* Emergentism 2

You’ll doubtless know that “emergence” is one of the key principles of Dogme, and you might well have noticed that more and more people are banging on about emergence these days. I did a Google search the other day on “emergence and language learning” and among the results I noticed an article by Scott Thornbury which he’d written in 2009 for English Teaching Professional called “Slow Release Grammar”. The article is remarkable for its tone; it makes a number of sweeping assertions with breathtaking assurance. If you didn’t know better (didn’t know, that is, that there is no generally accepted explanation of SLA), you’d be tempted to think that you were reading a new book of revelations. Scott writes as if he’s finally cracked it, as if he were in possession of the truth. According to this article, emergence improves on Darwin as an explanation of natural development, it explains language, language learning, and the failure of classroom-based adult ELT. Just to top it off, emergence is also the key to successful syllabus design. Why, one wonders, does such a seemingly transcendental work remain tucked away in the middle of a lack-lustre journal? Why isn’t it as well-kmown as the vaunted Dogme tracts themselves? I’ll briefly summarise it below, using mostly Scott’s own words.

First, emergence is everywhere in nature, where a system is said to have emergent properties when it displays complexity at a global level that is not specified at a local level. There are millions of such systems; the capacity of an ant colony to react in unison to a threat is an example. Because there is no “central executive” determining the emergent organisation of the system, the patterns and regularities which result have been characterised as “order for free”.

Next, language. Language exhibits emergent properties. There are 2 processes by which language “grows and organises itself”. The first is our capacity to detect and remember frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to. In language terms, these sequences typically take the form of chunks (AKA formulaic expressions or lexical phrases). The second is our capacity to unpack the regularities within these chunks, and to use these patterns as templates for the later development of a more systematic grammar. It is as if the chunks – memorised initially as unanalysed wholes – slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin. Language emerges as “grammar for free”.

Thirdly, there is emergence in learning. Hoey notes how particular words and chunks re-occur in the same patterns. These can be seen in collocations, such as good morning; good clean fun; on a good day …; fixed phrases, such as one good turn deserves another, the good, the bad and the ugly; and colligations, as in it’s no good + -ing. Hoey argues that, through repeated use and association, words are ‘primed’ to occur in predictable combinations and contexts. The accumulation of lexical priming creates semantic associations and colligations which, in Hoey’s words, “nest and combine and give rise to an incomplete, inconsistent and leaky, but nevertheless workable, grammatical system”. But note that adults learning a second language are less successful in their capacity both to take formulaic chunks on board, and to re-analyse them for the grammatical information that they encapsulate.

Fourthly, the problems which adults have remembering and unpacking formulaic chunks don’t find their solution in most ELT classrooms where few opportunities for real communication are offered. Wray says: “Classroom learners are rarely aiming to communicate a genuine message…, so there is no drive to use formulaic sequences for manipulative purposes”. Even when adult learners do internalise formulaic chunks, they are often incapable of unpacking the grammar, perhaps because many chunks are not really grammatical (expressions like if I were you; you’d better not; by and large; come what may, etc, yield little or no generalisable grammar) and perhaps because they fail to notice the form.

Finally, we can put emergence into the classroom through the syllabus. If the productive potential of formulaic language is to be optimised, then, at least four conditions need to prevail:

  • Exposure – to a rich diet of formulaic language
  • Focus on form – to promote noticing and pattern extraction
  • A positive social dynamic – to encourage pragmatic and interpersonal language use
  • Opportunities for use – to increase automaticity, and to stimulate storage in long-term memory, and recall.

Well, there you have it: all is revealed. And, as I suggested above, revealed as the unequivocal-no-ifs-or-buts-not-a-hint-of-a-doubt, truth. So, to return to the question, why hasn’t the ELT world “taken on board” (to air one of the many awful clichés which Scott is not afraid of using) the full import of this article? Why haven’t we all enthusiastically clambered aboard the good ship Emergence and set sail to the happy land of “grammar for free” language learning? Maybe because the good ship Emergence is an old tub which is as leaky as Hoey’s grammar.

Scott starts with Stuart Kauffman’s claim that the phenomenon whereby certain natural systems display complexity at a global level that is not specified at a local level is evidence of emergence and “order for free”. This highly-controversial view is then used in an attempt to add credibility to the suggestion that lexical chunks provide “grammar for free”. We may begin by noting that Scott tells us that many formulaic chunks “yield little or no generalisable grammar”, which surely must impede their wonderous ability to “slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin”. Or does their magic extend to releasing qualities which they don’t possess? Scott gives an inadequate and mangled account of emergentism which, according to him, says that lexical phrases explain English grammar, how children learn English and why adults have difficulties learning English as a foreign language. Using Michael Hoey as the spokesman for emergentism, while avoiding any mention of William O’Grady’s “Syntactic Carpentry: An Emergentist Approach to Syntax” or of the works of Bates and MacWhinney is another indication of the skewed account on offer here.

I discuss emergentism, including work by Bates, MacWhinney, O’Grady and Ellis, in a page you can find in the menu on the right. Suffice it to say here that Scott’s unqualified assertion that language learning can be explained as the detection and memorisation of “frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to” is probably wrong and certainly not the whole story. At the very least, Scott should give a more measured description and discussion of emergentist views of language learning and acknowledge that it faces severe challenges as a theory. How can general conceptual representations acting on stimuli from the environment explain the representational system of language that children demonstrate? As Eubank and Gregg ask: “How come children know which form-function pairings are possible in human-language grammars and which are not, regardless of exposure?” How can emergentists deal with cases of instantaneous learning, or knowledge that comes about in the absence of exposure, including knowledge of what is not possible? Scott’s suggestion that we have an innate capacity to “unpack the regularities within lexical chunks, and to use these patterns as templates for the later development of a more systematic grammar” begs more questions than it answers and, anyway, contradicts the empiricist epistemology adopted by most emergentists who say that there aren’t, indeed can’t be, any such things as innate capacities.

Finally, we get Scott’s depressing picture of the arid desert which is the standard adult EFL classroom followed by the triumphant portrayal of an emergentist syllabus, where the “productive potential” of formulaic language is unleashed. The illusive, definitive recipe of language learning has been revealed: lashings of formulaic language, sprinkled with a little focus on form, served on a bed of positive social dynamic, with the chance of asking for more. In the likely event that the positive social dynamic gets out of hand in these joyous classrooms, and the adult students start running amok, babbling formulaic chunks of colloquial language at each other, I recommend that the teacher gives out copies of that most calming, not to say soporific, textbook “Natural Grammar”.

Eubank, L. and Gregg, K. R. (2002) News Flash – Hume Still Dead. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 2, 237-248.

Hoey, M. /(2005) Lexical Priming. Routledge.

Wray, A. (2002) Formulaic Language and the Lexicon. CUP.

2 thoughts on “* Emergentism 2

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