LINGUIST List 11.2092

Sat Sep 30 2000

Disc: Review Green

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. j.mukherjee, Disc: Review Green

Message 1: Disc: Review Green

Date: Sat, 30 Sep 2000 17:49:46 +0200
From: j.mukherjee <>
Subject: Disc: Review Green

Dear colleagues,

apparently I must have stirred a viper's nest. On the one hand, I find the
tone of some parts of the criticism a bit annoying, to say the least. On the
other hand, I must admit that not all of my remarks were sufficiently
explicit and to the point. Anyway, to make up for this shortcoming, and to
hopefully tone down the discussion, I will try to concentrate on those
arguments which I consider most important (and deliberately refrain from
dissecting specific passages of previous contributions to the current

To begin with, the concept of native competence seems to play a central
role. In other words: is the difference between a native speaker of English
and someone who has learned English as a foreign language a fundamental one?
This automatically raises the question if a L2 learner of English can ever
achieve nativelike competence. From the Chomskyan point of view (and/or on
the basis of regarding L1, but not L2, as a matter of "prewired
imprinting"), the answer to the first question would be yes and to the
second one no. In fact, it is the native speaker's (and linguist's)
intuition that is considered as the only explicandum of linguistics proper.
The "generative grammar" that a native speaker has at his/her disposal is
supposed to allow for the creative use of syntactic rules leading to an
indefinitely large set of possible sentences.

However, Pawley/Syder (1983: 193) address the problem "that native speakers
do not exercise the creative potential of syntactic rules to anything like
their full extent, and that, indeed, if they did so they would not be
accepted as exhibiting nativelike control of the language". At a time, when
corpus linguistics was still in its infancy, they develop the hypothesis
"that by far the largest part of the English speaker's lexicon consists of
complex lexical items including several hundred thousand lexicalized
sentence stems." Meanwhile, empirical studies of large corpora begin to
reveal that this hypothesis accounts for a large part of language use. This
is also the reason why, for instance, corpus-based methodology is
successfully drawn on by forensic linguists who are consulted by courts (cf.
e.g. Stubbs 1996, Blackwell 2000). Nowadays, what Pawley/Syder described as
lexicalized sentence stems, is usually referred to in terms of e.g.
collocation (cf. Sinclair 1991: 170), colligation (cf. Sinclair 1996: 85),
semantic prosodies (cf. Louw 1993: 158) or lexico-grammatical patterns (cf.
Hunston/Francis 2000). Without going too much into detail, it may be stated
that the rapid development of corpus linguistics and the versatility of
corpus-based findings in the 1990s have emphasized the correctness of
Sinclair's (1991: 4) statement that the "regularities of pattern are
sometimes spectacular". Furthermore, these lexical, semantic and/or
grammatical patterns elude a merely intuition-based observation.

One theoretical implication, among others, is that the L1 speaker of English
has a nativelike competence not because he/she uses whatever is possible,
but rather because he/she uses what is probable, i.e. what is frequent.
Frequent vocabulary, grammatical constructions etc., then, can also be
learned by learners of English as a foreign language. We do not know today
whether the neural correlates of language differ between the native language
use and the foreign language use or not. Also, neurobiological studies
provide contradictory data with regard to another Chomskyan assumption,
namely the autonomy of syntax (cf. e.g. Frazier/Fodor 1978 and Tannenhaus et
al. 1995). I am not saying that it is for this lack of natural scientific
evidence that Chomsky's approach is problematical in my opinion. What
challenges the generative approach is corpus linguistic evidence of
patterned routine (in the widest sense) which turns out to be all-pervading
in native language use. It does not come as too much a surprise that such
empirical evidence is rejected by generativists. Perhaps it is this problem
which lies at the heart of the current discussion. Interestingly enough,
some twenty years ago Gross (1979: 861, 871) has already described this
problem about generativism "which is explicitly motivated by a desire to
treat linguistics as an abstract level of argumentation [...]. The
generative approach [...] has arrived at a state in which linguistic
research based on systematic empirical work has been dismissed as
irrelevant." I am not saying that linguistic theories are useless, but one
cannot make light of the attempt to find evidence. Corpus data may provide
such objective and verifiable evidence. From this it follows, in general,
that merely intuition-based, creative, potentially infinite language use of
the native speaker is, at best, only part of the story.

By the way, I happen to live in a small town in Holland, just 100 meters
away from the German border. I know some Dutch people in the neighbourhood
whose knowledge of German is, so far as I can judge, nativelike. This holds
for lexico-grammar, stylistic appropriateness, pronunciation and even
intonation. All of them learned German as a foreign language at school, but
have been working in Germany for several years and, most importantly, have
held job positions in which fluent communication in German is a must. It all
boils down to the general assumption that also foreign language learners are
able to achieve nativelike competence, provided that the over-all setting in
which language learning takes place is adequate. I know, that it is a goal
almost impossible to achieve for the average German learner of English (1)
who has three to five English lessons per week, (2) whose only linguistic
model is a (mostly) non-native speaker, (3) who is not forced to use
language as a means of communication outside the classroom etc. However,
these are all external factors, and I guess that the internal, mental
procedure of learning a language, be it L1 or FL, is not fundamentally
different. The practical conclusion I draw from the multitude of
restrictions in the foreign language classroom is that time is far too
precious and should, therefore, not be wasted on non-communicative
activities. I have already pointed out the fact that, according to corpus
evidence, authentic language is used to a large extent in and around
patterns. I take for granted here that foreign language learning should, as
far as possible, mirror actual language use. On this basis, it is
worth-assuming that it is not the autonomous knowledge of grammatical rules
which provides a set of rules for infinite language use, but that grammar is
a generalization of language use: if the quantity (and quality) of exposure
to authentic language use increases, the grammatical correctness (and
stylistic appropriateness) of such generalizations increases, too.

By the way, this view of grammar (and, accordingly, the inductive teaching
of grammar) is not dreamed up all by myself and has also entered the English
curriculum in Germany: "Grammatische Ph�nomene d�rfen also, wie die �brigen
sprachlichen Mittel, nicht isoliert nur als rein sprachliche Regeln gelernt
werden, sondern es mu� immer ihre Einbettung in den Gesamtproze�
sprachlichen Handelns ber�cksichtigt werden" (KM 1993: 60). Also the
curriculum for classes 11-13 (MSWWF 1999: 21) describes "language learning
as language use [...] im aktiven Gebrauch des Englischen". I cannot help
introducing the term after avoiding it so far: that is exactly what I (and
probably many others) call "communicative approach". As a matter of fact,
grammar exercises such as pattern drills and other "traditional" methods are
necessary, but they do not provide the methodological framework, but
crutches which teachers and students alike should do without as soon as
possible. Still, even such exercises should always be of minimal
communicative value. Learning something "by rote" is useless in my view
(and, by the way, not in line with the curriculum) if this term is to refer
to the process in which "you learn it by repeating it without thinking or
trying to understand" (COBUILD 1995: 1447).

The last point I would like to make concerning the "myth of the native
speaker" is the focus on the syntactically well-formed sentence and the
resulting lack of differentiation between spoken and written language
acquisition/learning in Chomskyan linguistics. Miller/Weinert (1998: 403)
provide an excellent discussion and suggest, again on the basis of corpus
analyses, that children do not "acquire" language in its entirety, but
only - and necessarily - spoken spontaneous language which differs
considerably from written language: "What is under attack is the nature of
competence. The Chomskyan notion is based on written language, whereas what
children learn in the first five years is informal spoken language, with
different and simpler syntax, simpler morphology, and simpler vocabulary."
They take up Perera's (1984) overview who, for example, points out that 30%
of a sample of 19 year old (!) native speakers misunderstood the meaning of
the free relative clause in sentences such as "Ask Helen which book to
read". I would conclude that the notion of native speaker as such is rather
a fuzzy concept, that native competence is a gradient and differs from
individual to individual (a trivial statement, I admit). For example,
Hoffmann/Lehmann (2000) find out that individual non-native speakers may
have a better command of English collocations than some native speakers. I
think, it makes sense to consider the difference between native and
non-native competence also as a matter of gradience - with its implications
for foreign language teaching.

Hopefully, these remarks will somewhat de-emotionalize the discussion (and
will cause no further "trepidation").

Joybrato Mukherjee
Department of English, University of Bonn


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