A is for Accuracy

31 05 2015
from The Visual Thesaurus

from The Visual Thesaurus http://www.visualthesaurus.com/

Accuracy and fluency: it used to be the case that, of these two constructs, fluency was the one that was the most elusive and contentious – difficult to define, difficult to test, and only rarely achieved by classroom learners.

It’s true that fluency has been defined in many different, sometimes even contradictory ways, and that we are still no nearer to understanding how to measure it, or under what conditions it is optimally realized. See, for example F is for Fluency.

But I’m increasingly coming to the view that, of the two constructs, it is accuracy that is really the more slippery. I’m even wondering if it’s not a concept that has reached its sell-by date, and should be quietly, but forcefully, put down.

Look at these definitions of accuracy, for example:

  • “….clear, articulate, grammatically and phonologically correct” (Brown 1994: 254)
  • “…getting the language right” (Ur 1991: 103)
  • “…the extent to which a learner’s use of the second language conforms to the rules of the language” (Thornbury 2006: 2)

Correct? Right? Conforms to the rules? What could these highly normative criteria possibly mean? Even before English ‘escaped’ from the proprietorial clutches of its native speakers, by whose standards are correctness or rightness or conformity to be judged?

at the weekend

“[preposition] the weekend” from The Corpus of Global Web-based English CLICK TO ENLARGE

Take my own variety of English for example: I was brought up to say ‘in the weekend’. I found it very odd, therefore, that the coursebooks I was using when I started teaching insisted on ‘at the weekend’. And then, of course, there were all those speakers who preferred ‘on the weekend’. It was only by consulting the Corpus of Global Web-based English (Davies 2013) that I was able to confirm that, in fact, of all the ‘preposition + the weekend’ combos, ‘in the weekend’ is significantly frequent only in New Zealand, while ‘on the weekend’ is preferred in Australia. OK, fine: as teachers we are sensitive to the existence of different varieties. But if a learner says (or writes): ‘In the weekend we had a barby’, do I correct it?

Moreover, given the considerable differences between spoken and written grammar, and given the inevitability, even by proficient speakers, of such ‘deviations’ from the norm as false starts, grammatical blends, and other dysfluencies –  what are the ‘rules’ by which a speaker’s accuracy should be judged?

In fact, even the distinction between written and spoken seems to have been eroded by online communication. Here, for example, are some extracts from an exchange from an online discussion about a football match. Ignoring typos, which ‘deviations’ from standard English might be attributed to the speaker’s specific variety?

>I don’t care about the goal that wasn’t given; I care about how bad we played particularly when under pressure. Base on the performance from last three games we will be hammered when we play a “proper” decent side!! People think we are lucky to aviod Spain and get Italy but lets not forget the Italian draw Spain so they are no pushovers.

> yes we was lucky, but all teams get lucky sometimes. thats football, you cant plan a tactic for good or bad luck.

> Devic was unlucky to not have the goal allowed and the official on the line needs to get himself down to specsavers but as Devic was offside the goal should not of counted anyway. Anyway I pretty fed up with all the in fighting on here so I am not bothering to much with these blogs for the foreseeable future.

> also on sunday night i will be having an italian pizza i think it will suit the mood quite nicely

I think that the point is here that nit-picking about ‘should not of’ and ‘base on’ is irrelevant. More interestingly, it’s virtually impossible to tell if the deviations from the norm (e.g. ‘the Italian draw Spain’;’ we was lucky’; ‘I pretty fed up’…) owe to a regional or social variety, or to a non-native one. The fact is, that, in the context, these differences are immaterial, and the speakers’ choices are entirely appropriate, hence assessments of accuracy seem unwarranted, even patrician.

Unless, of course, those assessments are made by the speakers themselves. Which one does. Following the last comment, one of the commenters turns on the writer (who calls himself Titus), and complains:

>Titus. Please, please, please go back to school. Have you never heard of punctuation? What about capital letters? How about a dictionary? Sentences? Grammar?

It’s as if Titus is being excluded from membership of the ‘club’, his non-standard English being the pretext. To which Titus responds, with some justification:

> didnt know this was an english class? i am very intelligent and do not need to perform like its a spelling b on here

Which is tantamount to saying: accuracy has to be judged in terms of its appropriacy in context.

All of this has compelled me to revise my definition of accuracy accordingly. Here’s an attempt:

Accuracy is the extent to which a speaker/writer’s lexical and grammatical choices are unremarkable according to the norms of the (immediate) discourse community.

Thanks to corpora, these norms can be more easily identified (as in my ‘in the weekend’). A corpus of ‘football blog comment speak’ would no doubt throw up many instances of ‘we was lucky’ and ‘should of won’. ‘Unremarkable’ captures the probabilistic nature of language usage – that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, only degrees of departure from the norm. The greater the departure, the more ‘marked’.

The problem is, of course, in defining the discourse community. Consider these two signs, snapped in Japan last week. To which discourse community, if any, is the English part of each sign directed? Assuming a discourse community, and given its membership, are these signs ‘remarkable’? That is to say, are they inaccurate?

keep off from herewe have a maintenance


Brown, H.D. (1994) Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Davies, M. (2013) Corpus of Global Web-Based English: 1.9 billion words from speakers in 20 countries. Available online at http://corpus.byu.edu/glowbe/.

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A – Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan.

Ur, P. (1991) A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

G is for Grammar(s)

5 04 2015

Fries grammarThere is more than one way to skin a cat. And more than one way to describe a language. Hence, more than one type of grammar.

It all depends on your point of view. Take this sentence, for example:


Structuralist grammars foreground the way that the basic structure of this sentence (NP + verb to be + V-ed) provides the template for any number of similar sentences, such as This window is closed or Your days are numbered, but not Doorman will return shortly or Your number is up. Grammar, viewed thus, is a system of building blocks. In the words of a leading structuralist, ‘All the structural signals in English are strictly formal matters that can be described in physical terms’ (Fries, 1952: 56). Grammar is matter.

Grammar-as-matter is what a bog-standard computer program might be able to unpack, simply by skimming the surface of a text. The exclusive focus on the formal features of our model sentence (THIS DOOR IS ALARMED), however, might blind the computer to its inherent ambiguity, an ambiguity that has been playfully exploited by graffiti writers, e.g. THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. ‘What startled it?’ or THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. ‘But the window is not bothered’.

chomsky grammarExplaining how one sentence might have two quite different meanings impelled linguists like Chomsky to drill down beneath the surface level of sentences and expose their ‘deep structure’. Thus, the deep structure of the passive THIS DOOR IS ALARMED and its active equivalent SOMEONE ALARMED THIS DOOR is essentially the same.

But Chomsky’s project is more than simply the description of patterns, deep or otherwise. He wants to explain how the rules that generate these patterns are derived from innate and universal cognitive structures. His grammar, therefore, is less an account of linguistic behaviour than a theory of mind. As Chomsky himself put it (1972: 100), ‘When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence,’ the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.’ Grammar is mind.

But, like the structuralist account, Chomsky’s reduction of grammar to a set of mathematical rules tells us nothing about the meaning of our sentence THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. Nor does it explain how it functions in context – how it has the force of a warning, for example (Don’t open this door!). Nor how its elements map on to some objective reality, e.g. how this in THIS DOOR ‘points’ to a specific door. A functionalist grammar, on the other hand, tries to relate the linguistic forms to specific communicative purposes and their contexts, and, more ambitiously, to explain how these purposes and contexts actually determine the way the grammar has evolved. Grammar is not simply a reflection of thought, but is ‘motivated’ by its social and cultural functions. Or, as a leading functionalist grammarian, Michael Halliday, puts it, ‘language is as it is because of what it has to do’ (1978: 19). Grammar is function.

Halliday grammarA not dissimilar, cognitive, view of grammar starts from the premise that, as one scholar puts it, ‘language is rooted in human experience of the physical world’ (Lee 2001: 48). That is to say, grammar is the linguistic realization of the way we physically experience and perceive the world. Thus, the sentence Doorman will return shortly does not mean that the doorman will, literally, be short when he returns. Rather that, because we tend to construe time in terms of physical distance, it makes sense, when we talk about time, to use spatial words like short and long (and back and over). Likewise, our use of grammatical tense, aspect, modality, countability, and so on, all originate in our lived experience. Grammar is perception.

Finally, an emergent view of grammar is one that has, in part, been fuelled by developments in corpus linguistics. Corpora demonstrate that language is both formulaic and subject to constant variation. This tension between stasis and flux means that, over time, certain strings of words (called constructions) become fixed and assume a grammatical, i.e. non-literal, function: they become grammaticised. The English future form going to is a case in point: a verb string that started life meaning the same as walking to, but became a metaphor for futurity, and was eventually reduced, informally, to gonna. According to the emergent view, grammar is ‘the set of sedimented conventions that have been routinized out of the more frequently occurring ways of saying things’ (Hopper 1998: 163). Grammar is routine.

Matter, mind, function, perception, routine: which of these multiple ways of looking at grammar (and this by no means exhausts the number of grammars that have been theorized) best serves the needs of language learners and their teachers? I’ll leave that for you to ponder on.


cognitive grammarReferences

Chomsky, N. (1972) Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Fries, C. C. (1952). The Structure of English. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978) Language as Social Semiotic. London: Edward Arnold.

Hopper, P.J. (1998) ‘Emergent grammar’ in Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and functional approaches to language structure. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lee, D. (2001) Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

(A version of this post first appeared on the Cambridge English Teaching forum)

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.

R is for Repetition

5 12 2010

In her latest book, Claire Kramsch (2009) argues – among other things – for the value of repetition:

“In an effort to make language use more authentic and spontaneous, communicative language teaching has moved away from memorisation, recitation, and choral responses.  It has put a premium on the unique, individual, and repeatable utterance in unpredictable conversational situations.  And yet, there is value in repetition as an educational device: utterances repeated are also resignified” (p. 209).

That is to say, simply repeating something gives it an added or even different signifiance. Walt Whitman captured this principle in this brilliant little poem:

What am I, after all, but a child, pleas’d with the sound of my own name? repeating it over and over;
I stand apart to hear—it never tires me.

To you, your name also;
Did you think there was nothing but two or three pronunciations in the sound of your name?

Whitman Whitman Whitman...

Kramsch goes on to argue that “we may want to put the principle of iterability to work…: the same text, reread silently or aloud, can yield new meanings.  The same utterance, repeated in various contexts, with different inflections, can index different emotions, evoke different associations.  The same poem, memorised and performed two or three times in front of the same class, yields each time new pleasures of recognition and anticipation.  The same story, told to three different interlocutors, can enable the storyteller to put different emphases on the same general theme depending on the listener…” (ibid.)

The value of repetition as a means of achieving fluency has also been acknowledged in the recent literature on task-based learning. When learners repeat a task, even a relatively long time after its first performance, gains have been shown in both fluency and linguistic complexity. Bygate (2009) suggests that this is because “previous experience of a task is available for speakers to build on in subsequent performance” (p. 269).  He makes a similar point to Kramsch’s: that the communicative approach tends to value spontaneity and creativity. “And yet to provide speaking practice only under these conditions runs the risk that learners will constantly be improvising, constantly experimenting with new forms, but also constantly doing so while having to pay some considerable attention to the content of what they want to say” (ibid.). In other words, ‘free expression’ may come at considerable cost to fluency.

Corpus linguistics has shown, too, that a large proportion of what we say and write is ‘second-hand’: we recycle our own utterances repeatedly, as well as those of the discourse community we are affiliated to (or wish to be affiliated to). As Hopper (1998) puts it, echoing the Russian scholar M. Bakhtin, “We say things that have been said before. Our speech is a vast collection of hand-me-downs that reaches back in time to the beginnings of language” (p. 159).  He adds that, from this perspective, “language is … to be viewed as a kind of pastiche, pasted together in an improvised way out of ready-made elements” (op. cit. p. 166).  A good writer of academic text, for example, knows how to select formulations that are already part of what T.S. Eliot called ‘the dialect of the tribe’ in order to create “an easy commerce of the old and the new” (The Four Quartets).

The problem with repetition, from a pedagogical point of view, is that there is a tension between the need to repeat, on the one hand, and the boredom factor, on the other. It requires skilful management to balance repetitive language practice with the need for variety and a change of focus. One way is to change some element in the task for each iteration. Here are some ideas:

1. Change the amount of support: e.g. ‘Disappearing Dialogues’: learners practice a dialogue that is written on the board or projected, chunks of which are progressively hidden or erased, until they are perfroming the entire dialogue from memory.

2. Change the mode: e.g. ‘Paper conversations’: students interact passing paper and pen back and forth (like on-line chat), then repeat the exchange speaking.

3. Change the time: e.g. the 4-2-1 technique: students take turns to talk to their partner about a topic, for – at first – 4 minutes, then again for 2, and finally for 1, trying to keep the content constant.

4. Change the speakers: e.g. the ‘onion’ technique, whereby students are seated in two concentric circles, the inner circle facing the outer. Students perform a speaking task in pairs (e.g. a role play) and then the outer circle students move one seat clockwise, and the task is repeated with new partners.


Bygate, M. 2009. Effects of task repetition on the structure and control of oral language. In Van den Branden, K., Bygate, M., Norris, J.  (eds.) Task-based Language Teaching: A Reader.  Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hopper, P.J. 1998. Emergent language. In Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kramsch, C. 2009. The Multilingual Subject. Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

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.