Dellar’s Lexical Approach


Hugh Dellar is a coursebook writer, a frequent conference speaker, a teacher trainer, and an EFL teacher. He’s perhaps best known for his promotion of the lexical approach. While I know how strongly he feels about the importance of lexis in ELT, I’ve become increasingly confused about what he thinks the lexical approach is and how he thinks it should be implemented. It all started on Sunday when I read a tweet from Hugh who was at the IATEFL Poland conference. He wrote:

“intensive & focused pure lexical syllabus can help break down the fossilisation that result from bringing L1 primings into L2”.

What I didn’t immediately realise was that he was in the audience at a presentation, tweeting bits as soon as they came out of the presenters’ mouths. So great is Hugh’s enthusiasm for the lexical approach, he just can’t wait to spread the good news! Anyway, I tweeted

What’s a “pure lexical syllabus”? What fossilisation results from “L1 priming”? Sit down and have a glass of water Hugh.

Dellar: don’t think it’s too controversial to dub a syllabus which features only lexis & no explicit grammar teaching “pure” myself.

Me: You can dub it anything you like. What it is – apart from “only lexis and no explicit grammar”?

Dellar: if you mean what goes in it, that’s obviously open to debate. It is what it is though whatever else you’d rather call it.

Me: Pure nonsense!

Dellar: says you. And not sure they’d the most helpful way of furthering the debate you were after.

That’s as far as I got in my attempt to find out what a pure lexical syllabus might be. As for fossilisation,

Dellar: fossilisation can result from saying things in L2 using L1 primings, communicating meaning but not noticing the gap.

Me: You’ve used 4 constructs in that answer and all of them carry a lot of theoretical baggage. Result: highly-debateable assertion.

Hugh: most assertions are debatable aren’t they? We work in terrain not blessed with many concrete facts.

Apart from an equally unsuccessful attempt to find out how lexical priming fitted in to Dellar’s evolving view of language and ELT, that was that.

So I went and had a look at Dellar’s blog. What, I wondered, was a “pure lexical syllabus” and how can it rectify the fossilisation that results from “saying things in L2 using L1 primings, communicating meaning but not noticing the gap”? Eventually, I found a presentation where Dellar had recorded himself talking about “Teaching Grammar Lexically”. The presentation starts with Dellar telling us how, in his CELTA course, he was taught to teach under the tyranny of “PPP – grammar teaching”. Dellar explains:

“This was based on Chomsky and the whole idea of structuralist grammar…..I realise now that this is an outmoded and outdated way of thinking about grammar”.

During the presentation Hugh makes references to “structuralist grammar”, “structural grammar”, “Chomsky and grammar”, “that sort of grammar”, …..

By “Structuralist grammar” I think Dellar means structuralism, a school of linguistics associated with Saussure and Bloomfield. Structuralists took a descriptive view of their job and limited themselves to the grand task of describing and classifying languages all over the world in terms of well-defined linguistic units (although while Saussure remained faithful to this mission, Bloomfield allowed behaviourism to pervade American structuralism). Chomsky, of course, had a very different view of linguistics, and a very different view of grammar. Structuralism and Universal Grammar are thus not, pace Hugh, synonymous but rather diametrically opposed. Furthermore, UG represents a theory of language which provides an explanation of how we learn language, suggests that all natural languages share the same underlying properties, and has resulted in extraordinary scientific advances, especially in the area of developing artificial languages. It’s been the dominant paradigm in linguistics for the last 50 years, it has absolutely nothing to do with “the tyranny of PPP” or with any pedagogical grammar, and most linguists working today would beg to differ with the opinion that it’s an outmoded and outdated way of thinking about grammar.

What Dellar demonstrates here is a basic ignorance of theories of language, which is worrying for someone proselytising one very specific theory of language. I think Dellar means to say that PPP (the presentation and practice of discrete points of grammar) is an outdated way of teaching EFL / ESL. Let’s proceed. Dellar says that Michael Lewis’ book “The Lexical Approach” changed his life by introducing him to a new way of seeing language and of teaching EFL, namely the lexical approach, based on the claim that “Language is not lexicalised grammar, rather it’s grammaticalised lexis. First and foremost it’s lexis that carries more meaning and drives communication”.

The presentation is typical of Dellar’s work, in that is poorly-expressed, and full of assertions about language and language teaching which are as confidently made as they are lacking in either evidence or argument. Here are some of them:

• PPP gives the illusion of progress
• Murphy’s books, the Headway series, English File, they’re all based on a false view of language
• PPP doesn’t work because students learn to talk about English, not in English
• the system creates grammar fear and grammar dependency
• focusing on structures in isolation distorts the reality of usage
• the best way to teach English is to “Keep it real” – teach what people really say in English, stick to typical contexts, focus on institutionalised sentences
• conversations must be given priority
• don’t teach single words

and on and on. Lots of supplementary assertions are also made, including these:

• Despite Chomsky, there are only 10 to 12 verbs you use in the future perfect
• We use will to make promises, to make decisions at the time of speaking, to make threats, OK? You know, predictions. These definitions are useless unless they’re rooted in a store of commonly used sentences that students have acquired and are able to use. From this they start to develop a coherent understanding of the functions and underlying semantics of the grammar.
• What really gets you from intermediate to advanced isn’t grammar. It’s layer upon layer of lexis.

Questions that need answering 

I suggest that in order to have credibility as a teacher trainer and presenter of the lexical approach Dellar needs to publicly address these questions:

1. What theory of language informs the lexical approach? If it’s Hoey’s theory of lexical priming, how can it be tested? What studies have been done to test it? What evidence from studies supports it?

2. How do children acquire the ability to speak their native language according to lexical priming? How does Hugh counter the poverty of the stimulus argument?

3. What theory of SLA informs the lexical approach? Does Dellar agree with Hoey that lexical priming theory gives 100% support to Krashen’s Monitor theory? If so, how does Dellar deal with the circularity of Krashen’s constructs, and the fact that Krashen’s theory gives no significant role to explicit learning?

4. How does Dellar respond to the thousands of studies in SLA which support the construct of interlanguage? The evidence from these studies supports the claim that SLA is a cognitive process involving the acquisition of grammatical competence along a relatively fixed route. Does Hugh dismiss this evidence?

5. How does Dellar use the construct of “noticing” in his lexical approach? Does he think that “lexical chunks” can simply be substituted for the areas of language Schmidt discusses? Schmidt, after all, went to a great deal of trouble to explain what his theoretical construct “noticing” is (and isn’t), and it’s important to appreciate that noticing is a construct used to support the argument for the need for explicit learning of aspects of grammar.

6. How does Dellar use the construct of “fossilisation”? Is he aware that many, including Larson-Freeman recently, challenge the idea of any end state, and that Hoey himself says we never stop learning?

Once Dellar has given some account of what he thinks language is and how he thinks second languages are learned, he needs to then address the question of classroom teaching. I have said elsewhere that in my opinion Lewis’ book The Lexical Approach cobbles together a confused jumble of half-digested ideas; fails to offer any coherent or cohesive ELT methodology; and offers no proper syllabus, or any principled way of teaching the “chunks” which he claims are the secret to the English language. No doubt Dellar disagrees, but he has yet to present his own lexical syllabus. To describe a language in a particular way is one thing; to work out the best way to teach it in a classroom is another. Which is simply to say that you can’t get prescriptions from descriptions, however much Dellar might think you can.
Given Dellar’s conviction that Lewis is right to say that language is not lexicalised grammar but rather, grammaticalised lexis, the question remains: How do you teach it to a class? Apart from saying “give them lots of real language”; “don’t teach single words”; “you MUST use conversation”; etc., and reeling off dozens of authentic utterances like I’ll see you later; I’ll see what I can do; This won’t hurt at all; That’ll do; I’ll be back in a minute; I’ll pay you back tomorrow; ..., how do you organise a 100 hour course based on a lexical approach? What’s needed is a syllabus.

Breen suggests that a syllabus can be organised in response to these questions:

1. What knowledge does it focus on?
2. What capabilities does it focus on?
3. On what basis does it select and subdivide?
4. How does it sequence what is to be learned?
5. What is its rationale?

The first question is important because I, like many, don’t think that knowledge of attested behaviour (which is what we get from looking at corpora of what people say) is the same as our knowledge of language. Hoey goes to great lengths to explain what’s involved in knowing a word (sic), but he restricts himself to what’s performed and ignores the possible. Despite Hoey (and Dellar’s simplistic paraphrase “don’t teach the possible, teach the probable”), most modern linguists find it important to address the questions of “externalised and internalised” language and of valency. Furthermore, most linguists, both pure and applied, agree that language is a cognitive, inventive process, and that when we speak of competence in a language, we refer to something close to Bachman’s model, a cluster of competences not best explained by any theory of lexical priming.

The other questions involve setting out not just the “what” but the “how” of classroom-based teaching. I presume that Dellar doesn’t want to substitute the PPP of discrete points of grammar for the PPP of lexical chunks. So what happens? How are the classes which make up the syllabus conducted? What are the roles of the teachers and learners? As many will know, Breen suggests that syllabuses can be divided into 2 types: product and process syllabuses, and he argues that process syllabuses are better. I look forward to Dellar telling us what his lexical syllabus looks like, and whether he thinks it represents a product or process syllabus, or something else entirely.

I understand that Dellar is soon to launch “LexLab”, which will be place where all those interested in a lexical approach can share their ideas. I suggest that Dellar can hardly launch such an ambitious project without giving a clear account of the lexical approach which addresses questions about the nature of language; L1 acquisition; SLA; the various competencies involved in communicative language ability; the role of noticing, fossilisation, and the lexical syllabus.

8 thoughts on “Dellar’s Lexical Approach

  1. Don’t his Innovations books in some way answer the question of what a lexical syllabus would look like as well as the way you teach using this approach? I have taught from the Advanced level of Innovations and found it felt like I was just piling more and more lexis on my students and we all just felt rather weighed down and heavy at the end of it. I know teachers who like to dip into the books and use them as additional resources for a course but wouldn’t dream of using them as a main textbook because of the unsatisfactory nature of the syllabus.


  2. Hi Pip,
    That’s an interesting comment. I tried for over an hour to have a look at the “Innovations” coursebooks online, but no bookseller, or the publisher, offered even so much as the table of contents. So I can’t answer your question, except to say that in my opinion a syllabus based on a coursebook is a very sad syllabus indeed.


  3. Since I think it’s unlikely that Hugh will use the “Comments” option here to respond to my questions, I’ll answer them myself.

    Q.1. What theory of language informs the lexical approach?

    I will assume that Hoey’s theory of lexical priming is the answer to that question. It is, in fact, a difficult theory to briefly summarise. It starts with “the ubiquity of collocation”, which, says Hoey “challenges current theories of language because it demands explanation, and the only explanation that seems to account for the existence of collocation is that each lexical item is primed for collocational use. By primed , I mean that as the word is learnt through encounters with it in speech and writing, it is loaded with the cumulative effects of those encounters such that it is part of our knowledge of the word that it co-occurs with other words”.

    Hoey goes on to say that if we accept this argument, “it becomes possible to argue that lexical priming accounts for much more than just collocations”. Colligations come next, so that learning a lexical item entails learning not just what words it occurs with, but what grammar it tends to have. And this, says Hoey, “opens the door to other types of priming. Indeed it opens the door to a more radical view of priming as an account of how language is constructed. In the first place, lexical items are also primed for semantic association”. And on we go. In the end, we arrive at the claim that, through priming, native speakers store an enormous amount of information about the words they know. Knowing a word means knowing:

    • the words it occurs with
    • the grammatical patterns it occurs in
    • the meanings with which it is associated
    • whether it is used to be polite (or rude); humourous or serious
    • what kind of style it tends to occur in
    • whether it occurs more often in speech or writing
    • whether the speaker is someone younger or older
    • whether the word or phrase is typically used in particular kinds of text
    • whether it is associated with the beginnings or ends of sentences or with paragraph boundaries.

    But it’s not so simple. Just to take collocation priming, this is not a permanent feature of the word. Hoey says: “Each use we make of the word, and each new encounter, either reinforces the priming or loosens it, if we use it in defiance of the priming. It may accordingly shift in the course of an individual’s life-time, and if it does so, and to the extent that it does so, the lexical item shifts slightly in meaning and/or function. This may be referred to as drifts in the priming”. Furthermore, collocational priming is sensitive to the domain in which the lexical item is encountered. Hoey says “Part of our knowledge of a lexical item is that it is used in certain combinations in certain kinds of text. So the phrase in winter is primed for use in travel writing whereas the phrase during the winter months , which means more or less the same thing, is primed for use in gardening writing”. To put it another way, “If we have heard a word used repeatedly in particular ways in casual conversation with friends, we will be able to use it confidently in the same situation. It does not follow that we will feel confident about using it in academic writing or talking to strangers. So learning a word means learning it in many different contexts.”

    Well, that gives a taste of Hoey’s account. What it depends on, as a theory, is the explanation offered by priming. Hoey says that priming is “subconscious noticing”: “This process of subconsciously noticing is referred to as lexical priming. … Without realizing what we are doing, we all reproduce in our own speech and writing the language we have heard or read before. We use the words and phrases in the contexts in which we have heard them used, with the meanings we have subconsciously identified as belonging to them and employing the same grammar. The things we say are subconsciously influenced by what everyone has previously said to us”.

    If we can overcome our initial reaction of disbelief to such claims, and just look at the construction of this theory, we see that the whole theory hinges on the construct “noticing”, which, we should carefully note, has nothing in common with the usual meaning of the word or with Schmidt’s construct of the same name. From a common sense stance, “subconscious noticing” sounds like an oxymoron, but that’s OK, many constructs are counter-intuitive. The problem is that Hoey nowhere operationalises his term “noticing” in any way that allows us to test the theory.

    To the extent that the theory claims that language learning is the result of repeated exposure to patterns of text, and that the more the repetition the better the “knowledge”, then unless it clearly states that it is a theory of performance not competence, and unless it adopts some clearly articulated general learning principles (some form of connectionism, for example), then it sounds like we’re back with behaviourism. As Chomsky argued when he demolished Skinner’s behaviourist view of language and learning, language use is “stimulus independent” and “historically unbound”. Stimulus independent because virtually any words can be spoken in response to any environmental stimulus. Historically unbound because what we say is not determined by our history of reinforcement (Can we substitute “priming” here?), as is clear from the fact that we say things that we have not been trained to say and that we have never heard anybody else say.

    This is not, of course, a proper critique of lexical priming theory, just a hint of what we are unlikely to get clarification of from Hugh.

    Q.1. Part 2. How can it be tested?

    There are a few hypotheses Hoey makes in Chapters 5 and 6 of his book on Lexical priming, but they’re very technical, and even they can’t be tested. The general theory can’t be tested because the main construct of priming / subconscious noticing hasn’t been operationalised. The theory can, however, be shown to be false by looking at L1 acquisition. Which brings me to Question 2.

    Q.2. How do children acquire the ability to speak their native language according to lexical priming? How does Hugh counter the poverty of the stimulus argument?

    Lexical priming cannot explain how children acquire aspects of the language they have never been exposed to. Thousands of studies (sic) have shown that despite the fact that certain properties of language are not explicit in the input, children possess knowledge of grammaticality, ungrammaticality, ambiguity, and paraphrase relations, for example. The gap between what children know about language (its grammar, among other things) and the data they have access to is just too broad to be bridged by any process of lexical priming. The claim that children learn language starting from a ‘blank slate’ and then building knowledge by subconsciously noticing connections between lexical items simply cannot survive the counter-evidence provided by studies of what children know about their L1.

    I’ll deal with the subsequent questions in subsequent comments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. hi geoff

      some great points here. i would like to look at your first point whether priming can be tested?

      has this not been done a lot in psycholinguistics work?

      further this study [] supports the findings in such research that semantic priming is a psychological reality , albeit alongside psychological association – i.e. mere “association” between words maybe via spreading activation as opposed to the semantic features that are shared between words – which cognitive theories could account for?)



      1. Hi Mura,

        Thanks for this. First, I think the authors you cite are right to say that it’s difficult to distinguish word association from semantic priming, but I nevertheless agree with you that there are studies which give some support to the hypothesis of semantic priming – and to repetition priming, of course. Before I make my main point, you might be interested in Huang’s reminder to us that studies of semantic priming have the problem of who judges the senses of the items. Li-szu Agnes Huang comments on Hoey’s analysis of the priming patterns of consequence (= result) versus consequence (= importance) and reason (= cause) versus reason (= rationality, logic) in her review of Hoey’s book (AUSTRALIAN REVIEW OF APPLIED LINGUISTICS, VOLUME 30, NUMBER 1, 2007). She says “While determining the intended sense of a polysemous word in each corpus instance, one has to go through a word sense disambiguation process that involves a variety of knowledge sources, including collocational knowledge. Even a corpus lexicography system has to resort to a concordance for a word, i.e., a line of context that contains information of its collocations, semantic associations, and colligations as well. I get the impression that Hoey, when determining the sense of an example from the corpus, likewise refers to the distinct priming patterns of that sense in his judgmental system. In so doing he falls into the danger of circularity”.

        To my main point, then. Being able to test limited hypotheses about semantic priming is one thing, being able to test the far more general claims that Hoey’s theory of lexical priming makes is another. Until Hoey gives some fuller account of “lexical priming” so that we can make testable predictions about what kind of knowledge results from a certain well-defined instance of lexical priming, the theory remains untestable. The basic problem is that while Hoey is marvellously at home in the field of corpus linguistics, he’s like a kid in long grass when it comes to psycholinguistics and theory construction. At the moment, I think Hoey’s lexical priming theory is as bad as Krashen’s Monitor Model in its circularity.


  4. Answering my own Questions, Part 2.

    Q.3. What theory of SLA informs the lexical approach?

    Michael Lewis doesn’t even attempt an explanation of SLA, he simply asserts that learning English as an L2 is a matter of recognising, understanding and producing lexical phrases as ready-made chunks. Hoey accepts Krashen’s explanation of SLA, and I’ve dealt with this in the post “*Krashen 1: Hoey, The Monitor, Lexis” which is in the menu on the right of the screen. It’s worth pointing out that the Natural Order Hypothesis contradicts lexical priming theory, since, while the first claims that SLA involves the acquisition of grammatical structures in a predictable sequence, the second claims that grammatical structures are lexical patterns and that there is no order of acquisition. If no explanation of SLA is offered in support of the lexical approach, I suggest that this is a very serious weakness indeed.

    Q.4. How does Hugh respond to the thousands of studies in SLA which support the construct of interlanguage? The evidence from these studies supports the claim that SLA is a cognitive process involving the acquisition of grammatical competence along a relatively fixed route. Does Hugh dismiss this evidence?

    In the last 40 years, great progress has been made in developing a theory of SLA based on a cognitive view of learning. It started in 1972 with the publication of Selinker’s paper where he argues that the L2 learners have their own autonomous mental grammar (which came to be known, as interlanguage (IL) grammar), a grammatical system with its own internal organising principles, which may or may not be related to the L1 and the L2.

    One of the first stages of this interlanguage to be identified was that for ESL questions. In a study of six Spanish students over a 10-month period, Cazden, Cancino, Rosansky and Schumann (1975) found that the subjects produced interrogative forms in a predictable sequence:

    1. Rising intonation (e.g., He works today?),
    2. Uninverted WH (e.g., What he (is) saying?),
    3. “Overinversion” (e.g., “Do you know where is it?),
    4. Differentiation (e.g., “Does she like where she lives?).

    A later example is in Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991: 94). They pointed to research which suggested that learners from a variety of different L1 backgrounds go through the same four stages in acquiring English negation:

    1. External (e.g., No this one./No you playing here),
    2. Internal, pre-verbal (e.g., Juana no/don’t have job),
    3. Auxiliary + negative (e.g., I can’t play the guitar),
    4. Analysed don’t (e.g., She doesn’t drink alcohol.)

    In developing a cognitive theory of SLA, the construct of interlanguage became central to the view of L2 learning as a process by which linguistic skills become automatic. Initial learning requires controlled processes, which require attention and time; with practice the linguistic skill requires less attention and becomes routinized, thus freeing up the controlled processes for application to new linguistic skills. SLA is thus seen as a process by which attention-demanding controlled processes become more automatic through practice, a process that results in the restructuring of the existing mental representation, the interlanguage. The adoption of such a framework gives focus and strength to the research: well-defined problems can be articulated, and other more powerful and daring solutions can be offered to the one that has been tentatively established.

    Any lexical approach which adopts Hoey’s theory must either state that a cognitive theory of SLA based on the development of an interlanguage is misguided, an extraordinary example of hordes of scholars marching down the wrong road and pursuing a chimera for 40 years and more, or they must re-work the whole programme so as to replace the misguided grammatical structures with lexical chunks. This, I suggest, highlights the implausibility of the lexical approach.

    Q.5. How does Hugh use the construct of “noticing” in his lexical approach? Does he think that “lexical chunks” can simply be substituted for the areas of language Schmidt discusses? Schmidt, after all, went to a great deal of trouble to explain what his theoretical construct “noticing” is (and isn’t), and it’s important to appreciate that noticing is a construct used to support the argument for the need for explicit learning of aspects of grammar.

    In answering Question 1 above, I indicated that Hoey’s construct of “noticing” has nothing in common with the usual meaning of the word or with Schmidt’s construct of the same name. It is a sub-conscious process which we are, Hoey insists “entirely unaware of”: we notice things about words “without realizing what we are doing.” Hugh Dellar seems to think that “noticing” refers to its canonical meaning as found in a corpus or a dictionary. When he says “fossilisation can result from saying things in L2 using L1 primings, communicating meaning but not noticing the gap” he’s using noticing to mean something like “being consciously aware of” or “giving conscious attention to”. His blog and his presentations and his coursebooks all make the fundamental mistake of assuming that a lexical approach based on lexical priming theory is consistent with the view that teachers can help students learn by drawing their attention to “the gap” that exists between their current interlanguage and a model they’re aiming for. Of course, Hoey’s theory is wrong, but Hugh must choose between his lexical approach and Schmidt’s construct of noticing: he can’t have both. Those of us who adopt a cognitive approach to SLA have accepted that Schmidt’s theory of noticing makes a major contribution to our understanding, and also has important teaching implications. Hugh, meanwhile, uses the tem “noticing” blissfully unaware of any inconsistency.

    Having given a very careful definition of “noticing” Schmidt develops the idea of input (a crucial construct for the lexical approach, and a word Hugh uses a great deal) by noting the distinction Slobin, and Chaudron make between preliminary intake (the processes used to convert input into stored data that can later be used to construct language), and final intake (the processes used to organise stored data into linguistic systems). Schmidt proposes that intake be defined as “that part of the input which the learner notices, whether the learner notices a form in linguistic input because he or she was deliberately attending to form, or purely inadvertently. If noticed, it becomes intake.” This valuable distinction between input and intake is of course completely at odds with a lexical approach. Another indication, I suggest, that those promoting the lexical approach, rather than those developing a cognitive theory of SLA, are marching down the wrong road, or, better said, stumbling around in a blind alley.

    There remains the major issue of how the lexical approach is used to develop a lexical syllabus. I’ll deal with Hugh’s enthusiastic endorsement of Michael Lewis’ syllabus, plus his pronouncements on Task-based learning and the role of coursebooks, when I discuss syllabus design in a separate post.


  5. Dear Geoff,

    Many thanks for an interesting post (and sub-post in the comments). I have a few questions and comments myself that I would be interested to hear your responses to if you have the time or the inclination.

    You have criticized Lexical Priming, saying that “[t]he problem is that Hoey nowhere operationalises his term “noticing” in any way that allows us to test the theory.”

    I think this is a fair enough point, but my first question is do you happen to know if this same criticism of Hoey also applies to the theories of others with broadly similar theories of language? e.g. Sinclair or Hunston and Francis?

    You’ve also noted that Chomsky has successfully argued that:

    “… language use is “stimulus independent” and “historically unbound”. Stimulus independent because virtually any words can be spoken in response to any environmental stimulus. Historically unbound because what we say is not determined by our history of reinforcement (Can we substitute “priming” here?), as is clear from the fact that we say things that we have not been trained to say and that we have never heard anybody else say.”

    My next question is – How has Chomsky tested these two notions of stimulus independence and historical unboundedness? I was under the impression that these had not been tested, or at least that if they had been tested they were done so under highly specialized conditions that bear little or no relation to language as it is used by 99.9% of speakers (I read something along these lines in a book by Roy Harris some time ago, but I’m afraid I don’t have it to hand).

    Even so, assuming I’m wrong there, having tested and proved both the validity of both of these concepts, how does Chomsky then account for the fact that, while it may be possible to “say things that we have not been trained to say and that we have never heard anybody else say” we nevertheless only seldom do so?

    Isn’t it the case that most (if not all) so-called novel utterances are not produced ex nihilo but are rather reformulations, hybrids, syncretisms or are otherwise redolent echoes of better known, shared and more conventionalized utterances of the kind Hoey talks about? For example, Ron Carter gives a wonderful example of this kind of reformulation, taken from a sign seen in the window of a Camping and Outdoor goods store: ‘Now Is the Discount of Our Winter Tents’ (in Carter’s 2004 Language and Creativity: The Art of Common Talk).

    And Hoey himself addresses the issue of linguistic creativity (in several senses, including that meant by Chomsky):

    “The claim that consequence is a noun is really a claim about its collocations, colligations and semantic associations. Its nominal status is the product of a cluster of collocations and colligations that only become visible when we stop taking it for granted that is a noun.

    The grammatical category we assign to a word, I want to argue, is simply a convenient label we give the combination of (some of) the word’s most characteristic and genre-independent primings. It is in fact the outcome of other factors, not the starting point for a linguistic description [ …] So instead of saying that consequence is a noun, we can say that consequence is strongly primed for use as a noun, ‘noun’ being here, as I have indicated, convenient shorthand for a cluster of other primings” (Hoey, 2006:154-55, original emphases).

    In other words, Hoey’s theory of Lexical Priming does seem to point toward an explanation of why each of the following ‘novel’ utterances would be more or less acceptable and appear to carry some kind of meaning (even if it is one we can’t quite access):

    a) Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
    b) The greening of colorlessly furious sleep ideas.
    c) To colorless ideas with furious sleeping.
    d) Furiously greening colorless idea sleeps.

    Moreover, I think Hoey’s suggestion that grammatical categories are a consequence of clusters of primings, set at different linguistic and social levels, might also appear to account for the fact that the above sentences are not all uniform in their acceptability but possess varying degrees of it – surely Lexical Priming is a plausible explanation as to why ‘sleep ideas’ emerges as a recognizable independent noun phrase? Certainly, it seems no less plausible than redundantly working out that must be a noun phrase through the drawing up of a tree diagram?

    In short, it seems to me that you might be overstating the case considerably when you say that “Lexical priming cannot explain how children acquire aspects of the language they have never been exposed to”.

    I think it’s possible that it can, because as the above quote from Hoey suggests, primings (if such exist) occur at different levels, some more general, others more specific. It does not seem terribly far-fetched to believe that the child, as it learns language, is able to transfer the knowledge of primings for the words it does know onto those that it does not, or that it only knows partially. The syntax is not there from the outset but emerges as the result of the growth in sophistication that comes as more and more primings cluster about the ‘word’ – which here seems to be a shorthand for a place-marker over a ‘space’ in the linguistic system.

    For instance, on a related note, I read somewhere – Lightbown and Spada maybe? Guy Cook? – a recorded example of a young child at a family celebration who, after hearing an adult relative say “I want to propose a toast to [Bill and Mary]”, the child then stood up and said “I want to propose a piece of bread.”

    If primings do belong in clusters then those clusters can become more refined over time, beginning simply and acquiring more subtlety as the child ages. That is to say, it could be that what the child is starting out with is a capacity for the acquisition of primings; these primings start out very general and ill-defined and over time and with experience (i.e. repeated exposure) each ‘word’ acquires ever more sophisticated clusters of primings determining ever more delicate usage. Over time, the child comes to share many of those primings with others, thus becoming a member of his/her linguistic community (or communities plural).

    As far as I’m aware, this depiction would be analogous to what is happening to the child’s muscles and brain as they too are developing from more malleable to relatively less adaptable (where flexibility and potential are used to pay for sophisticated functioning).

    Regarding SLA and “the thousands of studies in SLA which support the construct of interlanguage … The evidence from [which] supports the claim that SLA is a cognitive process involving the acquisition of grammatical competence along a relatively fixed route.” – I have no idea how Hugh would respond to this, but as a genuine question, is there any possibility the order of acquisition of grammatical functors may be influenced by:

    Learners beliefs about what a language is and, therefore, how to learn it? For instance, to what extent does learning a language in the same terms as they would learn other types declarative knowledge? e.g. memorizing a bilingual list of L2 words and their L1 translation out of whatever context they were taken from?
    Wouldn’t such beliefs and such an approach have an impact on a learner’s procedural knowledge?

    There are, I believe, a number of studies that show that students who take courses focused on oral fluency tend to score well in tests of oral fluency, but less so in grammatical accuracy and that the reverse is also true – students who take courses focused on grammatical accuracy tend to do rather well in tests of grammar, but less well in tests of oral fluency.

    In any event, would you be prepared to concede that there might be several plausible alternative explanations for the order of L2 acquisition other than one purely or at least mainly related to cognitive processes – which as far as I know are unobservable to researchers? (Also, as a side note, as I’m not sure anything – even being asleep – does not involve cognition I’m not sure in what sense relating L2 acquisition to cognitive processes is more easily comprehensible than Hoey’s idea of Lexical Priming).

    Incidentally, I do think that there are problems with the Lexical approach to teaching and these are especially noticeable (IMHO) between beginner and intermediate levels. I have felt fairly strongly for a long time that how second languages are best acquired also depends (amongst many other things) on the level of the learner (however problematic it is to say what we mean by level and then how to differentiate between various levels).

    Anyway, thank you again for an interesting post (I’m about to read over Part 2 now – I decided to respond now rather than wait until finishing both).




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