Category: Applied Linguistics

Perceiving Prominence – Part #1 (the “What?”)

Perceiving Prominence – Part #1 (the “What?”)

How would you say these example sentences?
a. I think that’s the right answer, but I’m not sure.¬†

b. I think that’s the right answer, no matter what you say!

I’m guessing that “I” and “think” sounded different when you said these two sentences to yourself – and it is this difference that is interesting and helpful to understand, particularly for English learners.

My friend and colleague is doing post-doctoral research on the different functions of the chunk “I think”. Depending on whether “I” or “think” is pronounced as prominent (i.e. stressed), the chunk can either be a hedger or a booster, as we saw in the example sentences above. Her research is looking into whether these two functions of “I think” align with its function as part of a matrix clause or comment clause respectively. If that’s too hard-core linguistic-y for you, do not worry! This post is about how prominence in “I” or “think” is realised and perceived, and part 2 will then look at how we can help English langauge learners to understand and use “I think” effectively.

To set the scene… My colleague and I were phonetically coding audio recordings of English speakers reading example sentences that include “I think” – she needs the coding for her research. In some cases, we noticed that we had coded the prominences (i.e. stressed syllables) in some sentences differently. And that got us thinking: On a phonological and rather subjective level, when do we perceive “I” or “think” as prominent? And on a phonetic and objective level, how are “I” and “think” produced to be prominent? That is, what makes a stressed syllable sound stressed?

For those who are less interested in the empirical details of the study, skip this paragraph! ūüėČ We had 23 English speakers read 6 sentences including “I think” three times each. There were also other ‘distractor’ sentences that they read, and they were not informed that our research focuses on “I think”. That ratio of distractors to experimental sentences was 2:1.¬† The findings I’m reporting here come from our coding of¬† 115 recordings of “I think” sentences – only one instance of each sentence per speaker.

Unbenannt

As a first step in answering our questions about the perception and production of prominence, we each coded the recordings, using P or p to show strong or weak prominence, using the¬†Praat¬†software- see image below for an example. In 96 cases, we both agreed on which syllables were the most prominent ones in the recording – an overlap of almost 83%. In 19 cases, we didn’t overlap exactly on whether it was strong or weak prominence in comparison to the rest of the sentence stresses, but both identified the same syllable in “I think” as prominent, and in 19 other cases one of us had not marked any prominence in “I think” and the other one had. Of these 19 where we disagreed, there were 13 cases where my colleague coded “think” as prominent, and I perceived no prominence in “I think” compared to the rest of the sentence.

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And so we moved on to looking at what was different in the productions of “I” and “think” in these sentences that could help explain our differences in perceiving prominence. Generally, syllable stress, or prominence, is said to be a combination of pitch accents (i.e. higher pitch or pitch movement), longer duration, and higher intensity (i.e. volume/loudness). Some linguists assume pitch to be the most important factor, whereas others claim intensity to be the best predictor of a syllable being perceived as prominent. Since the literature presents some conflicting ideas here, we were motivated to look at all three aspects and see whether they could explain our differing perceptions of prominence.¬†We coded the recordings phonetically for pitch, duration and intensity (also using the Praat software), to come up with the following findings.¬† The image below shows what the coding looked like – the yellow line shows intensity and the blue one pitch.

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Is there always a pitch accent on the syllable we perceived as prominent in “I think”?Basically, yes. There was only one example among our 115 recordings where there was no pitch accent on an “I” that we both percieved as prominent. Interestingly, prominence on “I” was often associated with pitch movement, rather than a peak. We also noticed that, even when I had not percieved either syllable in “I think” as particularly prominent in the sentence, there was usually a pitch peak on “think” – which may explain 13 cases where my colleague percieved “think” as prominent and I had coded no prominence. So it seems that pitch is a fairly reliable predictor of when my colleague will perceive prominence. But what about me?

Next, we looked at intensity. Here, there was a less systematic correlation. We found that the more prominent syllable in “I think”¬†is most often produced with more intensity. However, in 13 of the cases where we agreed on which syllable was prominent, the syllable we had marked as prominent was not the louder one – this was especially true for recordings of American speakers (11 out of 13 instances). Regarding the cases where we had coded prominence differently, intensity explained 47% of my colleague’s prominent syllables, but only 21% of mine. [My colleague was a little frustrated with me at this point – What IS it that makes syllables sound prominent to you???!!!]

The final phonetic aspect we looked at was duration. I should tell you that this is hard to measure, and phoneticians disagree on the best way to measure it, but that is a discussion for another time! In the cases where we agreed on the prominence of “I” in “I think”, it was always the speaker’s longest pronunciation of “I” in the sentence. Still, my colleague’s perceptions of prominence seem to be somewhat immune to the duration factor – even the long duration of “I” did not make her perceive it as prominent if pitch and/or intensity pointed to “think” as the prominent syllable. In 5 cases, though, this longer duration led me to code “I” as the prominent syllable, despite the pitch accent and/or higher intensity of “think”. So, it looked as if we were getting to the bottom of which factors create prominence they way I perceive it! Still, there was one case where the pitch peak was on “think”, an intensity peak on “I”, and it was the¬†speaker‚Äôs longest “I” – and I still did not code either “I” or “think” as prominent!

From all this, we concluded that my colleague may have been influenced by all her research into the chunk “I think” and thus perceives prominence there more often than I do, as I focus on the whole sentence and compare any peaks in pitch, intensity or duration to all other words, rather than just within the chunk “I think”.

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Still, overall, the order in which I have discussed the factors above seems to be their order of importance for creating prominence in our little study: pitch, intensity, duration. And for some conversation partners, like me, a combination of all three factors in one syllable may be necessary for it to be perceived as prominent.

 

So what does this mean for English langauge learners and teachers? The length of this blog post was getting a bit out of hand, so I’ve divided it up – Come back for Part 2 to find out about the practical applications of these insights!

 

Vocabulary lists: snog, marry, avoid? – A summary

I recently wrote a post for ELT Research Bites summarising a research article on ‘Is There a Core General Vocabulary? Introducing the New General Service List‚Äô, which introduced a new vocabulary list that, the authors propose, can inform vocabulary instruction in ELT. I thought undersdanding how such lists are put together would help teachers and writers make better decisions on how to use such vocabulary lists in their classrooms or materials. And so I was attracted to Julie Moore’s talk at IATEFL in Brighton, entitled “Vocabulary lists: snog, marry, avoid?” to see if my thinking was in line with others who are more knowledgeable than me in such things! Let me tell you more about what Julie said… 

To start, we got a useful reminder of what vocabulary lists are: published, standrdised lists of words, phrases or chunks, based on a certain frequency criteria and usually intened for use with students. Examples Julie gave included the GSL, Oxford 3000, and the Phrasal Verbs List. Some lists are more specialised, e.g. the AWL, and others take a slightly different approach in that they try to group vocabualary items into levels at which language learners can be expected to learn them (e.g. English Vocabulary Profile, GSE). 

Why are vocabulary lists useful? 

Julie explained that the items on the lists are selected based on certain principles (which depend on the list) and can thus form a principled basis for devising vocabulary teaching syllabi. For those of us working with the language, she said, they can be a useful tool for confirming our inuitions about the frequency of words and, in ELT, their level appropriacy. They mean we don’t have to start from scratch every time we wish to compose a vocabulary teaching syllabus or material, for example using corpora or other souces to collate data about words’ frequency before we select items for inclusion. Also in this context, if different people are working on different parts of a material or syllabus, for example, using a vocbulary list to guide the language used and presented can help maintain consistency across the parts. 

But… 

Not understanding the concept of vocabulary lists or the selection criteria and data used to compile them can make using them frustrating or even downright misleading! There are some key issues that can make compiling such vocabulary lists, and then working with them, problematic. Julie mentioned a few, such as decisions on what items to count for frequency (words, lemmas, chunks, word families?) and which sense of a polyseme to use for selection or level-categorisation. In Julie’s words, the nature of the English language is “messy” and contains numerous obstacles for anyone attempting to represent it in as straightforward a form as a list! As teachers, we also know that the progression of language learning is messy, too: it’s a non-linear porocess, including learning words for active and/or receptive use, which will therefore be difficult to tame into a list! Especially regarding lists like the GSE or EVP as ‘levelling tools’, Julie reminded us (though who could forget?) about differences between learners, for example their main language, which will also affect how easy they find certain vocabulary items – and which these lists cannot possibly take into account! 

So…

Julie’s call to arms echoes my own sentiments: Do not blindly believe everything a vocabulary list seems to show you! They can be very helpful, if the right list is used wisely and for the right purpose! Vocabulary lists are one tool of many at our disposal when we need to make decisions on what to include in our syllabi, teaching or materials, alongside things such as dictionaries and our knowledge of the target learners. And the different lists were composed through different selection methodologies, from different data, and with different aims, making them more appropriate for certain purposes than others. So whether you ultimately decide to snog, marry or avoid the next handsome vocabulary list you meet, take your time to get to know it first!

Help! Overwhelmed by research!

This is a short, rather personal post; a bit of a call for help! In my head, thoughts are flying around: researching, compiling bibliographies, literature reviews, not having enough time in the day to read everything properly, wasting time reading the ‘wrong’ things, and feeling swapmed and out-of-touch with the latest state of affairs…. And this is going to (hopefully) be an outlet that gets these thoughts out of my head and onto “paper” so that I can concentrate… Oh, and maybe get some tips from readers while I’m at it!!

IMAG0494
What my brain feels like. An art installation on the Moselle river made by Trier Art Academy (Kunstakademie) 2015. 

 

So, I like to think that I’m pretty good at keeping up with the research regarding my areas of ELT. I subscribe to a couple of journals, am active on twitter and I¬†read lots of blogs, so I feel like I’m in touch with big debates and what’s generally going on in the ELT world.¬†

But now I’m trying to get together some of the ‘best’ literature on the topic of correcting (EAP) students’ writing. I want to summarise the main work and findings in this area. But¬†there is JUST SO MUCH!! I’ve got some key names and some¬†meta-study articles have also been helpful. But I feel like I might be missing out on some other definitive contributions, key strands of work, relevant studies,¬†contaversial issues, etc. ¬†When I search my university’s library databases, the lists are endless of articles on peer review, using technology, to correct or not to correct, learner autonomy, and so on and on and on.

I can’t possibly read everything. I thought about reading through the¬†Works Cited lists and trying to find sources that seem to be cited a lot… but even that would be so much work.¬†

And I wonder how anyone ever manages to keep up with it all. Whenever I think I’ve “finished” and have a suitable bibliography together, so another blog post alerts me to a new perspective on the discussion, or Google Scholar pops up with a few hundred¬†more published articles… When is enough enough? When can I stop? It’s never going to be ¬†truly finished, is it?!

#BridgingTheGapChallenge: Bridging the Gap between Researchers and Teachers

There is SO MUCH research going on into language teaching methods, approaches, etc. But the sad fact is, it has turned into a big jumble of research strands, hard to untangle and find the right connections!
An art installation on the Moselle river made by Trier Art Academy (Kunstakademie) 2015.
An art installation on the Moselle river made by Trier Art Academy (Kunstakademie) 2015.

Let’s be honest, how many classroom teachers have access to it? And time to read and digest it all? Probably very few! SO where do teachers get their inspiration and lesson ideas? Well, online a lot of the time. And so I came up with a blog idea, which will hopefully turn in to¬†a challenge which lots of people participate in… #BridgingTheGapChallenge

THE CHALLENGE: Teachers or researchers reading this: grab (or click on!) one ELT-related journal you have access to. Read one article that interests you, and post a quick, readable summary for other teachers to read, who are too busy to read the full article or do not have access to that journal or magazine! 

The aim is for us to build up a nice bank of summaries that are easy to access and bridge the gap between published research and classroom practitioners!

You¬†can post the link to your blog post in the comments section below, or tweet your blog posts @Clare2ELT¬†or with the #BridgingTheGapChallenge ¬†If you don’t have your own blog, please feel free to add your summary to the comments below, or send it to me and I’ll publish it as a guest post on my blog! ūüôā

Let the bridge-building begin!

Explicit Grammar Teaching: The what and how

Planting seeds may not guarantee that they will grow; but not planting them is scarcely a superior strategy. (Swan, M., 2006)

Introduction – A sense of relief

At the weekend, I attended a talk by Michael Swan entitled “Some things that matter in grammar teaching… and some that don’t” at an event hosted by ELTA Rhine in Cologne.¬†The talk was¬†not just interesting and informative, but¬†gave me an enormous sense of relief. Basically because he argued in favour of explicit grammar teaching. I realise that this will not bring a sense of relief to all EFL teachers, and in some it may even incite mild panic! But let me explain.¬†For a long time (for me it seems a long time, in actual terms its been a few decades), the explicit¬†teaching of grammar has (had) been out of fashion, as other aspects of language have come into the focus of ELT writers and teachers. Particularly¬†Task-Based Learning and the Lexical Approach are largely against the presentation of grammar rules. Many teachers also understand¬†Communicative Language Teaching to have little place for the explicit teaching of grammar. In my teaching context (in the¬†English Department at a German university), we actually teach a whole separate module called “Grammar”, more recently called “Advanced Grammar”. Yes, it’s been pretty standard in Germany for the whole time that other ELT fashions have come and gone.¬†For most of the seven years that I’ve been working here, I’d been led to feel almost a sense of shame that we were teaching this class – seeing the horror on colleagues’ faces when I’ve mentioned it at conferences and the like. Most of their responses began with ‘but’: But what about Krashen’s theories? But that’s not very communicative! But¬†lexis is what helps learners to create meaning! But fluency is more important!

At the start of my teaching career, I was, I suppose understandably, rather unsure of myself. Actually, a few times I probably agreed,¬†embarrassed, with the criticisms, and extracted myself from responsibility by blaming this ‘poor’ syllabus decision on the institution; putting myself in the role of dutiful pawn in the great game of ELT. Over the years, though, I’ve grown and developed as a teacher, and my sense of confidence in my teaching decisions and practices has matured. This has occasionally meant having to defend my explicit grammar teaching to a few, what I would call, hard-core TBL, Lexical Approach or extreme Communicative Approach advocates. That’s OK: I can handle it better now than I could in my¬†early twenties when I started teaching. Nonetheless, you can imagine my relief to hear from Michael Swan, and indeed whole host of other researchers in this area, that teaching grammar is OK: Not only OK, but actually rather effective. (See published research evidence below.) Phew! Of course I’m not, and I don’t suppose anyone is, claiming that explicit grammar teaching¬†without any communicative practice is a good idea, nor that teaching grammar rules openly always ‘works’ 100% of the time (but then, honestly, can we really expect that of any method/approach?!). But, I wholeheartedly agree with the quote above from Michael Swan.

So that explains my sense of relief. But ‘teaching grammar’ is still a very broad term that barely brings us any closer to knowing what exactly to do in the classroom. I’m also aware that some teachers, maybe mostly the native English-speakers that have ‘fallen’ into a teaching job, may not be so relieved to hear that grammar is back on the menu. Maybe because they themselves have little formal grasp on English grammar (for this there is a simple cure; read a grammar book! See below for my recommendations),¬†or maybe because they are unsure how to translate ‘teaching grammar’ into practical classroom activities. The rest of this post will therefore deal with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of grammar teaching; in a bid to remove any impending sense of panic from other teachers who are less used to and less comfortable with the explicit¬†teaching of grammar rules in the ELT (or any modern language) classroom.

What? ~ It depends.

Of course, teaching ‘all’ the¬†rules of English grammar would, for a number of reasons beyond the scope of this post, be an impossible task; and anyway a rather ineffective approach. And so we need to select which aspects of English grammar to include in our syllabi. I believe there is no fits-all answer to the question of what to teach; it will unavoidably depend on the learners and their needs and goals. It depends. I actually don’t like this answer to questions, and¬†I’m sure many learners don’t either. Alas all EFL classrooms and learners are different, and so it depends. But what does it depend on? Well Michael Swan suggests the following selection criteria, which do fit to my experience and understanding of our profession:

– comprehensibility

– acceptability

– frequency and scope

– teachability/learnability

Just a brief¬†clarification here, to ensure we all understand the same things when reading these criteria. ‘Comprehensibility’ refers to the question of whether¬†not having mastered this language point could lead to misunderstanding or lack of understanding. For example, the sentence *I start¬†school last week* does not follow standard English grammar patterns, but is clearly comprehensible. In contrast (and I’m borrowing this example from Michael Swan), *John didn’t told about the meeting* is more difficult to de-code, as it could mean either that John WASN’T told about the meeting, or that he didn’t TELL us about it. As¬†this mistake could lead to a lack of comprehension, it would be advisable to teach/revise the points of the passive, or the simple past in negative¬†statements. ‘Acceptability’¬†looks at¬†other people’s reactions to what a learner says. How negatively will a learner be judged who says *I start school last week*? Phrased more positively, how¬†accepted would this non-standard form be? (Again, the answer I suggest is ‘it depends’ – on your learners’ context, goals, etc; so individual answers all around, I’m afraid!) Note that I’ve used the same example twice here, in order to highlight the discrepancies that may occur between the comprehensibility and acceptability criteria – more on that later.

Moving on, ‘frequency’ and ‘scope’ are rather self-explanatory. The frequency with which a learner is going to encounter or need to use a certain structure should help us judge whether to teach it or not. The ‘scope’ of a grammar rule describes how much of the language it helps to explain. A clear example here, again showing how these two criteria¬†may also be in conflict,¬†is the word ‘children’. ‘Children’ is a rather frequently used word. However, the rule of making irregular plurals with -ren does not¬†cover many items (I can’t actually think of any other right now!), so teaching it as a rule would seem less worthwhile.¬†And finally, teachability and learnability refer simply to how straightforward it is to teach or learn an aspect of English grammar. Again, it depends.

Clearly, if an item impairs comprehension, negatively affects acceptability, and has a¬†high frequency and broad scope, as well as being fairly straightforward to teach, then we should go head an teach it. One thing Michael Swan didn’t touch on in his talk¬†is how to make a decision based on these criteria when the details conflict, so I’d like to discuss that briefly here. We’ve seen that the same sentence may be perfectly comprehensible, but not particularly acceptable. And that the high frequency of an item may not mean that the rule has much scope. In this case, I would advice teachers to weight the criteria based on their knowledge of the learners’ context and goals. This will include considerations of who the learners are likely to interact with in English, what kinds of topics they are likely to speak/talk about, the format of the communication (formal written, informal spoken, etc), and the likely goals of that interaction (purely communicating information, making a high-stakes sale, etc). Teachers may also consider the kinds of input their learners are likely to be exposed to, and potential interference pitfalls caused by the learners’ L1. That said, I would say that comprehensibility has to be criteria numero uno in any case.

If we have, then, agreed that we are going to teach grammar, and have selected points of grammar to be taught, the next step is to think about what we are actually going to do in the classroom in order to teach these points.

How? ~ Just three Exes

Michael Swan said¬†in his talk that¬†he sees grammar teaching as consisting of¬†“three exes”. Not to worry, he’s not talking about broken partnerships, but rather EXplanation, EXamples, and EXercises. Now, you may think this¬†sounds suspiciously like a re-worded recipe for a PPP lesson (Presentation, Practice, Production – which was¬†the standard¬†lesson structure taught on most preparatory TEFL¬†certification courses for a long time), but fear not – his¬†clarification highlights the input of ‘examples’ and ‘explanation’ as¬†less valuable¬†in grammar teaching than the ‘output’ from exercises. Nonetheless, they are not unimportant, and so we should still¬†make them as effective as possible. Note that I think the order of explanations and examples should be seen flexibly – in many cases a more inductive approach (examples first) may be more appropriate, though that is a subject for another post!

Explanations, according to Swan and I’m inclined to agree, should be economical, take one step at a time, be clear to the learner, use visual support, and possibly even the learners’ L1. I suppose only the last point there might cause discussion. To my mind, though, it is logical that a grammar explanation in English may make use of language that is above the learners’ current level and therefore be more confusing than it is helpful. If the teacher is able to speak the L1 of their learners, then this can be¬†a simpler and more efficient way of explaining the rule. Of course, not all teachers have this luxury, but where appropriate I’d be all in favour of¬†brief grammar explanations in the L1 for lower-level students.

There’s nothing really surprising in the characteristics Swan says good examples should have, although I find it good for us teachers to¬†refresh these things in our minds,¬†particularly just¬†before embarking on a new term and a new “Advanced Grammar” course! Good examples should be realistic, memorable (perhaps through humour),¬†in context, and taken from various topic areas/text genres.¬†I don’t know about you, but I find¬†looking for¬†or inventing examples that fit all of these criteria actually rather time-consuming. And I sometimes feel that teachers neglect this part of their¬†preparation, perhaps because of the time it takes, or perhaps other teachers are really¬†able to spontaneously create realistic, memorable examples from various topic areas in context when they reach this point in their lesson. Lucky them! – I know I’m not! There are several¬†potential sources of example sentences, but¬†sometimes¬†the examples they provide just do not fulfil these criteria satisfactorily (for example, corpora/concordances, dictionaries, grammar references or course books). I find the best examples by just going about my every day life attentively. Paying attention to the structures and language my colleagues and I use to talk to each other, to email, to make posters, to recount anecdotes,¬†and so on – that’s¬†realistic language in a context our students are familiar with,¬†with a range of genres and topics, and often¬†rather memorable due to our humour! Or what about news articles or websites you read, radio broadcasts you listen to, TV programmes you watch – all of these¬†can be sources of interesting and effective example sentences. Maybe I can mention just a couple of lessons I’ve recently planned: A lesson on simple present/progressive – I used a blurb from a novel found on Amazon. A lesson on referring to the future – I used an episode of “Tomorrow’s Word” (BBC).

Ok, so once we’ve got our explanation¬†neatly formulated, and our examples duly noted, we need to move on to the most important part of the lesson (I hope no disagreement here?): the output, or exercises. I¬†have to say, Sorry Mr Swan, but I’m not keen on the term ‘exercises’ here – although it fits nicely in the “three exes” category.¬†For me, and I checked with my colleagues that I’m not alone, the word ‘exercises’ is perhaps somewhat misleading, conjuring¬†up images of monotonous gap-fill or sentence transformation worksheets, maybe some text-based or listening tasks if we’re lucky. This is all reminiscent of the second P in¬†a PPP lesson; not particularly exciting, and not really the kind of thing¬†I believe¬†to be the most effective for learners to really make use of the¬†new language. For me, the third P – Production – is more the output we should aim for, as it is most similar to the kinds of things learners will want and need to do in English in the future. Again, though, Michael Swan ‘saves himself’ so to speak, by describing his¬†characteristics of a good ‘exercise’ – and¬†if I understand¬†correctly, he is actually using ‘exercises’ to capture both controlled practice tasks and, even more importantly, freer production and encouraged use of the target structure. His characteristics include the tasks being interesting, empowering, personalised, imaginative, and possibly involving¬†physical activity, visual or audio¬†elements. These tasks should also help learners to connect the grammar point to other aspects¬†of langauge such as vocabulary, skills, pronunciation, and so on. Of course, whether¬†a task is ‘interesting’ etc. will… you guessed it… depend on your learners!

 Conclusion РIs it worth the effort?

My assessment of all of this is that explicit grammar teaching is easier said than done. Doing it badly is probably quite straightforward, but then it’s probably not worth the effort. Bearing in mind all of the points and issues discussed here makes explicit grammar teaching a rather time-consuming and preparation-heavy thing to do. So is it worth the effort? I believe so. And I believe that there are plenty of academic¬†studies which support this view. The way I see it, if we don’t¬†bother with grammar teaching, then it definitely can’t work. If we give it a go, then at least it has a chance of working! As always, Michael Swan has expressed this¬†thought slightly more eloquently than¬†I can, so let’s close his words which I used as an opener to this post:¬†Planting seeds may not guarantee that they will grow; but not planting them is scarcely a superior strategy. (Swan, M., 2006)

 

Sources

Swan, M., “Teaching Grammar – Does Grammar Teaching work?”, Modern English Teacher, 15/2, 2006.

Swan, M., “Some things that matter in grammar teaching… and some that don’t” Talk given at ELTA Rhine, Cologne, on 19th October 2014.

Recommended grammar references for teachers

Carter, R. et al, English Grammar Today: An A-Z of Spoken & Written Grammar (Cambridge: CUP, 2011)

Leech, G., Grammar and the English Verb (Longmann, 2004)

Swan, M., Practical English Usage. (Oxford: O.U.P., 2005)

Research publications on teaching grammar

Gass, S. & L. Selinker.  2008.  Second Language Acquisition: an Introductory Course (Third Edition).  New York: Routledge/Taylor.

Norris, J. M. & L. Ortega.¬† 2000.¬† ‚ÄėEffectiveness of L2 instruction:¬† a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis‚Äô.¬† Language Learning 50/3: 417-528.

Spada, N. & Y. Tomita.¬† 2010.¬† ‚ÄėInteractions between type of instruction and type of language feature:¬† a meta-analysis‚Äô.¬† Language Learning 60/2: 1-46.

 

 

This blog post waas featured in “My TESOL Daily”:¬†http://paper.li/Stephen_Hofstee/1327126879

Everyday Examples of Mental Lexicon Representations

I had a conversation with a colleague the other day, which really made me laugh. I think most people would have found it funny! But I also found it fascinating – through my linguistics-tinted glasses ūüôā

My colleague was talking about her old, lazy lodger, who was rather reluctant to do jobs around the house, even when he himself complained that they needed doing. She described the situation something like this:

He complains that it all needs doing, but he’s too lazy, he really does tiddly-winks!

Cue raucous laughter on my part. Tiddly-winks?? What does that have to do with being lazy? Once the laughter died down, it took us a minute or two to come up with the word she was actually looking for: He is lazy, he does diddly squat!  (i.e. nothing)

The conversation moved on, comparing the tiddly-winks guy to her new lodger. He, it seems, is much more active, and can’t stop tidying up and doing odd jobs around the place. Her description of him?

ACDCLiveWii

It’s almost obsessive. My psychologist friend says he probably a bit ACDC!

ACDC? The new synonym for hard-working? No. She of course meant OCD – well… it IS kind of similar!

Once again, laughter on both sides. I even had a chuckle to myself in the car on the way home when I remembered her great quotes! And then my linguist brain kicked in, and I remembered an interesting talk I’d heard recently at our English Linguists Circle about how lexis is represented in the brain, the mental lexicon. Like a light bulb pinging above my head, I realised that what had originally been an after-lunch natter on a slow day at the office, actually provided amusing examples of how our brains store and recall words.

Aitchison (“Words in the Mind”, 2003) explains that a word’s meanings and word class are separated from the sound of the word in the mental lexicon, because semantic knowledge is the most important trigger when activating words for production whereas phonology is the more important trigger in the recognition of words. In this scheme, word lemmas (i.e. with information about meaning and word class) are organised in semantic fields, which are held together by strong connections between coordinates of the same word class. A semantic field is a group of words which are used to talk about the same phenomenon – the words are¬†sometimes hyponyms of a more general term.

A clear everyday example: If I say “knife”, what other words do you think of? Probably “fork” and “spoon”. These words form a set of¬†semantically related items – all hyponyms of ‘cutlery’.

100px-Besteck_Ikea_1985

Ok, what about “red”, “yellow”, “pink”…? You probably think of “green”, “purple”, “orange”, “blue”, and a whole list of other colours. It should be¬†¬†clear that these words are also members of a semantic field; they all belong to the same word class (they’re usually categorised as adjectives), and are all used to talk about the same phenomenon (colour).

In the examples from my colleague’s quotes, though, the confusion of words leading to her amusing slips does not seem to have come from the semantic organisation of her mental lexicon – although Aitchson says that this is most important for production. We know ¬†that the meaning of “tiddly-winks” (a game, see here:¬†http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiddlywinks), is not used to describe a phenomenon that is any way comparable to “diddly squat”, although they happen to both be nouns. So the confusion leading to the funny slips of the tongue must have its roots somewhere else.

According to Aitchison, a word’s phonological form, i.e. its sound structure, also influences how it is stored in the mental lexicon, with similar-sounding words organised together, in order to enable effective speech comprehension. For example, rhyming words such as “cat”, “rat”, “mat”, “bat” are easily misheard and confused with each other. Imagine being at a loud party and your friend shouts “Oh my gosh! Look, a rat!” It’s of course possible that with all the noise, you hear “Oh my gosh, you look fat!” But the comprehension of speech is highly dependent on contextual clues. We have all been in a situation where we think we have heard what someone has said, but still have the feeling that what we think has been said would not make sense, or be appropriate, in the given context. For example, it is unlikely, I imagine, that a friend with whom we have gone to a party would suddenly turn to us and shout that we are fat! We can either ask the person to repeat themselves, or we can figure it out on our own, by looking for similar-sounding words which might fit in the context of the conversation. Indeed, this is what linguists (and psychologsists for that matter) believe happens subconsciously all the time – put simply, recognition of lexical input is based on multiple factors from which our brain calculates the most likely intended meaning and so ‘triggers’ the activation of these items in the mental lexicon. Aitchison explains that similar words compete for activation, in recognition as well as in production, and sometimes the wrong one is chosen, which leads either to misunderstanding speech input,¬†or making errors, like my colleague. That phonologically similar words are more difficult to recall has been shown by plenty of research (e.g.¬†Copeland & Radvansky, 2001 / Yip, 2004): studies into this ‘phonological-similarity effect’ thus provide support for this idea that words compete to be used, and this can sometimes lead to blending or blocking errors, like tiddly-winks!

Another thing that makes these errors interesting is that, according to theories in the area, the more frequent an expression is the more likely are we to pick it over a less frequent one (i.e. more frequent words have greater memory strength). I’m not sure that a modern corpus would show ACDC as more frequently used than OCD … but (without wanting to psychoanalyse my colleague to much!), these errors seem to highlight how individuals’¬†‚Äúcorpora‚ÄĚ of linguistic reception are probably made up differently.

Tiddlywinks a children's game involving flicking little plastic chips into a cup

The question remains, then, of why my colleague’s production errors seem to have been caused by phonological similarity, although Aitchison says this is mostly used for recognition rather than production. Well, any models of the exact structure of the mental lexicon are sadly just that – models; vastly simplified versions of what they represent. But what is generally agreed upon is the fact that the mental lexicon has to strive for the most efficient compromise between the best organisation of representations for production and for recognition. So there’s something like a tug of war going on in our heads, with the optimum organisation for production competing against the optimum organisation for recognition – and don’t forget that the mental lexicon is also influenced by memory’s needs and other functions! My colleague herself admitted she was feeling tired on the day of our amusing chat, and the slips she made would seem to highlight two key points:

1) that the semantic and phonological representations of any item are not entirely separated, so that either type of representation may be used to activate a word for recognition or production. Although it may be the case (and indeed seems very logical if you look at how we approach finding a word that we want to say/write in a certain context) that semantic organisation is more helpful for production, it definitely is not the case the phonological representations play no role at all in the activation of lexical items for production.

2) that physical conditions can impaire the brain’s ability to direct and manipulate the usual decision-making mechanisms used to activate the correct lexical items – but that these breakdowns in normal service can actually reveal a lot about the mental lexicon and how we access it. We can find anecdotal as well as scientific evidence to support this idea .  ¬†I’ve recently read, for example, about schizophrenics’ language use, which highlights the competition going on within the mental lexicon (e.g. Obrebska & Obrebska, 2007) . And, of course, my colleague’s tiredness led to some amusing examples, which can not only be used to cheer us up on a rainy February day, but also provide a little amusing insight into the wonders of the mental leprechaun… I mean, lexicon! ūüôā

References

Aitchison, J., Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon (Blackwell, 2003)

Copeland, D. & G. Radvansky, “Phonological Similarity in Working Memory”,¬†Memory & Cognition,¬†2001, 29 (5), 774-776. Accessed at¬†http://www3.nd.edu/~memory/Reprints/Copeland%20&%20Radvansky%202001%20(Memory%20&%20Cognition).pdf on 20.2.2014

Obrebska, M. & T. Obrebska, “Lexical and grammatical Analysis of Schizophrenic Patients’ Language: A Preliminary Report”, Psychology of Language and Communication,¬†2007, Vol. 11, No. 1, 63-72. Accessed at¬†http://www.plc.psychologia.pl/plc/plc/contents/fulltext/11-1_4.pdf on 20.2.2014.

Yip, M.C.W., “What is similar in phonological-similarity effect?,¬†School of Arts & Social Sciences, The Open University of Hong Kong, 2004. Accessed at¬†http://www.cogsci.northwestern.edu/cogsci2004/ma/ma155.pdf on 20.2.14