March 2016
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TEACHING LANGUAGE WITH RESEARCH-BASED CONSTRUCTIONS
Eli Hinkel, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, Washington, USA

Since at least the 1970s, a number of innovative approaches to teaching English grammar have been developed and implemented. One of these is construction grammar, which focuses on the form-and-meaning connections in the structure of English. Construction grammar is usually associated with various linguistic theories and cognitive linguistics, and it presents a language model that is based on actual and real-life usage. This analytical perspective emerged primarily due to the inability of classical theories to account for linguistic formulas, idioms, and collocations (sequences of two or more words that are often used together in speech or writing), for example, do nothing, do business, get a haircut, have a drink, have a problem, have/take a vacation, see/call/get a doctor. Many studies of language and corpus analyses have demonstrated clearly that collocations and formulaic constructions dominate in language production and use. This article takes a brief look at the basic premises of construction grammar and its contribution to language teaching, and more specifically to second language (L2) production skills, that is, speaking and writing.

In language investigations, the term "construction" typically refers to a linguistic form with a particular grammatical function. Constructions can be as short as a phrase or as long as a sentence (Hilpert, 2014). Theoretical models describe grammar as an ordered arrangement of incremental linguistic elements, from which phrases or sentences are assembled. However, most current theoretical and pedagogical grammars have trouble explaining constructions that cannot be created (or generated) systematically in the process of language production (e.g., to give a hand, heavy fog/snow/rain, to do the heavy lifting, strong wind/feeling/argument, to keep one's job, to keep at it, to take a chance). To make a long story short (this is also a collocation), collocations and formulaic expressions are segments of language in which the meaning of the whole is not a sum of the meanings of their component parts (Wray, 2002).

For many L2 users, one of the major problems—even at advanced levels of proficiency—is that they have limited access to formulaic language. Because collocations and prefabricated expressions cannot be pieced together from their component parts, unidiomatic constructions can and often do simply sound "wrong" (Wilkins, 1972), even when they are often entirely comprehensible (e.g., *to agree to/on the argument, *to differ the points, *to concentrate the essay).

Numerous studies of learner language have shown that formulaic sequences and prefabricated expressions are almost always underused, overused, or misused in L2 production (Hinkel, 2015). In addition, research has also demonstrated that, for most learners, mastering and using L2 formulaic sequences tends to lag far behind the development of other production skills. A few explanations of this phenomenon have been proposed, and two seem to be cited more frequently than the rest (Schmitt & Carter, 2004):

  1. Collocations and formulaic expressions may not be effectively addressed in teaching, and in some cases, hardly at all.
  1. Such constructions are often left out of spoken or written language addressed to learners, and thus their exposure to collocations can be noticeably reduced.

The central aspect of construction grammar is that a great deal of language usage consists of prefabricated and collocational constructions. In this light, constructions represent meaningful units of language that characterize spoken and written discourse. A construction is a unit that connects grammatical structures and their meanings. Proficient users of the language by definition have the knowledge of grammar that allows them to link specific structures to express certain meanings. For instance, How are you today? or How's everything going? are not actual questions, despite their interrogative form, but rather they have the interactional function of casual greetings.

Based on a large body of research, it has been established that language-in-use consists primarily of recurrent collocations and formulaic expressions that are accessed and employed as if they were single words, rather than structures assembled according to the rules of grammar. According to analyses of written and spoken corpora, collocations and prefabricated phrases can number in hundreds of thousands. It goes without saying that language instruction, however detailed, cannot cover the entire range of these expressions. However, many can be useful for learners and particularly so in the context of productive skills.

Given that language teaching almost always takes place under great time and curricular constraints, it seems essential to maximize language gains, develop fluency, and make learning as efficient as possible. A range of research-based and time-tested techniques for using constructions and formulaic expressions can prove to be highly fruitful and practical in both language teaching and learning.

A few examples of constructions that can be taught at practically any level of proficiency are presented below. It is important to note, however, that there are probably dozens of these that can be taught, learned, and produced in real-life language uses.

  • A few constructions for formal situations and academic speaking (professional conversations, presentations, meetings, and interviews):

Giving an Example

Let me give an example (of)…
To illustrate this point, let us consider…
I'd like to mention/bring your attention to xxx, as an example
A case in point is…
By way of illustration…/To illustrate, simply (take a) look at…
An example includes/A few examples include

    • A few constructions for formal or academic writing (course assignments and papers, professional emails, job applications, documents, and reports):

    Thesis/Topic Statements

    The purpose of this essay/paper/analysis/overview is to xxx
                 e.g., take a look at/examine/discuss yyy.
    The main emphasis/focus/goal/purpose of the/this essay/paper/project is to xxx
                 e.g., is to analyze/provide an overview/discussion of xxx
    This paper describes and analyzes…xxx.
    This paper discusses/examines/investigates xxx.
    This paper claims/shows that xxx is/is not yyy.

    References

    Hilpert, M. (2014). Construction grammar and its application to English. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.

    Hinkel, E. (2015). Effective curriculum for teaching L2 writing: Principles and techniques. New York, NY: Routledge.

    Schmitt, N., & Carter, R. (2004). Formulaic sequences in action: An introduction. In N. Schmitt (Ed.), Formulaic sequences (pp. 1–22). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Wilkins, D. (1972). Linguistics in language teaching. London, England: Edward Arnold.

    Wray, A. (2002). Formulaic language and the lexicon. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


    Eli Hinkel has taught ESL and applied linguistics, as well as trained teachers, for almost thirty five years and has published numerous books and articles on learning second culture, and second language grammar, writing, and pragmatics in such journals as TESOL Quarterly, Applied Linguistics, Journal of Pragmatics, and Applied Language Learning. She is also the editor of the Routledge ESL & Applied Linguistics Professional Series of books and textbooks for teachers and graduate students.In her spare time, she walks on water and occasionally on a tight rope between two skyscrapers.

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