Understanding language in its natural habitat

Linguists and psychologists often study sentences in isolation, which may be akin to studying animals in separate cages in a zoo. I have been guilty of this in much of my own work. Our understanding of language will undoubtedly benefit from more focus on language in its natural habitat: conversation (e.g., Du Bois et al., 2003; Hilpert, 2017; Thompson and Hopper, 2001). In fact, the human tendency to cooperate plays a key role in how our complex system of language emerges via cultural evolution (Botha and Knight, 2009; De Boer et al., 2012; Ellis and Larsen-Freeman, 2009; Richerson and Christiansen, 2013; Steels, 2005; Tomasello, 2009). Cooperation is most evident when people use language to communicate with one another in conversations.

Language provides a constrained and discrete system that offers us a window into our even more general, creative, but constrained system of general-purpose knowledge. It allows us to teach and learn, dream and imagine, and reflect and reason in ways that are uniquely human. Moreover, a focus on the functions and distributions of constructions offers important insights about how individual constructions emerge and evolve over time (e.g., Barðdal et al., 2015; Mauri and Sansò, 2011; Traugott, 2015; Traugott and Trousdale, 2013).

There is a growing synergy among linguists, psychologists, anthropologists, and computer scientists, and so it is a very exciting time for research on language. This volume only scratches the surface of what we have already learned, as is evident in the copious list of references.

Goldberg, A. E. (2019: 163). Explain me this: Creativity, competition, and the partial productivity of constructions. Princeton University Press.

Usage based and the emergence of L1

The following quotes are from Lieven, E. (2016). Usage-based approaches to language development: Where do we go from here? Language and Cognition,8(3), 346-368. doi:10.1017/langcog.2016.16

Young children show differential and restricted competence in comprehension and production early on; second, that children’s linguistic productivity is tied closely to their linguistic experience, but this interacts with processing capacity, the developing linguistic system, and children’s communicative goals; and, finally, that the development of more abstract grammar is protracted, and that differing levels of abstraction will give the ability to do different tasks

Children are exposed to many meaningful usage events which they can now begin to interpret in the context of this newly developing understanding of shared intentionality. Grammar is learned through a continuous process of abstraction. Constituency and more complex syntax emerge through this process.

In the usage-based approach, linguistic categories such as noun, verb, noun phrase, subject, and object are not pre-given but emerge as the child constructs language by connecting what they already know in terms of the cognitive and intention-reading developments of the first year to the language that they hear. 

The development of word categories is tied to children starting to develop low-scope slot-and-frames patterns based on the frequencies in the input. Examples from English are It’s X-ingI want a YThat’s a Z. The slots in these patterns are the basis of emergent categories, initially of low-semantic scope such as THING or ACTION but showing increasing evidence of abstraction.

Large numbers of studies, not only for English, have found that frequency in the input is closely associated with what children learn.

If something is very frequent in the input, but does not occur in the child’s speech, this suggests that there is something about the form in terms of complexity or meaning that is slowing learning.

An example comes from my study of six children’s learning of English auxiliaries (Lieven, 2008). There was a strong rank order correlation between the frequency of these in the input and the order in which they were found in the children’s speech, but there were a number of exceptions. Frames with couldwould, and should were relatively frequent in the input, but in the period studied these emerged either late or not at all in the children’s speech. This is probably because these modals require a subtle semantics which the children did not yet control. Modals are a set of verbs that diverge from simple declarative sentences and questions about factuality, signalling a range of speaker stances towards the information being conveyed. Moreover, they are polysemous (being used to convey both speech acts and logical prediction), and in each usage they signal a slightly different range of speaker stances.

Although children start with rote-learned strings and low-scope schemas and may retain these into adulthood, they clearly also develop the capacity to produce and comprehend at a more abstract level. 

The evidence is that the youngest children can only correctly identify the agents and patients of transitive causatives if they are presented with a prototypical coalition of cues.

From the point of view of a usage-based account, one can see these results arising from two competing processes: the deep entrenchment of SVO word order (initially with low-scope pronoun schemas) which competes with the much less frequently encountered and highly specific pragmatic contexts in which OVS word order (even with case marking) is used. This latter usage requires a coalition of contextualizing cues for its interpretation…

there is evidence for the storage of ‘big words’. Bannard and Matthews (2008) showed that children did better on production of 4-word sequences that were frequent in the input than identical sequences in which the last word is changed. Second, there is good evidence for the importance of low-scope, pronoun-based schemas particularly in the early stages of sentence production (Ambridge & Lieven, 2014). We know that children are significantly more likely to correct non-grammatical word orders to canonical word order as they get older (Akhtar, 1999). When presented with novel verbs in non-canonical word order, younger children tend to use the same word order when asked to produce the sentence with different nouns. However, when children do change to the correct canonical order, they are very likely to use schemas based on pronouns (e.g., He’s meeking it; Abbot-Smith, Lieven, & Tomasello, 2001; Matthews, Lieven, Theakston, & Tomasello, 2004, 2007).

On the usage-based assumption that young children learn language in order to communicate, the relationship of form to meaning is obviously a crucial area for research. However, in research on the learning of syntax, there has tended to be more of a focus on structure than on meaning. I think this has been in reaction to the emphasis on abstract structure in generativist theory and the claim that children could not learn this structure from what they hear. Usage-based researchers have been concerned to show how children can indeed abstract a grammar from the language that they hear, and to argue that generativist theories are not able to solve the ‘linking problem’ of how the hypothesized Universal Grammar interacts with the input to produce the grammar of the specific language (Ambridge, Pine, & Lieven, 2014).

A great deal of empirical evidence has shown: (1) the strong relationships between the language that children hear and the course of their language development; and (2) that children’s language builds up from low-scope patterns and heuristics to an increasingly schematic and abstract network of constructions. To build a comprehensive and psychologically realistic account of children’s language development we now need to concentrate on identifying the processing mechanisms that are involved; to seriously address the relationship between meaning and form; to account for individual differences in learning; and to extend our research to languages that provide specific challenges to the present state of our theories.

Lourdes Ortega: ethics, politics & research

Malta, Doctoral Summer School 14 June, 2019

What is a bilingual individual?

Knowledge worth knowing to whom, for what purposes, in whose interest? (Ortega, 2019)

QUAN research can also adopt an ethical stand.

Train yourself in statistics that allow you to bypass fixed idea of native/non-nativeness.

Research design can be ethical and political.

Use research discourse for affirmation not for failure.

How can usage-based SLA invigorate language education?

Prof. Lourdes Ortega, Georgetown University

F. Education, University of Cambridge, 17:00-18:30

SLEG Cambridge talks: URL 

Some ideas discussed in the talk

A multilingual under a multilingual perspective:

not necessarily from birth

mot mativelike

not even equally proficient in different L2s

It is in usage that we find explanations

Self-referenced development, no monolingual educated nativeness

Usage based are sources of inspitation for SL instruction

-Fequency & statistical learning, skewed input (Madlener, 2018) & exemplars

-Meaning at the center

-Embodiment & multimodality essential

Empirical studies that adopt usage-based perspectives document how, in child learners (Ambridge & Lieven, 2015) as well as in adult learners (Cadierno & Eskildsen, 2015), grammar emerges piece-meal from general psychological principles of statistical learning, abstraction, and categorization that are massively, redundantly, and compulsorily engaged during iterative social communication events. Moreover, the events, the statistics, and the categorization are specific to each person’s history of language experience (Ochs, 2012), driven by socially distributed meaning and grounded in the material world, that is, multimodal and embodied (Kiefer & Pullvermüller, 2012). In this talk, I examine a broad palette of applications that have infused these usage-based insights into language teaching. Some see effective language teaching as capitalizing on fundamentally implicit, statistical and input driven processes (Verspoor, 2017). Some agree but also envision a larger role for explicit instruction of grammar as providing top-down short-cuts that strengthen cognitive processes of abstraction and categorization, particularly if the explicit content is informed by cognitive linguistic descriptions and appeals to meaning (Tyler, 2012; Tyler & Ortega, 2018). A role for largely explicit pedagogies is envisioned by others (Zhang & Lantolf, 2015), hoping for instructional designs that can create “artificial” routes of explicit self-regulation into language development. Others (Wagner, 2015) have also called for instruction that orchestrates opportunities for contextualized social interactions “in the wild” with explicit reflections of one’s emergent usage history in the classroom. Yet, others have emphasized the need to put the complexities of learner-and-language at the center of instruction (Larsen-Freeman, 2015; Roehr-Brackin, 2014). In reviewing and evaluating these trends, I will distill theoretical principles that might open up a new kind of usage-inspired language pedagogy for the future, one that will challenge, update, and invigorate language education in the foreseeable future.

Lourdes Ortega is a Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Georgetown University. She is best known for an award-winning meta-analysis of second language instruction published in 2000, a best-seller graduate-level textbook Understanding Second Language Acquisition (Routledge 2009, translated into Mandarin in 2016), and since 2010 for championing a bilingual and social justice turn in her field of second language acquisition. Her latest book is The Handbook of Bilingualism with Cambridge University Press (co-edited in 2019 with child bilingualism researcher Annick De Houwer).

Corpus linguistics and instructional needs

Tyler & Ortega (2018: 317):

Quite simply, corpora are the place to look for patterns of usage. Moreover, we believe that in usage-inspired instruction L2 targets should be taught not just because they can be taught – that is, because we have a good linguistic description or can create good materials – but because corpus linguistic investigations of learner language development show them to be actual areas of instructional need.

Tyler & Ortega (2018: 318):

The diversity of learning goals just acknowledged is salutary. But it also carries the danger of encouraging a certain bifurcation of usage-inspired L2 instruction into two separate streams, one that privileges implicit and incidental learning (i.e.,absorbing new patterns of language without trying hard to learn them and without knowing they are being learned) and another that revalorizes explicit knowledge, explicit teaching, and explicit learning, thus going against the grain of suspicion over explicitness in much instructed SLA in the past. However, we do not see the explicit-implicit instructional continuum as a zero-sum game. Usage-based views of language development show that the bulk of language learning happens implicitly. But much of the fine-tuning also happens explicitly with the aid of top-down, conscious processing (Ellis, 2011, 2015). It follows that learning proceeds by dynamic interactions between implicit and explicit processing.
Thus, we argue that the full range of goals for learning needs to be addressed in instructional designs. Ideally, usage-inspired L2 instruction can vary so as to offer learners diverse benefits, including more fluent and more contextually effective language use (e.g., through close attention to meaningful input- and practice-driven implicit learning), greater metacognitive self-regulation for greater autonomy and life-long learning (e.g., through induction and deduction of new understandings of language during explicit, concept-guided, top-down learning), and heightened agency in making connections between language choices and social consequences
so the latter can be empowering (e.g., through ethnographic and corpus analyses of one’s and others’ communicative repertoires that make the social consequences and their language reflexes conscious).

Tyler, A. E., Ortega, L., (2018). Usage-inspired L2 instruction. Some reflections and a heuristic. In Tyler, A. E., Ortega, L., Uno, M., & Park, H. I. (Eds.). Usage-inspired L2 instruction: Researched pedagogy. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 315-321.