On April 4th, 2014, Michael Hoey in his plenary address to the IATEFL conference made the following claims:
- Michael Lewis’ Lexical Approach and Krashen’s Monitor Model are true.
- Krashen’s & Lewis’ models are supported by the Lexical Priming theory.
I would like to make these counter-claims:
- Michael Lewis’ Lexical Approach and Krashen’s Monitor Model are not true.
- Krashen’s & Lewis’ models do not receive support from Hoey’s theory.
- Hoey’s theory offends basic considerations of rational theory construction.
Summary of Hoey’s plenary address (You can watch a video of the address by clicking on this link: http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2014/sessions/2014-04-04/plenary-session-michael-hoey )
According to Michael Lewis, the successful language learner is someone who can recognise, understand and produce lexical phrases as ready-made chunks. So in teaching, the emphasis needs to be on vocabulary in context and particularly on fixed expressions in speech. When someone learns vocabulary in context, they pick up grammar naturally.
According to Krashen, the crucial requirement for successful language learning is comprehensible input. The only way to acquire a language is by reading and listening to naturally occurring spoken and written language input that is very slightly above the current level of the learner. This is a subconscious process, and conscious learning does not result in knowledge of the language, only knowledge about the language.
Hoey’s paper makes 3 main claims:
- Lewis’ Lexical Approach and Krashen’s Monitor Model are entirely compatible with (and supported by) reliable psycholinguistic evidence
- The Lexical Approach and the Monitor Model are supported by at least one worked-out linguistic theory
- The characteristics of language that the Lexical Approach and the Monitor Model treat as central are not limited to English.
In answer to the question “How do we learn language?” Hoey points to research done “in the psycholinguistic tradition”, namely: semantic priming and repetition priming. In semantic priming experiments, informants are shown a word or image (referred to as the prime) and then shown a second word or image (known as the target word). The speed with which the target word is recognized is measured. Some primes appear to slow up informants’ recognition of the target and others appear to accelerate informants’ recognition of the target. For example, the prime word MILK will have no effect on the recognition of the word AVAILABLE, will typically inhibit the recognition of the word HORSE, but will speed up the recognition of the word COW. Hoey claims that there is “ample proof” that words are closely linked to each other in the listener’s mind, and that words that are closely linked can be recognised more quickly.
In repetition priming, the prime and the target are identical. Experiments with repetition priming expose informants to word combinations and then, sometimes after a considerable amount of time and after they’ve seen or heard lots of other material, measuring how quickly or accurately the informants recognize the combination when they finally see/hear it again. For example, a listener may be shown the word SCARLET followed by the word ONION. A day later, if s/he is shown the word SCARLET again, s/he will recognise ONION more quickly than other words. The assumption must be, says Hoey, that s/he remembers the combination from the first time, since the words SCARLET ONION will only rarely have occurred before (if ever). Repetition priming thus “provides an explanation” in Hoey’s view, of both semantic priming and collocation. If a listener or reader encounters two words in combination, and stores them as a combination, then the ability of one of the words to accelerate recognition of the other is explained. If the listener or reader then draws upon this combination in his or her own utterance, then the reproduction of collocation is also explained. This provides “proof” that a listener’s encounters with words in combination may result (sic) in their being closely linked to each other in the listener’s mind, without there being any conscious learning.
At this point, Hoey says that he has “proved” that Lewis’ and Krashen’s models are supported by “reliable psycholinguistic evidence” and moves to his linguistic theory. Hoey’s account of his theory amounts to “The Lexical Priming Claim” that: “Whenever we encounter a word (or syllable or combination of words), we note subconsciously
- the words it occurs with (its collocations),
- the meanings with which it is associated (its semantic associations),
- the pragmatics it is associated with (its pragmatic associations),
- the grammatical patterns it is associated with (its colligations),
- the genre and/or style and/or social situation it is used in,
- whether it is typically cohesive (its textual collocations),
- whether the word is associated with a particular textual relation (its textual semantic associations)
- the positions in a text that it occurs in, e.g. does it like to begin sentences? Does it like to start paragraphs? (its textual colligations)”.
Hoey says that when we know a word we subconsciously know all the above about it. Hoey claims that the existence of collocation, semantic association, pragmatic association and colligation “wholly supports Michael Lewis’s view of the centrality of lexis”, and that the existence of textual collocation, textual semantic association, and textual colligation “wholly supports Stephen Krashen’s view that learners need to be exposed to naturally occurring data that interests them and slightly extends them. How else could the textual features of lexis be acquired?”
The rest of Hoey’s address is devoted to showing that languages as apparently different as English and Chinese operate according to the same lexical principles, an issue I don’t want to pursue. So let me now reply to Hoey’s address.
The Monitor Model and the Lexical Approach are not true
Even supposing that Hoey’s view of lexis and of how it’s acquired is right, this does precisely NOTHING to address the weaknesses pointed out by scholars such as Gregg and McLaughlin of Krashen’s theory. As I have said elsewhere on this blog, the biggest problem with Krashen’s account is that there is no way of testing its claims. There is no way of testing the Acquisition-Learning hypothesis: we are given no evidence to support the claim that two distinct systems exist, nor any means of determining whether they are, or are not, separate. Similarly, there is no way of testing the Monitor hypothesis because we have no way to determine whether the Monitor is in operation or not. The Input Hypothesis is equally mysterious and incapable of being tested: the levels of knowledge are nowhere defined and so it is impossible to know whether i + 1 is present in input, and, if it is, whether or not the learner moves on to the next level as a result. Thus, the hypotheses make up a circular and vacuous argument. Nor does Krashen’s account offer any causal explanation of what is described. The Acquisition-Leaning Hypothesis simply states that L2 competence is picked up through comprehensible input in a staged, systematic way, without giving any explanation of the process by which comprehensible input leads to acquisition. Similarly, we are given no account of how the Affective Filter works, of how input is filtered out by an unmotivated learner. In summary, Krashen’s key terms are ill-defined, and circular, so that the set is incoherent. The lack of empirical content in the five hypotheses means that there is no means of testing them. As a theory it has such serious faults that it is not really a theory at all.
As for Lewis’ Lexical Approach, no attempt to provide a theory of SLA, psycholinguistic or otherwise, is made, so there is no theory for Hoey to support. All Lewis offers is the rather tired claim that “language consists of grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar”, and that one of the central organizing principles of any meaning-centered syllabus should be lexis. This was hardly new when he wrote it in 1993, and Hoey should know better than most how much Lewis’ work owes to Nattinger and DeCarrico, Pawley and Syder, Peters, Sinclair, and the Willis team. The book was rightly criticised for its almost hysterical evangelistic tone and its lack of any coherent or cohesive ELT methodology. In stark contrast to Willis (who gives a rationale and design for lexically based language teaching, and offers a detailed lexical syllabus with a coherent instructional methodology), Lewis offers no proper syllabus, or any principled way of teaching the types of lexis and collocates he describes. At one point Lewis proposes an “Observe-Hypothesize-Experiment” model, which I think he got from Tim Johns, but, typically, Lewis fails to provide guidance for implementing the Lexical Approach: he offers no teaching sequences which might demonstrate how the model would be used in the language classroom. Again, Hoey has not one word to say in answer to these criticisms.
Hoey’s Lexical Priming Theory
Language is often seen as having a grammar and a vocabulary, and it is common to think that we produce sentences by putting words from the vocabulary into appropriate grammatical structures. While this view of words being slotted into grammatical frames might explain creativity, it does not explain fluency very satisfactorily. How can native speakers be more fluent than non-native speakers when they have so much greater a sum of words to choose from? And how do we explain that some sentences typically produced by non-native speakers sound unnatural even though they are perfectly grammatical? Hoey suggests that the reason why native speakers are fluent and natural is that they do not construct sentences out of single words, but rather from words which work together in predictable combinations, the general term for this being collocation.
Hoey argues that we store the words we know in the context in which they were heard or read. Every time we encounter a word or phrase, we store it along with all the words that accompanied it and with a note of the kind of context it was found in – spoken or written, colloquial or formal, friendly or hostile, etc.. Through repetition, we build up a collection of examples of the word or phrase in its contexts, and notice patterns in the contexts. Hoey gives a complete list of things we subconsciously notice in his address under the Lexical Priming Claim; see above when he says “Whenever we encounter a word (or syllable or combination of words), we note subconsciously the words it occurs with (its collocations)”, etc..
To quote from MED Magazine, Issue 52, January 2009: “This process of subconsciously noticing is referred to as lexical priming. Noticing all these things is what makes it possible for a speaker to use the right phrase in the right context at the right time. Without realizing what we are doing, we all reproduce in our own speech and writing the language we have heard or read before. We use the words and phrases in the contexts in which we have heard them used, with the meanings we have subconsciously identified as belonging to them and employing the same grammar. This is how native speakers are able to be fluent and because the things they say are subconsciously influenced by what everyone has previously said to them, it also explains why they almost always sound natural. Our ability to be fluent and natural is, however, limited to the situations we are familiar with. If we have heard a word used repeatedly in particular ways in casual conversation with friends, we will be able to use it confidently in the same situation. It does not follow that we will feel confident about using it in academic writing or talking to strangers. So learning a word means learning it in many different contexts.
Knowing all this is what it means to know a word. Native speakers have acquired a large corpus of examples of the words of English in their typical contexts, and from this they learn how the words are used. By contrast, non-native speakers have typically heard (or read) relatively few examples of even the more common words in natural use and have therefore had less opportunity to learn the way these words typically occur. The differences in practice between a native speaker and a non-native speaker are twofold. Firstly, a non-native speaker is typically exposed to less language and to a narrower range of language, and, secondly, the non-native speaker has previously been primed for another language, which initially affects the way he or she is primed in English”.
What are we to make of this? Obviously, the aim is to connect corpus linguistics (the lexical aspect) with psycholinguistics (the priming aspect). Hoey’s address at IATEFL said almost nothing about the psycholinguistic background to the theory and his 2005 book, in Michael Pace-Sigge’s words “is only thinly represented and can be seen as insufficient to protect the theory submitted from charges of circularity in its argumentation” (Pace-Sigge, 2013). Hoey’s account of lexical priming theory certainly does lay itself wide open to such a charge and we must ask for a proper theory of psycholinguistics which explains how the huge amounts of dynamic lexical information is stored and processed, how SLA differs from first language acquisition, and a number of related questions. Furthermore, we must ask for a linguistic explanation. Hoey shows us occurrence patterns in language but he doesn’t explain why they occur. Why do words (or parts or clusters of words) collocate? Why do they have certain semantic associations?
As I suggested at the beginning of this piece, neither Krashen’s nor Lewis’ models receive support from Hoey’s theory, and that’s because Hoey’s theory explains nothing in any satisfactory way and generally offends basic considerations of rational theory construction. Explanation is the purpose of a theory, and one of the most important criteria for judging theories is their explanatory power. An explanation is generally taken to be an answer to a “Why” or “How” question about phenomena; it involves causation or a causal mechanism. Why do most L2 learners not achieve native-like competence? How do L2 learners go through stages of development? In the case of putative lexical priming, How does what we know about words get stored and retrieved? Hoey’s answer to this question is so far completely circular. The best theories are the ones that provide the most generally applicable explanations and which conform to criteria that I have discussed elsewhere (Jordan, 2004). Very briefly, theories should be coherent, cohesive, expressed in the clearest possible terms, and consistent There should be no internal contradictions in theories, and no circularity due to badly-defined terms. Badly-defined terms and unwarranted conclusions must be uncovered and the clearest, simplest expression of the theory must be sought. Theories should also have empirical content: propositions should be capable of being subjected to an empirical test. This implies that hypotheses should be capable of being supported or refuted, that hypotheses should not fly in the face of well-established empirical findings, and that research should be done in such a way that it can be observed, evaluated and replicated by others. The operational definition of variables is an extremely important way of ensuring that hypotheses and theories have empirical content. A final part of this criteria is that theories should avoid ad hoc hypotheses. Finally, theories should be fruitful (they should make daring and surprising predictions, and solve persistent problems in their domain); theories should be broad in scope. Ceteris paribus, the wider the scope of a theory, the better it is; and theories should be simple. Following the Occam’s Razor principle, ceteris paribus, the theory with the simplest formula, and the fewest number of basic types of entity postulated, is to be preferred for reasons of economy.
Judged by most of the criteria stated above, Hoey’s theory is very bad indeed, which is why I claim that it lends no support to Krashen’s or Lewis’ models. Despite this, I find Hoey’s description of language extremely interesting and challenging. I’m personally very well-disposed to the suggestion that lexis not grammar underpins language; that, as he says “lexis is complexly and systematically structured and that grammar is an outcome of this lexical structure” (Hoey, 2005). I’m also intrigued by the suggestion that priming explains how collocation happens. We can, as Hoey says, only “account for collocation if we assume that every word is primed for collocational use.” But the theory is, I suggest, very young. Priming amounts to this: “every time we use a word, and every time we encounter it anew, the experience either reinforces the priming by confirming an existing association between the word and its co-texts and contexts, or it weakens the priming, if we encounter a word in unfamiliar contexts” (Hoey, 2005). Until the construct “priming” is operationally defined in such a way that statements about it are open to empirical refutation it remains as mysterious as Krashen’s construct of comprehensible input.
Hoey, M. (2005) “Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language”. Oxford: OUP.
Jordan, G. (2004) “Theory Construction in SLA”. Amsterdam, Benjamins.
Pace-Sigge, M. (2013) The concept of Lexical Priming in the context of language use. ICAME Journal No. 37