February 2012
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Dilin Liu, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL, USA

Lexis and grammar play a key role in language and language learning. How to teach these important aspects of language effectively has long been a question of great importance to L2 researchers and teachers alike. In the past two decades, cognitive linguistics (CGL) and corpus linguistics (CPL), two contemporary linguistic theories/approaches,1 have brought us new perspectives about language and language learning/teaching (especially with respect to lexis and grammar), resulting in a renewed effort to find more effective language pedagogy. To understand their impact on language teaching, a brief overview of the two theories/approaches is in order.


CGL views language as a symbolic system of human conceptualization based largely on our embodied experience. As a symbolic system, language is composed of symbolic units, or constructions. A symbolic unit is a form-meaning pairing that can be as small as a morpheme and as large as a clause. This treatment of language not only does away with the rigid boundary between lexis and grammar but also connects form and meaning directly, making meaning the focus of language study. In this view, language knowledge is not innate but usage-based, arising from generalizations made from actual usages. These usages are generally motivated, not arbitrary, as has been portrayed by traditional linguistic theories.

Language is acquired from use by employing general cognitive learning mechanisms, as can be illustrated by the use of the di-transitive (NP+V+NP+NP) transfer of possession of an object construction. From the prototypical form of the construction He gave/sent her a book, we generate sentences such as They built her a new house. She knitted him a sweater. The meaning of transfer of possession comes from the construction as a whole, rather than from the meanings of the verbs in it alone, for neither build nor knit contains the meaning of transfer of possession. On the other hand, due to experience-based semantic constraints, English speakers will not generate utterances such as suggest someone an idea or open someone the door because when we suggest something, we intend it to be considered, not taken without consideration, and when we open a door for someone, we generally do not give it to the person.

On the surface, CPL differs significantly from CGL in that it focuses on the language that speakers/writers produce—things outside the mind―not on the workings of the language in the mind. Yet a closer examination shows the two theories/approaches have three important commonalities (Gries, 2008):

  1. Both are usage-based;
  2. Both reject the rigid separation of lexis and grammar; and
  3. Both focus on meaning (semantics/pragmatics).

These commonalities help form the theoretical foundations of the CGL/CP-based language teaching approach proposed here:

  1. Language acquisition is usage-based, using general cognitive learning mechanisms;
  2. Lexis and grammar are inseparable; language is composed of constructions; and
  3. Both adequate input and use of constructions in meaningful context are essential for successful language acquisition.

In CGL/CPL-based lexicogrammar learning, students conduct cognitive analysis of corpus search results (often in a concordance format) to discover both lexicogrammatical usage patterns and the motivations behind them. Cognitive analysis can significantly enhance lexicogrammar learning (Boers, 2000; Liu, 2010a) and overall language learning because it taps learners’ experience/cognitive skills and it explores the motivations of language usages. Corpora are an excellent source for providing L2 learners with language input to explore and learn the language (Aston, 2001; Liu & Jiang, 2009). The major advantages of using corpora are (a) authentic contextualized language input, (b) ample language data for discovering usage patterns, and (c) the discovery-learning opportunity it provides. The availability of free online corpora with powerful search engines (e.g., Mark Davies’ COCA, COHA, and BNC Web interface) has made corpus-based language teaching feasible and even easy.


Three examples are given here. The first deals with learning collocations. Collocations (especially V+N) have been considered mostly arbitrary and hence difficult, as can be seen from the fact that the most common verbs (e.g., do, have, make, and take) that help form a large number of the most frequently used V+N collocations are called delexicalized. Yet, a close CGL/CPL-based analysis of almost any such collocations, such as make a trip, take a trip, and have a trip, will show that these collocations are generally motivated (Liu, 2010a). Whereas make a trip typically means a business trip, take a trip usually refers to a leisure trip, and have a trip is used to express good wishes for someone’s trip (e.g., have a nice trip). These collocation meaning patterns are motivated by the core meanings of the verbs: making something is more purposeful and effortful than taking something. Students who do a similar scrutiny of the most common noun collocations of the aforementioned English verbs in corpus data will come to the same conclusion: make collocations (e.g., make a call/decision/plan) refer to more purposeful and effortful activities than do take collocations (e.g., take a break/call/rest). Similar CGL/CPL-based analysis activities can also be done to learn the motivations of adjective-noun collocations (Liu, 2010b).

Another example concerns the use of CGL/CPL analysis to help L2 learners grasp the connoted meanings of lexicogrammatical constructions. The verbs come and go can be used with adjective complements (e.g., come alive/go crazy), and keep andleave occur in the V+N+Adj resultative construction (e.g., keep someone happy/leave someone crippled). Yet which verb in each pair should we use in a given situational/semantic context? A close CGL/CPL analysis shows that while the former verb in each pair (come/keep)is typically used for expressing positive meanings, the latter (go/leave)is used mostly for negative senses. This usage difference is based on our experience: We generally want things that we like to come to us and we want to keep them; in contrast, we typically want things we dislike to go away and we leave undesirable/unpleasant things behind.

The third example relates to CGL/CPL analysis in teaching both the use and the constraints of schematic constructions. Let us look at the learning/teaching of the V+ N+Adj resultative construction (e.g., He made her happy). Students first query a corpus regarding the tokens of the construction; the results show the most frequent tokens. Then students go through the tokens to find the semantic and usage patterns of each. With the instructor’s guidance, the students should be able to discover that this resultative construction has several usage sub-patterns, including causing (He shot the suspect dead), maintaining (The blanket kept her warm), and proving (It proved him wrong). The analysis helps students gain a better understanding of the use of this construction. In the process, this activity also gives students high exposure to both the tokens and types of the construction, a condition necessary for successful construction learning.

It is important to note that in construction learning, L2 students often overgeneralize a construction by producing utterances usually not sanctioned by the construction, such as *scold him dead.Corpora may help learners overcome this problem. If students do a corpus search for these unlikely expressions, they will not find any. They can then explore why these expressions are not acceptable via cognitive analysis. In the case of scold someone dead, the students should find that scolding usually does not result in death. It is clear from these examples that “teaching a grammar is about teaching the rules through which a meaning governs form. Students need to understand the meaning and the constraints it imposes on the generalization of form” (Holme, 2009, p. 130, italics in original).


By involving students in discovering the usage patterns/constraints of linguistic items and the motivations behind them, CGL/CPL-based pedagogy may make learning lexicogrammar more engaging, meaningful, and effective. However, more empirical studies are needed to test the effectiveness of this approach. Also, students have different cognitive/learning styles. What works for some students may not work for others. Though still in the developing state with many challenging questions to be answered, CGL/CPL-based teaching practices appear to have great potential. They are promising and worthy pursuits in the search for more effective language teaching.


Aston, G. (Ed.). (2001). Learning with corpora. Houston, TX: Athelstan.

Boers, F. (2000). Metaphor awareness and vocabulary retention. Applied Linguistics, 21, 553-571.

Gries, S. (2008). Corpus-based methods in analyses of second language acquisition data. In P. Robinson & N. Ellis (Eds.), Handbook of cognitive linguistics and second language acquisition (pp. 406-432). New York, NY: Routledge.

Holme, R. (2009). Cognitive linguistics and language teaching. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Liu, D. (2010a). Going beyond patterns: Involving cognitive analysis in the learning of collocations. TESOL Quarterly, 44, 4-30.

Liu, D. (2010b). Is it a chief, main, major, primary, or principal concern: A corpus-based behavioral profile study of the near-synonyms. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 15, 56-87.

Liu, D., & Jiang, P. (2009). Using a corpus-based lexicogrammatical approach to grammar instruction in EFL and ESL contexts. Modern Language Journal, 93, 61-78.

Dilin Liu is professor and coordinator of applied linguistics in the English Department at the University of Alabama. His main research interests include corpus-based description and teaching of lexis and grammar or lexicogrammar.

[1]The terms theories and approaches are combined as one (with a slash) because there has been a disagreement regarding whether corpus linguistics is a theory or merely an approach.
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