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Review of  Information Highlighting in Advanced Learner English

Reviewer: Christopher Blake Shedd
Book Title: Information Highlighting in Advanced Learner English
Book Author: Marcus Callies
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 21.4063

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AUTHOR: Marcus Callies
TITLE: Information Highlighting in Advanced Learner English
SUBTITLE: The syntax-pragmatics interface in second language acquisition
SERIES TITLE: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 186
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2009

C. Blake Shedd, Intensive English Program, Department of Modern Languages,
University of Mississippi


This monograph is a publication of the author's revised doctoral dissertation at
Phillips-University Marburg and is intended for individuals interested in a
thorough introduction to original research on aspects of the interlanguage of
German second language learners of English. Making use of English language
corpora and including an experimental study of learner and native speaker (NS)
writing, this book offers readers a theoretical approach and a practical
consideration of research on German students' mastery of English syntax,
particularly clefting and inversion. First, the author introduces how English
handles information highlighting with syntactic structures. Then, he compares
and contrasts how German and English use focusing devices. Next, a discussion of
second language acquisition (SLA) pragmatics is presented using the framework of
information structure and focusing devices. The author presents his research
methodology for two studies (one experimental, the other a learner-corpus study)
in which he examines how German learners produce information highlighting
syntactic structures in comparison to native speakers (NS). Finally, the author
presents his findings, offers insight on how to refine his methodology, and
suggests how this research affects SLA teaching methodology and practice.

Chapter 1, ''Introduction,'' offers a brief survey of information structure (IS)
theory and an analysis of how English uses syntactic means to highlight
information. Callies gives examples of the six types of syntactic devices that
he studies through both written surveys and electronic corpora of native and
non-native speakers (NNS) of English. Finally, the author outlines the research
questions of the present study, which focus specifically on which highlighting
means German learners of English use in order to place focus on sentence

Callies lays the foundation of the possible lexical and syntactic means of
information highlighting available in English in Chapter 2, ''Information
highlighting in English.'' The author presents a thorough discussion of current
scholarship on information structure and establishes his intention to follow a
pragmatic approach grounded in information structure theory to examine the
results of this study. Presenting the concept of syntactic weight and how it
relates to information highlighting, Callies presents an exhaustive review of
current research while also presenting basic explications of terminology like
topic, focus, emphasis, intensification, contrast, etc. Finally, he presents
numerous examples of each of these terms with an explanation of their form and
function as used in highlighting sentence elements through syntactic and
lexico-grammatical means.

In Chapter 3, ''Information structure and information highlighting in English and
German: A comparative perspective,'' the author contrasts how German and English
express focus as a part of the languages' information structures. Beginning with
a comparison of language typology with respect to languages that have a
grammatical word order and a pragmatic word order, Callies analyzes how English
and German differ in relation to their treatment of topics and subjects.
Following this analysis is a systematic examination of each of these information
highlighting techniques: topicalization, preposing, inversion, clefts (which are
divided further based on what lexical item or syntactic construction
characterizes the cleft), and lexico-grammatical elements. The author concludes
that German and English, while sometimes overlapping in how information can be
highlighted, differ greatly in the distribution of the individual highlighting

After the theoretical consideration of IS highlighting means in the previous
chapter, Callies discusses in Chapter 4, ''Pragmatics and information
highlighting in SLA research,'' how a learner's pragmatic competence affects
syntactic information highlighting. Focusing mainly on pragmatic competence, the
author presents the numerous theories of competencies of second language
learners; here he also discusses two theories on the sequential order of
acquisition of grammar and pragmatics. Focusing on topic and subject prominence
as well as pragmatic and grammatical word order, Callies presents research
studies of English language learners from differing linguistic backgrounds in
order to analyze the transfer of a learner's L1 (native language) pragmatic
knowledge of syntactic information highlighting to the L2 (second language). The
author concludes that how a learner's L1 deals with prominence and word order
will affect the learner's ability to recognize and produce correct information
highlighting structures in the L2. Callies then considers corpora-based research
that reveals that English NS and NNS exhibit a demonstrably different frequency
and quantity of lexical intensifiers and focus particles, pragmatic markers, and
focus constructions. He concludes the chapter by looking at how language
universals and language typology theory can be relevant for SLA theory,
specifically when considered from a Universal Grammar or functional-typology
perspective. Lastly, he poses the research questions he will consider in this study.

In Chapter 5, ''Research Design,'' the author details how he undertakes the
current study and how data is collected and analyzed. This study utilizes both
elicited data from English NS and NNS through a written questionnaire (followed
up by oral interviews) and also written corpus data from NS and NNS. The focus
of this study is to determine whether pragmatic use of information highlighting
structures differs between English NS and advanced German learners of English.
Callies discusses the theoretical and practical concerns of determining learner
fluency and lists the criteria used in this study to determine whether students
were advanced (among which two were deemed crucial: how long subjects had
formally studied English and how much they had been exposed to English). The
questionnaire seeks to elicit marked syntactic structures that express focus or
emphasis on certain sentence constituents. A detailed explanation of the
questionnaire is provided in the chapter (readers are directed to complete
reproductions of the questionnaire provided in the appendix). The following
focusing devices are exemplified from the data: no marked syntactic structure,
clefts (sub-divided into six categories), inversion, preposing, topicalization,
(non-)extraposition, and existential constructions.

The author presents in Chapter 6, ''Experimental Study,'' the findings of the
written questionnaire. Extensive statistics are provided along with numerous
graphs that depict a comparison of how English NS and German NNS vary in their
use of the focusing devices studied in the experiment. The author offers
explanations for why certain constructions are used by the NS and NNS. Actual
data is also presented from the written questionnaires. Lastly, transcriptions
of retrospective interviews with subjects are provided in order to relate the
subjects' self-assessment of production and knowledge of pragmatic information
highlighting structures and lexemes. Chapter 7, ''Learner-corpus study,'' offers
an extensive breakdown of learner and native speaker production of syntactic and
lexico-grammatical highlighting means in corpora of NS and NNS written
compositions. Accompanying examples from the corpora, numerous tables quantify
production of different highlighting means by NS and learners. The author offers
a summary of how highlighting elements are used pragmatically and how usage
differs by NS and NNS.

In light of the data collected, the author returns to his research questions in
Chapter 8, ''Discussion and conclusion,'' and discusses the significance of the
findings in regards to commonly held beliefs that crosslinguistic transfer is
the basis for errors in L2 production of pragmatic highlighting elements. He
concludes that language typology offers a better explanation for how learners
highlight sentence constituents, mainly as a response to the parameter of
subject-prominence. Lastly, Callies briefly mentions limitations of the study
and implications of the research findings for second language teaching.


Marcus Callies provides SLA researchers with a well-implemented study of the
ability of German learners of English to produce pragmatically marked instances
of focus and emphasis along with a comparison of how native English speakers
express emphasis and focus through lexico-grammatical and syntactic means. Given
the lack of research in the area of advanced learners, this study is a superb
example of how advanced learner language can be analyzed not only through an
experimental study but also in conjunction with written English corpora.

This book will be of great interest to syntax specialists and applied linguists,
but I think it might be too technical for the average ESL teacher, who will,
however, benefit from an abundance of examples that aid the non-specialist in
understanding the highly detailed explanations of syntactic variation to express
focus and emphasis. The author's conclusions hold import for the ESL teacher in
that they point to another reason for learner errors -- language typology -- and
not to transfer of L1 pragmatic knowledge; more information on how to measure
the influence of language typology on second language learners would be of great
help to teachers as they attempt to refine teaching methods that reflect this

Blake Shedd is a full-time instructor in the Intensive English Program in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Mississippi. In 2008 he received a Master of Arts in German from the University of Mississippi, where he is currently working part-time on a Master of Arts in Modern Languages with an specialization in Teaching English as a Second Language. His research interests include English and German language teaching, historical linguistics, the history of the English language, and Old English.