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Take the plunge: using phraseology to enhance learners’ knowledge of grammar

The role and importance of phraseology is acknowledged in various linguistic persuasions as well as by different areas of application such as first language acquisition (Diessel, 2013; Tomasello, 2003), second language acquisition (Ellis, 1993; Ellis & Ferreira-Junior, 2009; Wulff , 2008), second language teaching (Lewis, 1993; Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992), language description (Moon, 1998; Pawley & Syder, 1983; Wray & Perkins, 2000; Wray, 2002), Translation Studies, Terminology, Lexicography, etc. Nevertheless, among the areas devoted to the description of the phraseological structure of languages only corpus linguistics (Gries, 2006, 2008, 2012; McEnery & Hardie, 2012; Wulff, 2008) has developed a body of methodological techniques and procedures on how to empirically examine this aspect of language in large datasets. These corpus-based analyses of language phraseology have naturally begun to interface with functional theories such as cognitive linguistics in the explanation of certain phenomena such as the collostructions (Gries & Stefanowitsch, 2004; Stefanowitsch, 2013), that is, the quantitative, corpus-based analysis of the relationship between particular words and the constructions in which these words frequently occur; hence the name collostruction, a blending of the words collocation and construction.

Although collostructional analyses have recently gained traction and shed some light on the relationship between phraseology and syntax, very few studies in the area of second language teaching address this interplay and its effects on learners’ language performance. This paper aims at contributing to this area by proposing that the systematization of syntactic structures can be successfully done via the exposure and analysis of conventional, lexically specified instances of language, that is, via conventional phraseologisms that mirror the schematic structure aimed at in the teaching context.

After briefly presenting the theoretical basis upon which lies this view of language, the paper will address the practical, analytical aspects in the form of a set of teaching tasks aimed at the teaching of a rather complex English structure, the caused-motion construction. This is done in the context of English as a Foreign Language.

The constructional view of first language acquisition

According to cognitive and constructional studies of L1 acquisition (Tomasello, 2003; Diessel, 2013), whose main focus is to determine how mental grammars are constructed, the creation of schematic and abstract grammars follows a systematically inductive process in which children generalize from more particular, concrete and prototypical instances. An example of these prototypical instances can be found in studies focused on the statistical relationship between verbs and certain argument structure constructions, as briefly mentioned in the introduction.

In adult language, collostructional analyses have shown that the statistical attraction between verbs and certain argument structures can be so strong that these verbs are seen as prototypical instantiations of specific argument structure constructions. This is, for instance, the case of the relations of instantiation between give and the ditransitive construction. Research shows that calling it a perfect fit is, if anything, a simplistic account of the relationship that specific verb classes keep with certain constructions and vice versa. Researchers working on collostructional analyses, which interfaces between cognitive linguistics, especially cognitive construction grammar, and corpus studies (Gries & Wulff, 2005; Hilpert, 2013; Wulff, 2008), have turned their attention and research agenda to the investigation of the statistical levels of attraction between phrasal patterns (that is, constructions) and lexical items. Gries and Stefanowitsch (2004), based on previous collexeme analyses of the relationship between verbs and constructions, set out to investigate the ditransitive/to-dative alternation (1) to determine whether or not certain lexical items have statistical attraction to these constructions.

(1) a. Ditransitive: John sent Mary the book. b. To-dative: John sent the book to Mary. (Gries & Stefanowitsch, 2004, p. 102)

The theoretical interest in such a question lies in the fact that, given that ditransitive and to-datives are alternations and, as such, do not differ with regard to general information structure properties, one would expect that both types of constructions would attract the same groups of verbs. In other words, one would not expect that one type of construction would statistically favor a set of verbs over another. Drawing on corpus data from ICE-GB, the authors found that give is the most preferred choice for the verbal slot in the ditransitive construction, that is, it matches, not only semantically, but also statistically with the X CAUSES Y TO RECEIVE Z meaning. As for the to-dative construction, bring was found to be statistically associated with the construction’s verbal slot, differently from what a purely information structure analysis would suggest.

One could certainly claim that the statistical significance of the attraction between a certain type of verb and a construction might be the result of the text types used in the analysis, that being an issue of methodological reasons. One could also claim that the very semantic compatibility between the lexical content of the verb and the constructional constraints are held responsible for such a preference, that being a fully predictable behavior based on similarities in meaning. Should any of those reasons be true, the statistical preference could not be used to make claims about the knowledge that speakers have about languages and how to use them. In other words, the statistical preference would lack psycholinguistic plausibility. Thus, aiming to test whether these findings could shed some light on the general question of whether or not such statistical knowledge is part of speakers’ knowledge of language, Gries & Wulff (2005) and Schmid, (2010) conducted a series of experiments to find that speakers seem to be rather sensitive to collocational properties of constructions such as lexical restrictions, statistical attraction and repulsion.

In light of such findings, as well as on children’s use of exemplars in L1 acquisition, on the presence of item-specific knowledge in adult grammar and also on non-linguistic categorization of information in the form of units, Goldberg (2006) revisited her definition of constructions to add the important aspect of conventionality to it. Thus, the linguist’s definition of constructions, and the one we subscribe to, states that

[a]ny linguistic pattern is recognized as a construction as long as some aspect of its form or function is not strictly predictable from its component parts or from other constructions recognized to exist. In addition, patterns are stored as constructions even if they are fully predictable as long as they occur with sufficient frequency. (Goldberg, 2006, p. 5)

The definition above, which draws on psycholinguistic studies as well as long-standing corpus investigations of phraseological knowledge (Pawley & Syder, 1983; Wray, 2002), is capable of encompassing both the non-predictable phrasal patterns and also to capture analytical and predictable linguistic material that is thought to be stored holistically as units of knowledge in the constructional network. That means to say that:

[f]urther evidence for some amount of redundancy in language comes from the fact that very typically a fully general linguistic pattern is instantiated by a few instances that are highly conventional. In such a case, it is clear that both generalizations and instances are stored. (Goldberg, 2006 p. 55)

Goldberg’s words above could be schematically summarized in Fig.01 in which an idiomatic phraseologism is exemplified as being a lexically specified instance of the absolutely schematic VP construction.

Figure 1 – Levels of constructional schematization (Croft & Cruse, 2004, p. 263).

If we take the idiom kick the bucket (meaning die), it is clear that we are before a construction in the very definition of the term. The semantics of the expression is non-predictable and non-compositional, that is, a form-function pairing which is, just like any other idiom, a low-level lexical construction. Nevertheless, as the scheme demonstrates, this lexical construction hides grammatical properties in its internal structure which do not seem to be proper to it, but rather general. The scheme above shows that, by abstracting away to more schematic structures, one could claim that kick the bucket is a more specific instance of a transitive construction with a lexically specified verb, that is, kick. This partially specified construction is in turn a more specific instance of a general transitive construction (Verb Obj), which could license actual expressions like she kissed him, Tom cleaned the floor, etc. In other words, although kick the bucket complies with the grammatical requirements to be regarded as a construction and, as such, features as a unit in the construct-i-con, it inherits many of its grammatical properties from other existing constructions such as the VP construction and the rather abstract Subject-Predicate construction.

An important aspect of the model is that the described interconnectedness between constructions show that the construct-i-con must not be seen as a mere repository of constructions in the form of a bag of items. Instead, constructions will mutually motivate one another either syntactically or semantically in such a way that lexical constructions, for instance, will both inherit their grammatical properties from stored schematic constructions and will, at the same time, be stored themselves as nodes in this constructional network.

Besides reflecting the L1 linguistic knowledge of speakers, this theoretical framework is also explanatorily and descriptively adequate for the analysis of second language knowledge, given the centrality of exemplars in L2 acquisition and use, as will be discussed in the following section.

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About author

Doutorado em Estudos linguísticos e literários em inglês pela Universidade de São Paulo (USP), mestrado em Estudos linguísticos do Inglês e graduação em letras com habilitação dupla em português e linguística pela mesma universidade. Tem experiência na área de letras, tendo atuado em cursos de formação de professores, ensino e aprendizagem de língua estrangeira e na criação de cursos em inglês, com ênfase em ensino e aprendizagem de inglês. Atua nos seguintes temas: gramática de construções aplicada à descrição e análise da língua inglesa, fraseologia da língua inglesa, aquisição de inglês como L2, análise contrastiva inglês/português, formação linguística de professores de inglês como língua estrangeira e desenvolvimento de materiais para ensino de inglês. É membro do grupo de pesquisa COMET – Corpus Multilíngue para Ensino e Tradução (USP/CNPq), atuando nas linhas de pesquisa em ensino e aprendizagem de língua estrangeira e Linguística de Corpus.
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