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Review of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Learning
AUTHOR: Andrea Tyler TITLE: Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Learning SUBTITLE: Theoretical Basics and Experimental Evidence PUBLISHER: Routledge YEAR: 2012
Eve Higby, Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York
INTRODUCTION Andrea Tyler's book, “Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Learning” offers readers, and especially teachers, an exciting new way of viewing language and language learning. This is one of the first texts to apply concepts from Cognitive Linguistics (CL) to second language learning and it does so by offering a detailed description of certain relevant concepts in CL, followed by an analysis of three aspects of the English language that are notoriously difficult to teach (and learn): modal verbs, prepositions, and dative alternations. The information is backed up by experimental results showing the positive effects of CL-based instruction.
SUMMARY The book consists of two main parts: an introduction to concepts in Cognitive Linguistics and an in-depth analysis of certain aspects of English syntax from a CL perspective. Chapters 1-2 comprise the first section and chapters 3-6 make up the second section.
The introduction, Chapter 1, gives a broad overview of several Cognitive Linguistics concepts and contrasts them with ideas that are prevalent in the field of foreign language education (e.g., presenting grammatical constructs as meaningful linguistic units rather than the traditional view that meaning is mapped onto grammar through lexical items). The contrast is helpful as most of the CL concepts will be quite novel to traditionally trained ESL teachers. However, the result of this flurry of new concepts is a bit of confusion at the end of this chapter as many of the terms have yet to be defined.
Chapter 2 is an excellent introduction to several ideas in CL regarding how language is conceptualized. These topics are neatly organized into sub-sections and include: a usage-based approach to language, situated communication and construal, frequency, embodiment, Conceptual Metaphor Theory, mental imagery and spatial scenes, categorization, prototypes and centrality effects, polysemy, and schemas. Each topic is described in enough detail for readers to understand the concept without being overloaded.
In the next chapter, the author builds upon the concepts in Chapter 2 by demonstrating how they can be applied to second language learning and presenting experimental research, mostly through effects of instruction studies in L2 classrooms. The chapter summarizes the results of some studies, while presenting others in more depth. First, the concept of construal is demonstrated in light of the English article system, countability of nouns, and perfective vs. imperfective aspect. Second, conceptual metaphors are used to explain idioms, cross-linguistic differences between English and Spanish for verb states, and Spanish diminutive suffixes. Next, the concept of categorization is used to explain extended meanings of words, overlapping semantic networks of words, and the German dative case. Embodiment is introduced as a means for teaching phrasal verbs, using visual representations, and English manner of motion verbs. Finally, a usage-based approach to language is shown to underlie aspects of language such as frequency effects, verb/construction distributions, collexemes, and the multiple uses of ‘like.’ The chapter ends with a look at examples of cross-linguistic influence in second language acquisition.
The fourth chapter is dedicated to the analysis of the English modal verbs system. Traditionally, modals are taught in groups of functional categories, which, while seemingly systematic, leaves the language learner with a lot of unanswered questions, such as why certain modals (e.g., ‘could,’ ‘must’) can be found in multiple functional categories, and why modals that are treated as synonyms cannot always be used in the same ways (e.g., ‘should,’ ‘must’). Therefore, the author suggests teaching modals using a different approach. First, she advocates the use of pictorial representations of the meanings of the modals, of which she provides examples. Second, rather than grouping multiple modals by function, she suggests grouping modals by form (e.g., the word ‘must’) and explaining the relationship between the multiple functions of that form (a social function and a logical function). Additionally, she demonstrates that the relationship between modals that have historically been used as present and past tenses of each other (e.g., ‘can/could,’ ‘will/would,’ ‘shall/should’) can be shown as stronger/weaker versions of the same semantic concept. Three experimental investigations are reviewed, two of L2 English students of law and the other of a group of general advanced L2 learners at an American university, all of which showed gains by the students in the correct use of modals after a CL-based instruction of selected modals.
Chapter 5 deals with English prepositions. These are notoriously difficult for students to learn and for teachers to teach in a systematic way. In fact, Tyler provides a more complete description of prepositions than any I have seen. Her model is based on the concept of polysemy networks for words. She states that all prepositions have a core meaning, which is physical, and that all other uses of that preposition stem from the core meaning in systematic ways. Three prepositions are described in detail: ‘for,’ ‘to,’ and ‘at,’ and drawings of their polysemy networks are included as illustrations.
The last chapter discusses the dative alternation pattern. The dative alternation consists of ditransitive verbs that are allowed in two different patterns: the double-object construction and the prepositional dative construction. For example, the verb 'give' can be used in either 'I gave Maria the book' or 'I gave the book to Maria.' In this chapter, Tyler attempts to address a frustratingly difficult question: Why are certain verbs only allowed in one of the dative constructions (e.g., ‘build’ is only allowed in double-object constructions, while ‘contribute’ is only allowed in prepositional dative construction), whereas other verbs (e.g., ‘give’ and ‘sing’) can go in either construction? Tyler uses CL analyses of these constructions to explain what aspect of these verbs causes them to be restricted to certain constructions. This analysis is also contrasted with Pinker’s (1989) treatment of this subject matter. Despite the large number of examples given, the information presented in this chapter was not as clear as the others, making the key distinctions that she makes difficult to grasp.
EVALUATION This book aims to introduce a new approach to grammar for English as a Foreign Language/English as a Second Language (EFL/ESL) teachers, based on Cognitive Linguistics, which is a more complete and accurate description than what is standardly found in EFL textbooks. This approach attempts to account for all aspects of language use, including those typically considered “exceptions to the rule” and tries to give a more systematic way of learning certain grammatical constructions besides rote memorization. The author has done an excellent job of introducing CL concepts to an audience which is largely unfamiliar with them. While some of the ideas may appear repetitive, the repetition may be necessary to really allow these novel approaches to understanding grammar to sink in.
The book’s biggest weakness is that it does not make these concepts useful at a practical level (which, admittedly, is not one of the book’s stated aims, but which must be considered for any book that addresses teaching methods). After providing a convincing description of language through a Cognitive Linguistics lens, the interested teacher will be eager to discover how these ideas can be applied to the classroom. However, the book doesn’t quite bridge the necessary gap. Some of the experimental descriptions lend themselves to replication, but are not quite detailed enough to give the teacher confidence in how to apply them in the classroom.
After reading this book, I led a two-part workshop for my teaching staff at a private ESL institute in New York City. The teachers were highly receptive to the approach offered by Cognitive Linguistics and most of them were previously unfamiliar with these concepts. They were intrigued by the claim that CL could offer an explanation for modals and double-object constructions that didn’t include a list of exceptions. However, the analyses became more and more difficult for the teachers to comprehend. While the explanation of modal verbs was favorably received, the explanations of the prepositional structures and the dative alternation seemed hard for them to grasp. In the end, the feedback from the teachers was that it opened their eyes to a different way of conceptualizing language, but until a grammar text comes out that offers a full description and some focused student practice, trying to implement these ideas in their own classrooms would not be easy.
It is not just teachers who have to wrap their head around a new way of thinking about grammar, but also students will be unfamiliar with these concepts and may have already studied the topic the traditional way. The author acknowledges this obstacle (p. 128) and suggests that more time may need to be spent on this form of instruction than a traditional presentation since students are being asked to think about these concepts in a radically different way from the one in which they have previously been taught. While CL claims to employ a more cognitively intuitive way of thinking about language and its use, students presented with these concepts will likely try to reconcile the new information with the old “rules” they have previously learned, which well could in the end result in a bit of confusion for the learner. Two of the teachers on my staff chose to try one of the concepts I presented (modals and articles) in their classes. Both said that students were receptive to the presentation, but had few questions. They seemed to understand the notions, but not apply them with confidence. Therefore, teachers wishing to engage in a CL-based form of instruction may need to arm themselves with a large number of examples and to be patient with students who do not pick up on the ideas right away.
In conclusion, the text presents an exciting introduction of concepts from Cognitive Linguistics to the field of Applied Linguistics, backed up by a host of experimental evidence and a thorough analysis of three of the most difficult concepts for second language learners to acquire. The book fulfills its aims and is written in a clear, approachable manner with examples at every point, though the material gets increasingly more esoteric for teachers with less grounding in theoretical linguistics. As far as a pioneering text of this type is concerned, it is a valuable introduction to a new approach to teaching grammar. However, I cannot see too many teachers who would be willing or able to directly apply it to their own teaching without some practical advice on how to present it or a supplementary teachers’ grammar text that could aid them and the students through the process of learning to see the grammar in this way. Several of the teachers in my workshop were interested in reading Tyler’s book themselves, and if a CL-based grammar text were available, I believe some of them would be ready to try it out. All in all, the book is intriguing and informative and provides a solid basis for future works in this nascent area of research.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I would like to thank Loraine Obler for her helpful suggestions on this review. Any shortcomings are the responsibility of the author alone.
REFERENCES Pinker, S. (1989). Learnability and cognition: The acquisition of argument structure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Eve Higby is a doctoral student in the Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences
Department at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York with
eight years’ experience as an ESL teacher and school administrator. Her
research interests include bi/multilingualism, second language acquisition,
cross-linguistic influence, language change, and the neural bases of language.