In a recent webinar (which I read about in a post by Leo Selivan) Hugh Dellar talked about colligation. I missed the webinar and I found Selivan’s report of it confusing, so I took a look at the slides Dellar used. Early on in his presentation, Dellar quotes Hoey (2005, p.43)
The basic idea of colligation is that just as a lexical item may be primed to co-occur with another lexical item, so also it may be primed to occur in or with a particular grammatical function. Alternatively, it may be primed to avoid appearance in or co-occurrence with a particular grammatical function.
I don’t know how Dellar explained Hoey’s use of the term “primed” in his webinar, but I understand priming to be based on the idea that each word we learn becomes associated with the contexts with which we repeatedly encounter it, so much so that we subconsciously expect and replicate these contexts when we hear and speak the words. The different types of information that the word is associated with are called its primings.
What does Hoey himself say? Hoey says that we get all our knowledge about words (their collocations, colligations, and so on) by subconsciously noticing everything that we have ever heard or read, and storing it in memory.
The process of subconsciously noticing is referred to as lexical priming. … 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. The things we say are subconsciously influenced by what everyone has previously said to us (Hoey, 2009 – Lexical Priming)
Hoey rejects Chomsky’s view of L1 acquisition and claims that children learn language starting from a blank slate and then building knowledge from subconsciously noticed connections between lexical items. All language learning (child L1 and adult SLA alike) is the result of repeated exposure to patterns of text, where the more the repetition, the more chance for subconscious noticing, and the better our knowledge of the language.
The weaknesses of this theory include the following:
- Hoey does not explain the key construct of subconscious noticing;
- he does not explain how the hundreds of thousands of patterns of words acquired through repeatedly encountering and using them are stored and retrieved;
- he does not acknowledge any limitations in our ability to remember, process or retrieve this massive amount of linguistic information;
- he does not reply to the argument that we can and do say things that we haven’t been trained to say and that we have never heard anybody else say, which contradicts the claim that what we say is determined by our history of priming.
- while Hoey endorses Krashen’s explanation of SLA (it’s an unconscious process dependent on comprehensible input), Krashen’s Natural Order Hypothesis contradicts Hoey’s lexical priming theory, since, while the first claims that SLA involves the acquisition of grammatical structures in a predictable sequence, the second claims that grammatical structures are lexical patterns and that there is no order of acquisition.
These limitations in Hoey’s theory get no mention from Dellar, who, having previously modelled his lexical approach on Michael Lewis, now seems to have fully embraced Hoey’s lexical priming theory. Let’s look at how this theory compares to rival explanation. (I’m here making use of material I’ve used in previous posts about Dellar & Hoey.)
Interlanguage Grammar versus Lexical Priming
In the last 40 years, great progress has been made in developing a theory of SLA based on a cognitive view of learning. It started in 1972 with the publication of Selinker’s paper where he argues that the L2 learners have their own autonomous mental grammar which came to be known as interlanguage grammar, a grammatical system with its own internal organising principles, which may or may not be related to the L1 and the L2.
One of the first stages of this interlanguage to be identified was that for ESL questions. In a study of six Spanish students over a 10-month period, Cazden, Cancino, Rosansky and Schumann (1975) found that the subjects produced interrogative forms in a predictable sequence:
- Rising intonation (e.g., He works today?),
- Uninverted WH (e.g., What he (is) saying?),
- “Overinversion” (e.g., Do you know where is it?),
- Differentiation (e.g., Does she like where she lives?).
A later example is in Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991: 94). They pointed to research which suggested that learners from a variety of different L1 backgrounds go through the same four stages in acquiring English negation:
- External (e.g., No this one./No you playing here),
- Internal, pre-verbal (e.g., Juana no/don’t have job),
- Auxiliary + negative (e.g., I can’t play the guitar),
- Analysed don’t (e.g., She doesn’t drink alcohol.)
In developing a cognitive theory of SLA, the construct of interlanguage became central to the view of L2 learning as a process by which linguistic skills become automatic. Initial learning requires controlled processes, which require attention and time; with practice the linguistic skill requires less attention and becomes routinized, thus freeing up the controlled processes for application to new linguistic skills. SLA is thus seen as a process by which attention-demanding controlled processes become more automatic through practice, a process that results in the restructuring of the existing mental representation, the interlanguage.
So there are two rival theories of SLA on offer here: Hoey’s theory of lexical priming (supported by Dellar, Selivan and others) and Selinker’s theory of interlanguage (developed by Long, Robinson, Schmidt, Skehan, Pienemann and others). Dellar should resist giving the impression that Hoey’s theory is the definitive and unchallenged explanation of how we learn languages.
Errors and L1 priming
in his presentation Dellar says “All our students bring L1 primings” and gives these examples from Polish.
On chce zebym studiowal prawo.
Jak ona wyglada?
These L1 primings “colour L2”
He wants that I study Law.
It is cold to me.
How does she look?
Dellar says that these are not grammar errors, but rather “micro-grammatical problems” caused by a lack of awareness of how the words attach themselves to grammar. The solution Dellar offers to these problems is to provide learners with lots of examples of “correct colligation and co –text”.
He wants me to study Law.
My dad’s quite pushy. He wants me to study Business, but I’m not really sure that I want to.
It’s really cold today. It’s freezing! I’m freezing!
What does she look like? Oh, she’s quite tall . . . long hair . . . quite good-looking, actually. Well, I think so anyway.
This kind of correction is, says Dellar, “hard work, but necessary work”. It ensures that “students are made aware of how the way they think the language works differs from how it really works.” Dellar concludes that
Hoey has shown the real route to proficiency is sufficient exposure. Teachers can shortcut the priming process by providing high-reward input that condenses experience and saves time.
We may note how Hoey, not Krashen, gets the credit for showing that the real route to proficiency is sufficient exposure; how priming now explains learning; and how teaching must now concentrate on providing shortcuts to the primimg process.
To return to Dellar’s “micro-grammatical problems”, we are surely entitled to ask if what SLA researchers for 50 years have referred to as the phenomenon of L1 transfer is better understood as the phenomenon of L1 primings. Recall that Pit Corder argued in 1967 that learner errors were neither random nor best explained in terms of the learner’s L1; errors were indications of learners’ attempts to figure out an underlying rule-governed system. Corder distinguished between errors and mistakes: mistakes are slips of the tongue and not systematic, whereas errors are indications of an as yet non-native-like, but nevertheless, systematic, rule-based grammar. Dulay and Burt (1975) then claimed that fewer than 5% of errors were due to native language interference, and that errors were, as Corder suggested, in some sense systematic. The morpheme studies of Brown in L1 (1973) led to studies in L2 which suggested that there was a natural order in the acquisition of English morphemes, regardless of L1. This became known as the L1 = L2 Hypothesis, and further studies all pointed to systematic staged development in SLA. The emerging cognitive paradigm of language learning perhaps received its full expression in Selinker’s (1972) paper which argues that the L2 learners have their own autonomous mental grammar (which came to be known, pace Selinker, as interlanguage (IL) grammar), a grammatical system with its own internal organising principles, which may or may not be related to the L1 and the L2.
All of this is contradicted by Dellar, who insists that L1 priming explains learner errors.
Language development through L2 priming versus processing models of SLA
Explaining L2 development as a matter of strengthening L2 primings between words contradicts the work of those using a processing model of SLA, and I’ll give just one example. McLaughlin (1990) uses the twin concepts of “Automaticity” and “Restructuring” to describe the cognitive processes involved in SLA. Automaticity occurs when an associative connection between a certain kind of input and some output pattern occurs. Many typical greetings exchanges illustrate this:
Speaker 1: Morning.
Speaker 2: Morning. How are you?
Speaker 1: Fine, and you?
Speaker 2: Fine.
Since humans have a limited capacity for processing information, automatic routines free up more time for such processing. To process information one has to attend to, deal with, and organise new information. The more information that can be handled routinely, automatically, the more attentional resources are freed up for new information. Learning takes place by the transfer of information to long-term memory and is regulated by controlled processes which lay down the stepping stones for automatic processing.
The second concept, restructuring, refers to qualitative changes in the learner’s interlanguage as they move from stage to stage, not to the simple addition of new structural elements. These restructuring changes are, according to McLaughlin, often reflected in “U-shaped behaviour”, which refers to three stages of linguistic use:
- Stage 1: correct utterance,
- Stage 2: deviant utterance,
- Stage 3: correct target-like usage.
In a study of French L1 speakers learning English, Lightbown (1983) found that, when acquiring the English “ing” form, her subjects passed through the three stages of U-shaped behaviour. Lightbown argued that as the learners, who initially were only presented with the present progressive, took on new information – the present simple – they had to adjust their ideas about the “ing” form. For a while they were confused and the use of “ing” became less frequent and less correct.
According to Dellar (folowing Hoey) this “restructuring” explanation is wrong: what’s actually happening is that the L2 primings are not getting enough support from “high-reward input”.
There are serious weaknesses in the lexical priming theory as a theory of SLA, and few reasons to think that it offers a better explanation of the phenomena studied by SLA scholars, including the phenomenon of L1 transfer, than processing theories which use the construct of interlanguage grammar. Even if there were, Dellar seems not to have grasped that his newly-adopted explanation of language learning and his long-established teaching methods contradict each other. If lexical priming is a subconcious process which explains language learning, then the sufficient condition for learning is exposure to language and opportunities to strengthen and extend lexical primings. All the corrective work that Dellar recommends, all that “hard but necessary work” to ensure that “students are made aware of how the way they think the language works differs from how it really works” is useless interference in a natural process involving the unconscious acquisition of lexical knowledge.
Cazden, C., Cancino, E., Rosansky, E. and Schumann, J. (1975) Second language acquisition sequences in children, adolescents and adults. Final report submitted to the National Institute of Education, Washington, D.C.
Corder, S. P. (1967) The significance of learners’ errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics 5, 161-9.
Dulay, H. and Burt, M. (1975) Creative construction in second language learning and teaching. In Burt, M and Dulay, H. (eds.), New directions in second language learning, teaching, and bilingual education. Washington, DC: TESOL, 21-32.
Hoey, M. (2005) Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language. London: Routledge.
Krashen, S. (1981) Second language acquisition and second language learning. Oxford: Pergamon.
Larsen-Freeman, D. and Long, M. H. (1991) An introduction to second language acquisition research. Harlow: Longman.
McLaughlin, B. (1990) “Conscious” versus “unconscious” learning. TESOL Quarterly 24, 617-634.
Selinker, L. (1972) Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics 10, 209-231.