Emergentism: The Truth Revealed


You’ll doubtless know that “emergence” is one of the key principles of Dogme, and you might well have noticed that more and more people are banging on about emergence these days. I did a Google search the other day on “emergence and language learning” and among the results I noticed an article by Scott Thornbury which he’d written in 2009 for English Teaching Professional called “Slow Release Grammar”.  The article is remarkable for its tone;  it makes a number of sweeping assertions with breathtaking assurance. If you didn’t know better (didn’t know, that is, that there is no generally accepted explanation of SLA), you’d be tempted to think that you were reading a new book of revelations. Scott writes as if he’s finally cracked it, as if he were in possession of the truth. According to this article, emergence improves on Darwin as an explanation of natural development, it explains language, language learning, and the failure of classroom-based adult ELT. Just to top it off, emergence is also the key to  successful syllabus design. Why, one wonders, does such a seemingly transcendental work remain tucked away in the middle of a lack-lustre journal? Why isn’t it as well-kmown as the vaunted Dogme tracts themselves? I’ll briefly summarise it below, using mostly Scott’s own words. 

First, emergence is everywhere in nature, where a system is said to have emergent properties when it displays complexity at a global level that is not specified at a local level. There are millions of such systems; the capacity of an ant colony to react in unison to a threat is an example. Because there is no “central executive” determining the emergent organisation of the system, the patterns and regularities which result have been characterised as “order for free”.


Next, language.  Language exhibits emergent properties. There are 2 processes by which language “grows and organises itself”. The first is our capacity to detect and remember frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to. In language terms, these sequences typically take the form of chunks (AKA formulaic expressions or lexical phrases). The second is our capacity to unpack the regularities within these chunks, and to use these patterns as templates for the later development of a more systematic grammar. It is as if the chunks – memorised initially as unanalysed wholes – slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin. Language emerges as “grammar for free”.

Thirdly, there is emergence in learning. Hoey notes how particular words and chunks re-occur in the same patterns. These can be seen in collocations, such as good morning; good clean fun; on a good day …; fixed phrases, such as one good turn deserves another, the good, the bad and the ugly; and colligations, as in it’s no good + -ing. Hoey argues that, through repeated use and association, words are ‘primed’ to occur in predictable combinations and contexts. The accumulation of lexical priming creates semantic associations and colligations which, in Hoey’s words, “nest and combine and give rise to an incomplete, inconsistent and leaky, but nevertheless workable, grammatical system”.  But note that adults learning a second language  are less successful in their capacity both to take formulaic chunks on board, and to re-analyse them for the grammatical information that they encapsulate.

Fourthly, the problems which adults have remembering and unpacking formulaic chunks don’t find their solution in most ELT classrooms where few opportunities for real communication are offered. Wray says: “Classroom learners are rarely aiming to communicate a genuine message…, so there is no drive to use formulaic sequences for manipulative  purposes”. Even when adult learners do internalise formulaic chunks, they are often incapable of unpacking the grammar, perhaps because many chunks are not really grammatical (expressions like if I were you; you’d better not; by and large; come what may, etc, yield little or no generalisable grammar) and perhaps because they fail to notice the form.

Finally, we can put emergence into the classroom through the syllabus. If the productive potential of formulaic language is to be optimised, then, at least four conditions need to prevail:

  • Exposure – to a rich diet of formulaic language
  • Focus on form – to promote noticing and pattern extraction
  • A positive social dynamic – to encourage pragmatic and interpersonal language use
  • Opportunities for use – to increase automaticity, and to stimulate storage in long-term memory, and recall.

Well, there you have it: all is revealed.  And, as I suggested above, revealed as the unequivocal-no-ifs-or-buts-not-a-hint-of-a-doubt, truth.  So, to return to the question, why hasn’t the ELT world “taken on board” (to air one of the many awful clichés which Scott is not afraid of using) the full import of this article? Why haven’t we all enthusiastically clambered aboard the good ship Emergence and set sail to the happy land of “grammar for free” language learning?  Maybe because the good ship Emergence is an old tub which is as leaky as Hoey’s grammar.


Scott starts with Stuart Kauffman’s claim that the phenomenon whereby certain natural systems display complexity at a global level that is not specified at a local level is evidence of emergence and “order for free”.  This highly-controversial view is then used in an attempt to add credibility to the suggestion that lexical chunks provide “grammar for free”. We may begin by noting that Scott tells us that many formulaic chunks “yield little or no generalisable grammar”, which surely must impede their wonderous ability to “slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin”.  Or does their magic extend to releasing qualities which they don’t possess? Scott gives an inadequate and mangled account of emergentism which, according to him, says that lexical phrases explain English grammar, how children learn English and why adults have difficulties learning English as a foreign language. Using Michael Hoey as the spokesman for emergentism, while avoiding any mention of William O’Grady’s “Syntactic Carpentry: An Emergentist Approach to Syntax” or of the works of Bates and MacWhinney is another indication  of the skewed account on offer here.


I discuss emergentism, including work by Bates, MacWhinney, O’Grady and Ellis, in a page you can find in the menu on the right. Suffice it to say here that Scott’s unqualified assertion that language learning can be explained as the detection and memorisation of “frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to” is probably wrong and certainly not the whole story. At the very least, Scott should give a more measured description and discussion of emergentist views of language learning and acknowledge that it faces severe challenges as a theory. How can general conceptual representations acting on stimuli from the environment explain the representational system of language that children demonstrate? As Eubank and Gregg ask: “How come children know which form-function pairings are possible in human-language grammars and which are not, regardless of exposure?” How can emergentists deal with cases of instantaneous learning, or knowledge that comes about in the absence of exposure, including knowledge of what is not possible?  Scott’s suggestion that we have an innate capacity to “unpack the regularities within lexical chunks, and to use these patterns as templates for the later development of a more systematic grammar” begs more questions than it answers and, anyway, contradicts the empiricist epistemology adopted by most emergentists who say that there aren’t, indeed can’t be, any such things as innate capacities.

Finally, we get Scott’s depressing picture of the arid desert which is the standard adult EFL classroom followed by the triumphant portrayal of an emergentist syllabus, where the  “productive potential” of formulaic language is unleashed.  The illusive, definitive recipe of language learning has been revealed: lashings of formulaic language, sprinkled with a little focus on form, served on a bed of positive social dynamic, with the chance of asking for more. In the likely event that the positive social dynamic gets out of hand in these joyous classrooms, and the adult students start running amok, babbling formulaic chunks of colloquial language at each other, I recommend that the teacher gives out copies of that most calming, not to say soporific, textbook “Natural Grammar”.

Eubank, L. and Gregg, K. R. (2002) News Flash – Hume Still Dead. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 2, 237-248.

Hoey, M. /(2005)  Lexical Priming. Routledge.

Wray, A. (2002) Formulaic Language and the Lexicon. CUP.

About these ads

8 thoughts on “Emergentism: The Truth Revealed

  1. Kolb (1984) said that there were 4 principle orientations to learning
    1. Concrete experience involving personal experience and an emphasis on feeling over thinking.

    2.Abstract conceptualisations, using a systematic approach and logic to problem solving, an emphasis on thinking and precise conceptual systems

    3. Reflective observation, focussed on understanding, meaning by careful observation, relying on one´s own judgement, thoughts and feelings

    4. Active experimentation with an emphasis on practical applications, getting things done , influencing people, manoeuvering change and taking risks to accomplish things

    After 40 years of practice, I agree with the above and no formulaic language or lexical chunks in sight!!!!

  2. Hi Connie,

    Nice list! I don’t suppose Kolb would disapprove of the use of lexical chunks in language teaching, but I bet he’d be surprised if you told him that they’re the key component in the emergent organisation of language, and that if you unpack them they’ll give you grammar for free.

  3. Interesting and well written as always. No offense, but you seem to have an obsession with attacking Scott Thornbury. It seems that almost every post you write is aimed at debunking or attacking his ideas, books, theories, etc. Justified? Perhaps, just an observation.

    To be fair, I do think that you are balanced, lay no claims to a privileged position, and generally you have a sense of humour.

    As for emergentism, I think you are right to point out fuzziness of the whole edifice.But then again, I am not sure if any other theory of language or learning builds a convincing argument of how languages are learned.

  4. Hi Derek,

    Thanks for the complimentary comments.

    As for “Thornbury Thumpin” more fun than Krashen Bashin), he got 2 awards in my 2013 round-up (Best Video and Best Contributor to ELT Methodology); I recommend 2 or 3 of his books in the Suggested Reading section; I include 3 or 4 video clips of him giving presentations in the Resources section; I devote a page to Dogme which is basically supportive; and I never tire of saying that I consider him to be an excellent writer and teacher trainer. Which doesn’t mean he’s always right or above criticism.

  5. Nattinger and Decarrico are excellent in their book, LEXICAL PHRASES AND LANGUAGE TEACHING and I too am sure that Kolb would not diss the use of them. However, there is no panacea for language teaching or learning without “tears”, there is no such thing as a free lunch and grammar for free is but a flight of fancy

  6. Quite so, Connie. I remember the 2 of us being very impressed with Nat and Dec (as they insisted we call them) when the book came out. I also remember the 2 of us using lexical phrases for manipulative purposes in Bar Angel: “Llueve a chorros, dos mas, porfa!”

  7. There are definitely qualities of language learning that mirror emergentism elsewhere in the natural world, and I know from my Richard Dawkins books that “getting” emergentism comes with an irresistable impulse to start looking for it everywhere. However, and I realized this while reading Teaching Unplugged last module, the fact that language could be described as an emergent phenomenon for our species doesn’t necessarily recommend its use (or a teacher relying on it to produce competence) in the classroom. First, there’s no reason to expect naturally emerging language to be close to the language that students are paying for the opportunity to learn. Much like boxing students do not expect to be able to use any naturally occurring means to put the other guy on the mat, language students want to learn to express themselves according to some already-established list of rules. Second, the time restraints on classes mean that very little has time to emerge. If a human body is an emergent phenomenon of cells each acting by local rules, an English class has about enough time for cells to multiply once before class is over. Third, and this is more a commercial concern, emergent language is a hard sell.
    I don’t disagree that language is an emergent phenomenon generally, or that rules change and meanings are negotiated, but not all “truths” about language are useful for teaching second language learners.

    • Hi Mark,

      Thanks for this interesting post. While I disagree “that language is an emergent phenomenon generally”, I could hardly disagree that “rules change and meanings are negotiated”, I like your remarks about classroom teaching.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s