Plenary: Michael Hoey – The implications of a corpus linguistic theory for learning the English language (and the Chinese language too)

According to the introductory speaker, Michael’s talk draws its data from corpus linguistics…what a shock… 🙂 

 What Michael wants to do today is look at two old approaches to language teaching and learning, and bring a new perspective to bear on them. Both approaches have had a great number of adherents and critics, both are very much alive.

The Lexical Approach

He starts by showing us a slide of key works within Lewis’s Lexical Approach, which is now just over 20 years olds, saying there is still work going on but it is now an old approach though very much still alive. According to Lewis, the successful language learner is someone who can recognise, understand and produce lexical chunks. Learning the grammar and slotting other words in doesn’t work in a world where language doesn’t work like that. Rather than learning vocabulary in lists and focusing on grammatical structures, focusing on the actual words that can be used to communicate. When someone learns vocab in context, they pick up grammar naturally, but it doesn’t work vice versa – you don’t pick up much useful vocab when learning grammar separately.

He cites his language learning with regards to Chinese, where he has learnt to talk about his father’s tea-drinking habits while his father is actually dead, but can’t ask for a beer, is not useful – a learning grammar and then pieces of vocabulary. Whereas if you learn vocab relevant to your needs, the grammar comes along.

The lexical approach has been criticised for ignoring how language is learnt, that there is no theoretical underpinning and that it trivialises the role of grammar. There is also the question of whether it is limited to the Indo-European languages.

Stephen Krashen’s Monitor Model

Another old approach but very much alive. Also known as the input hypothesis. Michael thinks it should be called the input theory but will refer to it as the Monitor Model. It is now 30 years old. He showed us some key works related to this as well. According to this model, comprehensible input is the key element needed for language learning to take place. It needs to be slightly above learners’ level and is a subconscious process. Michael illustrates this with his own experience of Chinese learning.

It has been criticised for ignoring how language is learnt, having no linguistic underpinning and trivialising grammar and the role of the teacher.

Michael’s 3 arguments for today:

  1. These two approaches are entirely compatible with psycho-linguistic evidence.
  2. Both of them are supported by at least one carefully worked out linguistic theory – his! (Puts them on shaky ground?! he wonders.. 🙂 )
  3. The characters that both approaches assign to the language learning process are equally true of non-Indo European language.

How do we learn language?

Michael is interested in the psychologists doing language work rather than the linguistics pretending to do psychology work. Psycholinguists identified two things: semantic priming and repetition priming

Semantic priming – informants shown an image or word (the prime) and then shown a second word/image (known as the target word). Speed of recognition is measured. Some primes slow the recognition of target word, while others speed it up.

E.g. “wing” followed by “director” – “wing” won’t alter the speed. If it is followed by “dog”, it will infinitesimally slow down. But if swan, then it will be speeded up slightly. It’s about linguistic knowledge rather than world knowledge.

It is old and uncontroversial work. What does it mean for language learning?

It gives us proof that words are closely linked in a listener’s mind. Words that are closely linked can be recognised more quickly together. So it encourages fluency. It doesn’t fit in at all with grammatical frames and words that slot in. This notion (the grammatical frames one) is not supported. It does, though, fit in very well with the lexical approach, which fully supports it.

Repetition priming

E.g. a listener hears the phrase scarlet followed by onion, then a few days later hears the word scarlet, it will speed up the process of recognising onion. So your brain remembers the co-occurrence and that speeds the recognition up.

Michael shows us some works related to this and says it, too, is uncontroversial.

Repetition priming explains collocation. If a listener/reader encounters words in combination, then they are stored as such and recognition is speeded up. When we encounter words in combination, we link them in our minds without there being any conscious learning. Doesn’t fit in well with  the grammatical framework notion but it does fit in with Krashen’s acquisition vs. learning.

So that takes care of number 1 for todays talk.

Now for number 2 – are these supported by another theory?

<slide>

Any account for collocation has got to be central to how language functions. The lexical priming theory is a psycholinguistic theory based on corpus linguistic evidence. It claims that whenever we encounter a word, we subconsciously note the words it occurs with – the collocations.

<He shows use lots of combinations with “hard”> All of these are part of collocation.

Once a priming is created, it is subject to further priming. “ears” collocates with “eyes”, which as a group becomes something that will be primed to collocate with “act as” as in “act as someone’s eyes and ears” So collocations can collocate with something else.

Michael quotes Hill regards to the density of unknown collocations that are the difficulty for learners. But the lexical priming theory goes beyond collocation. It is also about semantic association.

E.g. ears collocates with eyes, but also co-occurs with other parts of the body in a semantic set. All of this is part of that semantic association – “ears” likes to collocate with parts of the body. 23% of all instances of “ears” in Hoey’s corpus collocate with part of the body.

“consequences” tend to be negative – grim, bleak

“results” tend to be positive – great

We also note the grammatical patterns that a word or combination of words tend to take – the colligation.

“consequence” tends to be indefinite e.g. “a consequence of”; “result” tends to be definite e.g. “the result of..”

We are primed for this by recurrent occurrences of these combinations.

We also subconsciously note textual features. This goes beyond the oft-talked about that we have considered so far. We are primed for other things when we encounter language. We recognise whether a word is typically cohesive or not. We know, when reading or listening, whether this word or phrase is going to turn about again. So we know whether we need to hold on to it or can forget it.

Michael shows us an extract from The Guardian and picks out that president occurs three times in the course of three sentences. Not an accident. In Michael’s study, of 66 independent occurrences of “president”, 76% contributed to the cohesion of the text. So we are primed to expect that. We also notice how it is likely to be cohesive e.g. by simple repetition, or pronouns or with a name (co-reference), in the case of “president”

Back to the text – “frankly”, however, was only responsible for 5 instances of cohesion out of 50, and some of them were a stretch. So we are primed to expect avoidance of cohesion, with “frankly”.

Just reading a text, you get lots of experiences of those words that are repeated within the text.

We also are primed for semantic relationships within a text. Every lexical item – word, phrase – may be positively or negatively primed to associate with various items. Texts prime our vocabulary for us and our vocabulary primes us with regard to the organisation of the text. We are also primed to notice position e.g. is it typically used at the beginning of a sentence or the end of a sentence. E.g. “it was announced yesterday” is typically found at the end of the first sentence in a newspaper article. So very precise positioning.

Michael tells us a lot about what we know about “According to” in relation to newspaper texts in terms of collocation, colligation, pragmatic association, semantic association etc. Very interesting.

This all wholly supports Michael Lewis’s view of the centrality of lexis. Everything he was saying in the Lexical Approach book is backed up by psycholinguistic and corpus linguistic research. It must be true. If you want to argue it’s not, you have to argue against ALL the sets of research. All the textual features are central to Stephen Krashen’s claim. You couldn’t expect to teach/learn consciously all the textual properties of every word in the text. But it is the case that the fact that we reproduce these things when we write/speak means we learn from frequent encounters. So he is right that we need to be exposed to naturally occuring data.

Like me with Italian, Michael can’t speak but can read Chinese! The textual features of lexis can be acquired.

Time for number 3 – does the Lexical Approach apply to Chinese? i.e. not only applicable to Indo-European languages

Michael contrasts English and Chinese and then looks at the Lexical Priming claims in terms of Chinese. He shows us collocations of “hao” in Chinese. And then points out that “houhui” is associated with negative colligation. Then shows us that houhui has a semantic association with unhappy action taken and pragmatic association of making a suggestion (a third of instances in the corpus), but only the negative forms.

In terms of significance, sensible to build on the common ground between languages rather than the differences.

Michael has shown us how both Krashen’s and Lewis’s theories have been falsely criticised, and are in fact safe to use. The two researchers have come up with very compatible positions.

hoeymp@liv.ac.uk

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One thought on “Plenary: Michael Hoey – The implications of a corpus linguistic theory for learning the English language (and the Chinese language too)

  1. Pingback: IATEFL 2014: Bringing all my posts together in one place! | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

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