratic and seldom amenable to external manipulation. (P is for Postmodern method)

14. I have no problem with the idea of classes – in fact for many learners and teachers these can be less threatening than one-to-one situations – but I do have a problem with the way that the group learning context is moulded to fit the somewhat artificial constraints of the absentee coursebook writer. (P is for Postmodern method)poached eggs nov 2012

15. The idea that there is a syllabus of items to be ‘covered’ sits uncomfortably with the view that language learning is an emergent process – a process of ‘UNcovering’, in fact. (P is for Postmodern method)

16. This, by the way, is one of [Dogme’s] characteristics that most irritates its detractors – that it seems to be a moving target, constantly slipping and sliding like some kind of methodological ectoplasm. (P is for Postmodern method)

17. The ‘mind is a computer’ metaphor has percolated down (or up?) and underpins many of our methodological practices and materials, including the idea that language learning is systematic, linear, incremental, enclosed, uniform, dependent on input and practice, independent of its social context, de-humanized, disembodied, … and so on. (M is for Mind)

18. Is there no getting away from the fact that classrooms are just not good places to learn languages in? And that, instead of flogging the present perfect continuous to death, it might not be better simply ‘to take a walk around the block’? (A is for Affordance)

19. If automaticity is simply the ability to retrieve memorised chunks, this may result in a repertoire that is fast and accurate, but functional only in situations of the utmost predictability. Fine, if you’re a tourist – just memorise a phrase-book. But for a more sophisticated command of language – one that is adaptable to a whole range of situations – you need to be able to customise your chunks. In short, you need to be creative. Hence, creative automaticity. (A is for Automaticity)

20. Technosceptics, like me, happily embrace technology in our daily lives, but are nevertheless a little suspicious of the claims made, by some enthusiasts, for its educational applications – claims that frequently border on the coercive. (T is for Technology)

21. As edtech proponents tirelessly point out, technology is only a tool. What they fail to acknowledge is that there are good tools and bad tools. (T is for Technology)

22. Another bonus, for me, of the struggle to dominate a second (and third, fourth etc) language has been an almost obsessive interest in SLA theory and research – as if, somewhere, amongst all this burgeoning literature, there lies the answer to the puzzle. (B is for Bad language learner)

23. ‘Fluency is in the ear of the beholder’ – which means that perhaps we need to teach our students tricks whereby they ‘fool’ their interlocutors into thinking they’re fluent. Having a few well rehearsed conversational openers might be a start…. (B is for Bad language learner)

24. I’ve always been a bit chary of the argument that we should use movement in class in order to satisfy the needs of so-called kinaesthetic learners. All learning surely has kinaesthetic elements, especially if we accept the notion of ‘embodied cognition’, and you don’t need a theory of multiple intelligences to argue the case for whole-person engagement in learning. (B is for Body)

25. I agree that learners’ perceptions of the goals of second language learning are often at odds with our own or with the researchers’. However, if we can show [the learners] that the communicative uptake on acquiring a ‘generative phraseology’ is worth the initial investment in memorisation, and, even, in old-fashioned pattern practice, we may be able to win them over. (C is for Construction)

26. How do we align the inherent variability of the learner’s emergent system with the inherent variability of the way that the language is being used by its speakers? (V is for Variability)

27. The problem is that, if there is a norm, it is constantly on the move, like a flock of starlings: a dense dark centre, a less dense margin, and a few lone outliers. (V is for Variability)

28. Think of the blackbird. Every iteration of its song embeds the echo, or trace, of the previous iteration, and of the one before that, and the one before that, and so on. And each iteration changes in subtle, sometimes barely perceptible, ways. But the net effect of these changes may be profound. (R is for Repetition [again])

29. Diversity is only a problem if you are trying to frog-march everyone towards a very narrowly-defined objective, such as “mastering the present perfect continuous.” If your goals are defined in terms of a collaborative task outcome … then everyone brings to the task their particular skills, and it is in the interests of those with many skills to induct those with fewer. (E is for Ecology)

30. Teaching […] is less about navigating the container-ship of the class through the narrow canal of the coursebook/syllabus than about shepherding a motley flotilla of little boats, in all weathers, across the open sea, in whatever direction and at whatever speed they have elected to go. (P is for Postmodern method)


C is for Construction

5 02 2012

Here’s a little test. Read this (authentic) text, and identify the grammar. You have one minute, starting now:

A girl was taking her little brother for a walk in the park. ‘Can I go and run along the top of that wall?’ he asked her.

‘No,’ said the sister.

‘Go on,’ insisted the little boy.

‘Well, OK,’ she said, ‘but if you fall off and break both your legs, don’t come running to me.’[1]

Ask most EFL teachers what the grammar is in that text and they will probably home in on the past continuous (was taking), modal auxiliary verbs in an inverted question-form (Can I…?), the past simple (asked, insisted, said) and some kind of conditional construction: ‘if …’.  They might also pick up on the phrasal verbs (go on, fall off), although they might not be sure as to whether these are grammar or vocabulary, strictly speaking.

These are all items that are prominent in any coursebook grammar syllabus.

But if grammar is defined as something like ‘generative multi-morpheme patterns’, and if we understand ‘pattern’ to mean any sequence that recurs with more than chance frequency, a quick Google search, or, more scientifically, a nearly-as-quick corpus search, will throw up many more patterns in this text than your standard grammar syllabus accounts for.

For example:

  • take a/the [noun] for a/the [noun] – there are over 100 instances in the British National Corpus (BNC), according to StringNet, of which round 20 are some form of take the dog for a walk
  • a walk in the [noun] – 44 occurrences in the BNC
  • a [noun] in the [noun] – 10,000 occurrences
  • [verb] and [verb], as in go and run – 82,000 occurrences, of which over 5000 start with some form of go
  • [preposition] the top of [noun phrase]  as in along the top of that wall
    • [prep] the top of the [singular N] = 1665 instances in the BNC
    • [prep] the [sing N] of the [sing N] = 60,000 occurrences
  •  [personal pronoun] + [verb] +  [personal pronoun], as in he asked her –  over 220,000 occurrences, of which 3169 involve the verb ask
  • [verb] + [subject], as in said the sister, insisted the little boy – too difficult to count, but very common, especially in fiction
  • both +  [possessive pronoun] + [plural noun] (as in both your legs): 423 examples
  • come/came etc running – 174 examples
  • don’t come running to me (a Google search returned a figure of approximately 579,000 results for this complete utterance)

This doesn’t exhaust the frequently occurring patterns by any means, but it’s enough to give you an idea of how intensely and intricately patterned that text is. Moreover, many of the patterns in my list are just as frequent – if not more so – as the relatively narrow range of patterns that form traditional coursebook grammar. There are as many instances of the pattern [preposition] the [noun] of the [noun] (as in along the top of the wall) per million words of running text as there are examples of the past continuous, for example.

The range and heterogeneity of these patterns also challenges the traditional division between grammar and vocabulary, such that some grammarians have opted for the vaguer, but perhaps more accurate, term constructions. As Nick Ellis (2011, p. 656) puts it:

Adult language knowledge consists of a continuum of linguistic constructions of different levels of complexity and abstraction.  Constructions can comprise concrete and particular items (as in words and idioms), more abstract classes of items (as in word classes and abstract constructions), or complex combinations of concrete and abstract pieces of language (as mixed constructions).  Consequently, no rigid separation is postulated to exist between lexis and grammar.

Note that, according to this view, the pattern go and [verb] is a construction, and so is the idiom don’t come running to me, since both have a semantic and syntactic integrity that has become routinised in the speech community and entrenched in the minds of that community’s speakers. Given the first couple of words of each construction we can make a good guess as to how it will continue.

In this sense, predictive writing tools, like Google Scribe, that draw on a vast data-base to predict the next most likely word in a string, are replicating what speakers do when they speak, and what listeners do when they listen. Rather than mapping individual words on to a pre-specified grammatical ‘architecture’ (as in a Chomskyan, generative grammar view), speakers construct utterances out of these routinised sequences – the operative word being construct. As one linguist put it, “when it comes to sentences, there are no architects, there are only carpenters” (O’Grady, 2005, p. 2).

And it is out of these constructions that a speakers ‘grammar’ is gradually assembled. Nick Ellis again: “The acquisition of grammar is the piecemeal learning of many thousands of constructions and the frequency-biased abstraction of regularities within them”  (2003, p. 67).

If this is true, what are the implications for the teaching of a second language, I wonder? Where do learners encounter these ‘many thousands of constructions’?  How do they ‘abstract regularities’ out of them?


Ellis, N. 2003. Constructions, Chunking, and Connectionism.  In Doughty, C J, & Long, M H (eds) The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition Oxford: Blackwell.

Ellis, N. 2011. The emergence of language as a complex adaptive system. In Simpson, J. (ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics. London: Routledge.

O’Grady, W. 2005. Syntactic Carpentry: An Emergentist Approach to Syntax. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Illustrations from Goldschmidt, T. 1923. English by Intuition and Pictures. Leipzig: Hirt & Sohn.

[1] Girling, B. 1990. The Great Puffin Joke Directory. London: Puffin Books.

S is for Small Words

2 01 2011

In an extract from his recently published (and long overdue!) autobiography, Mark Twain recalls how, as a child, he was once reprimanded by his mother: “It was a simple speech, and made up of small words, but it went home.” And he adds, “She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small words do effective work…” (‘The Farm’, in Granta, 111, 2010, p.237).

‘Making small words do effective work’ might in fact be a definition of English grammar. Not being a highly inflected language, English makes use almost entirely of function words (or functors), such as auxiliary verbs, determiners, and prepositions,  in order to convey all manner of grammatical relations, including definiteness, quantity, possession, duration, completion, volition, voice, futurity, habit, frequency and so on.  Small words also serve to make connections across stretches of text (e.g. and, so, but), to connect utterances to their context (here, now, this), and to manage speaker turns (well, oh, yes).

Not surprisingly, therefore, small words are everywhere: the twenty most frequent words in English are all functors, and together comprise a third of all text, while on average around half the words in any single text are likely to be function words. (Thus far, of the 200 odd words in this text, over 80 are functors).

What’s more, it’s the small words that have the highest degree of connectivity with other words: Nick Ellis (2008) cites research that shows that “the 10 most connected words of English are and, the, of, in, a, to ‘s, with, by, and is” (p. 235). The most frequent patterns that are formed by these connections are what we know as the grammar of the language. As Michael Hoey puts it:

Small words on the march: from Palmer's New Method Grammar (1938)

Grammar is … the sum of the collocations, colligations and semantic associations of words like is, was, the, a and of, syllables like ing, er and ly, and sounds like [t] (at the end of syllables) and [s] and [z] (likewise at the end of syllables)
(2004, p. 159).
It follows (arguably) that learning about the behaviour of these small words, including their constructional properties, is the key to learning the structure of English.  This is an insight that predates even corpus linguistics. In 1864 a certain Thomas Prendergast wrote:
“When a child can employ two hundred words of a foreign language he possesses a practical knowledge of all the syntactical constructions and of all the foreign sounds.”

Not just a child, but any language learner, I’d suggest. In fact, if you take just the top 200 words in English, and for each of these words you display the constructions most frequently associated with it, you cover all the main grammar structures in the language.   Just think of how many structures incorporate the verbs have, be, and do, for example. Or the adverbs ever, more and still. Or the conjunctions if, while and since.

Not only that, if you memorised just one or two common idiomatic expressions whose nucleus was one of these high frequency words, you’d be internalising the typical grammar patterns in which these words are commonly embedded. For learners who are not well disposed to generating sentences from rules, these memorised chunks offer another way into the grammar. What’s more, they provide the building blocks of spoken fluency. Think of the conversational mileage provided by these expressions with way (one of the commonest nouns in English): by the way, either way, to my way of thinking, the wrong way, no way, way to go! etc.

This is the thinking that underpins books like Harold Palmer’s Grammar of English Words (1944) which details the meanings, collocations and phraseology of 1000 common English words.  It is also the theory that prompted me to write Natural Grammar , published in 2004 by Oxford University Press (the working title of which, by the way, was The Secret Grammar of Words). In this book I take 100 high frequency words and explore their associated patterns. Predictably, this word-level view of grammar provides coverage of all the main ‘coursebook’ structures, plus a good many more.

One argument for organising a grammar around ‘small words’ is that their very smallness – and the fact that they are typically unstressed and often contracted –  means that they have low ‘perceptual saliency’. That is to say, learners simply don’t notice them. Making them salient, by devoting a double-page spread to each one, would seem to be a helpful thing to do, I figured.

Which leads me to wonder – if this was such a good idea, and so well-grounded in theories of language description and acquisition – why the lack of uptake? In short, why has this book been less than a runaway success? 😉


Ellis, N.  2008. The dynamics of second language emergence: cycles of language use, language change, and language acquisition.  Modern Language Journal, 92, 232 — 249.
Hoey, M. 2004. Lexical Priming: A new theory of words and language. London: Routledge.

Prendergast, T. 1864.  The Mastery of Languages, or, the Art of Speaking Foreign Tongues Idiomatically.

L is for (Michael) Lewis

5 09 2010

(Continuing an occasional series of the type ‘Where are they now?’)

Michael Lewis and me: University of Saarbrücken

A reference in last week’s post (P is for Phrasal Verb) to the fuzziness of the vocabulary-grammar interface naturally led to thoughts of Michael Lewis. It was Michael Lewis who was the first to popularize the view that “language consists of grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar” (1993, p. 34). This claim is a cornerstone of what rapidly came to be known as the Lexical Approach – rapidly because Lewis himself wrote a book called The Lexical Approach (1993), but also because, at the time, corpus linguistics was fueling a major paradigm shift in applied linguistics (under the visionary custodianship of John Sinclair and his brainchild, the COBUILD project) which, for want of a better term, might best be described as ‘lexical’. Lewis was one of the first to popularize this ‘lexical turn’ in applied linguistics, and he did so energetically, if, at times, contentiously.

So, what happened to the Lexical Approach – and to Lewis, its primum mobile?

Well, for a start (as I argued in an article in 1998), the Lexical Approach never was an approach: it offered little guidance as to how to specify syllabus objectives, and even its methodology was not much more than an eclectic mix of procedures aimed mainly at raising learners’ awareness about the ubiquity of ‘chunks’. Moreover, Lewis seemed to be dismissive – or perhaps unaware – of the argument that premature lexicalization might cause fossilization. To him, perhaps, this was a small price to pay for the fluency and idiomaticity that accrue from having an extensive lexicon. But wasn’t there a risk (I argued) that such an approach to language learning might result in a condition of “all chunks, no pineapple” i.e. lots of retrievable lexis but no generative grammar?

In the end, as Richards and Rodgers (2001) note, the Lexical Approach “is still an idea in search of an approach and a methodology” (p. 138). Nevertheless, as I said in 1998, “by challenging the hegemony of the traditional grammar syllabus, Lewis… deserves our gratitude.”

Michael responded graciously to these criticisms, acknowledging them – although not really addressing them – in a subsequent book, Teaching Collocation (2000). There the matter rested. Until 2004, when I published a ‘lexical grammar’ – that is, a grammar based entirely on the most frequent words in English – and, in the introduction, paid tribute to my ‘lexical’ precursors, specifically Michael Lewis, and Jane and Dave Willis.

Michael was not pleased. When I next ran into him, at an IATEFL Conference a year or two later, he was still fuming. Apparently, by suggesting that his version of the Lexical Approach had anything in common with the Willis’s, or that my book in any way reflected it, was a gross misrepresentation. The sticking point was what Michael calls ‘the frequency fallacy’, that is, the mistaken belief that word frequency equates with utility. Much more useful than a handful of high-frequency words, he argued, was a rich diet of collocations and other species of formulaic language. I, by contrast, shared with the Willis’s the view that (as Sinclair so succinctly expressed it) ‘learners would do well to learn the common words of the language very thoroughly, because they carry the main patterns of the language’ (1991, p. 72). To Michael, ‘patterns of the language’ sounded too much like conventional grammar.

When we met again, a year or two later, at a conference at the University of Saarbrücken, we found that we had more in common than at first seemed. For a start, we sort of agreed that the chunks associated with high frequency words were themselves likely to be high frequency, and therefore good candidates for pedagogical treatment. And Michael was working on the idea that there was a highly productive seam of collocationally powerful ‘mid-frequency’ lexis that was ripe for investigation.

A few months later, at a conference in Barcelona, we had even started talking about some kind of collaborative project. I was keen to interest Michael in developments in usage-based theories of acquisition, premised on the view that massive exposure to formulaic language (his ‘chunks’) nourishes processes of grammar emergence – a view that, I felt, vindicated a re-appraisal of the Lexical Approach.

But Michael is enjoying a well-earned retirement, and I suspect that he’s satisfied in the knowledge that the Lexical Approach, his Lexical Approach, whatever exactly it is, is well-established in the EFL canon, and that his name is stamped all over it.

So, then, what’s the Lexical Approach to you?


Lewis, M. 1993. The Lexical Approach. Hove: LTP.
Lewis, M. 2000. Teaching Collocation. Hove: LTP.
Richards, J., and Rodgers, T. 2001. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd edition). Cambridge University Press.
Sinclair, J. 1991. Corpus, Concordance, Collocation. Oxford University Press.

F is for Fluency

17 12 2009

Jeremy Harmer recently asked – on Twitter – for opinions as to why some learners achieve high degrees of fluency, while others do not. I wanted to reply that any answer to that question depends on how you define fluency – and then I would go on to attempt to define it. But the 140-character restriction of Twitter proved too much, so I thought I’d blog it instead.

As I found when I tried to define it in the A-Z, fluency is one of those elusive, fuzzy, even contested, terms that means different things to different people. In lay terms, a “fluent speaker of French” is probably someone whose French is judged as accurate, easy on the ear, and idiomatic. The term, however, was co-opted by methodologists (especially those aligned to the communicative approach) to describe the purpose of classroom activities whose focus is on communicating meaning, rather than on the practice of specific (typically grammatical) forms. Thus, Brumfit (1984) said that “the distinction between accuracy and fluency is essentially a methodological distinction, rather than one in psychology or linguistics”. And added, “fluency…is to be regarded as natural language use, whether or not it results in native-speaker-like language comprehension or production”. The problem with this definition, though, is that it is very difficult to operationalise, especially from the point of view of testing. What exactly is “natural language use”, how do you contrive it in the classroom, and how do you assess it (especially if you are discounting native-speaker-like models as your benchmark)? As a term, fluency becomes difficult to disentangle from related concepts, such as intelligibility, coherence, communicative effectiveness, and so on.   

To counter this fuzziness, various researchers, working in a cognitive tradition, attempted to characterise it in measurable terms. Thus, Ellis and Barkhuizen (2005), following Skehan (1998), define fluency as “the production of language in real time without undue pausing or hesitation.”  That is to say, it is a ‘temporal phenomenon’. Well and good. This is something we can measure.

Confusingly, though, they go on to say that “fluency occurs when learners prioritize meaning over form in order to get a task done”. This to me seems patently false: getting a task done is no guarantee that there is no “undue pausing or hesitation”. On the contrary, the effort involved in performing a task may actually increase the degree of dysfluency. And nor is attention to meaning a pre-condition for pause-free production. Some of our most fluent productions, as proficient speakers, are texts that we have committed to memory (tongue twisters, nursery rhymes, prayers, oaths of allegiance, etc) that we can trot out without ANY attention to meaning.

In fact, it may be that fluency is indeed a function of memory, and that the capacity to produce pause-free speech in real time is contingent on having a memorised bank of formulaic language “chunks” – a view that was first put forward as long ago as 1983 by Pawley and Syder in their seminal paper, ‘Two puzzles for linguistic theory: nativelike selection and nativelike fluency’. Well, I used to say that it was P & S who ‘first put forward’ this view. And then I discoverd more recently that the great Harold Palmer, as even longer ago as 1925, identified ‘the fundamental guiding principle for the student of conversation’ as being “Memorize perfectly the largest number of common and useful word-groups!

If this is in fact the case, as teachers interested in developing fluency, we might need to:

1. clarify the concept of  what a ‘word group’ is;
2. select those word groups that are both common and useful;
3. set a target that represents the largest practicable number;
4. decide what the criteria for perfect memorization might be;
5. devise and teach strategies that promote memorization of word groups;
6. devise activities what provide opportunities for learners to activate what they have memorized, without undue pausing or hesitation, in ways that replicate real language use.

Is this a tall order?