G is for Grammar syllabus

15 04 2012

A hobby-horse of mine, I know, but I thought I’d make a video this time, rather than write about it all over again.

Some relevant quotes and references (the numbers don’t correlate with my ‘8 issues’ but the order more or less does):

1. “Of the scores of detailed studies of naturalistic and classroom language learning reported over the past 30 years, none suggest, for example, that presentation of discrete points of grammar one at a  time bears any resemblance except an accidental one to either the order or the manner in which naturalistic or classroom acquirers learn those item”.

Long, M. and Robinson, P. (1998) ‘Focus on form: Theory, research and practice’, in Doughty, C., and  Williams, J. (eds.) Focus on form in classroom language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 16.

2. “In helping learners manage their insights into the target language we should be conscious that our starting point is the learner’s grammar of the language.  It is the learner who has to make sense of the insights derived from input, and learners can only do this by  considering new evidence about the language in the light of their current model of the language. This argues against presenting them with pre-packaged structures and implies that they should be encouraged to process text for themselves so as to reach conclusions which make sense in terms of their own systems”.

Willis, D. (1994)  ‘A Lexical Approach’, in Bygate, M., A. Tonkyn, and E. Williams, (eds.) Grammar and the Language Teacher, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall, p. 56.

3. “Materials used in the teaching of grammar have commonly been based on intuition… In fact, corpus-based research shows that the actual patterns of function and use in English often differ radically from prior expectations…  Some relatively common linguistic constructions are overlooked in pedagogic grammars, while some relatively rare constructions receive considerable attention.”

Biber, D., S. Conrad, and R. Reppen, (1994) ‘Corpus-based approaches to issues in applied linguistics’,  Applied Linguistics 15, 2, p. 171.

4. “Language learning is exemplar based…. the knowledge underlying fluent use of language is not grammar in the sense of abstract rules or structure but a huge collection of memories of previously experienced utterances”.

Ellis, N. (2002) ‘Frequency effects in language processing. A review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition’, Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, p. 166.

5. “Learning grammar involves abstracting regularities from the stock of known lexical sequences.”

Ellis, N. (1997) ‘Vocabulary acquisition: word structure, collocation, word-class’, in Schmitt, N., and McCarthy, M. (Eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition, and Pedagogy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 126.

6. “Grammar is … simply the name for certain categories of observed repetitions in discourse…. Its forms are not fixed templates but emerge out of face-to-face interaction in ways that reflect the individual speakers’ past experience of these forms… Grammar, in this view, is not the source of understanding and communication but a by-product of it”.

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, p. 156.

7. “From the perspective of emergent grammar … learning an additional language is about enhancing one’s repertoire of fragments and patterns that enables participation in a wider array of communicative activities. It is not about building up a complete and perfect grammar in order to produce well-formed sentences.”

Lantolf, J. and Thorne, S. (2006) Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 7.

8. “We may learn the tokens of language formally, but we learn the system by using it through reading or writing, or conversing”.

Brumfit, C. (2001) Individual Freedom In Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 12.

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.