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Review of  Formulaic Sequences

Reviewer: Cornelia I. Tschichold
Book Title: Formulaic Sequences
Book Author: Norbert Schmitt
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 15.2427

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Date: Mon, 30 Aug 2004 11:26:53 +0200
From: TSCHICHOLD Cornelia
Subject: Formulaic Sequences

EDITOR: Schmitt, Norbert
TITLE: Formulaic Sequences
SUBTITLE: Acquisition, processing and use
SERIES: Language Learning & Language Teaching 9
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2004

Cornelia Tschichold, Department of English, Université de
Neuchâtel, Switzerland

''Formulaic Sequences'' is an edited volume of twelve papers,
with a focus on the acquisition of multi-word lexemes by
non-native, adult learners. All the contributions to the
volume broadly assume Sinclair's (1991) notion of language
as functioning under a combination of the open-choice
principle and the idiom principle, and most of them also
draw on Wray (2002) for the consequences of this assumption
for learners of a foreign language. The term ''formulaic
sequence'' is adopted by most of the authors as a term that
covers other more specific terms (such as ''phrasal lexeme'',
''lexical chunk'', ''collocation'', ''prefabricated language'',
etc.) and is much more wide-ranging than the traditional
phraseological units, i.e. phrasal verbs, idioms and

In the introduction, Norbert Schmitt and Ronald Carter give
some background to the volume, outline the main problems in
relation to formulaic sequences (definition, formal
adaptability, psycholinguistic reality, functions in the
discourse, learning burden) and provide an overview of the
chapters. They also point out the numerous questions still
totally open to research.

In a paper on measurement methodology, John Read and Paul
Nation describe the various difficulties linguists and
lexicographers face when trying to decide what to include
in their inventory of formulaic sequences. To ensure
reliability in the process of deciding what is to be
included in the phraseological lexicon, several trained
raters need to arrive at the same conclusion for specific
word groups. One of the main problems here is the amount of
variation phraseological lexemes are subject to and the
challenge this poses for both purely computational, corpus-
based approaches and the definition of what to include
within one's phraseological lexicon. (Wray's (2002)
definition of formulaic sequence does not include sequences
that have undergone transformations or substitutions of
individual words.)

Koenraad Kuiper, in a chapter on conventionalized varieties
of speech, investigates the language used in professional
fields where highly conventionalized phrases are an
integral part of the speech people produce. He compares the
language learnt and used by auctioneers and (certain)
sports reporters to the linguistic apprenticeship that
traditional story tellers and oral poets need to go
through. Talking constitutes a significant part of their
work and in order to produce fluent speech, a number of
highly formulaic sequences and other conventions are used.
These and examples from other professions (supermarket
checkout operators, weather forecasters, script writers)
show that newcomers must be initiated into the formulaic
tradition, before they can use it and introduce their own
variations. Kuiper also argues that many groups and
subgroups of human societies have their own smaller or
larger oral tradition. By looking at these rather extreme
cases of formulaic sequences in use, it is hoped that some
light can be shed on the more everyday varieties of
conventionalized language.

The next paper, by Norbert Schmitt, Zoltán Dörnyei, Svenja
Adolphs, and Valerie Durow, is the first in a series of
studies from the University of Nottingham. The authors
report on the acquisition of a set of formulaic sequences
by international students learning English as a foreign
language and preparing for their studies at a British
university. The subjects in the study made progress during
the period tested, but the results did not correlate with
standard measurements of motivation.

This somewhat surprising result gave rise to the next
study, described here by Zoltán Dörnyei, Valerie Durow, and
Khawla Zahran. In a qualitative study, seven of the
international students whose progress was followed in the
initial study were interviewed in order to find out more
about their motivation and degree of acculturation. Given
that language aptitude on its own could not explain the
degree of progress the learners made, the authors conclude
that sociocultural adaptation and contact with the local
native speakers were central to the learners' success, and
only very high degrees of both motivation and language
aptitude can make up for lack of acculturation.

Going a step further, Svenja Adolphs and Valerie Durow then
look in more detail at the progress in the use of formulaic
sequences by two students with a widely diverging degree of
sociocultural integration. They quantitatively investigate
the students' use of three-word sequences over a period of
seven months. Their results show that the student who
integrated well into the host society made much better
progress in her use of the most frequent type of formulaic
sequences than the other student, who had relatively little
social contact with native speakers.

Following this group of studies on acquisition, Norbert
Schmitt, Sarah Grandage, and Svenja Adolphs introduce the
next group of Nottingham studies, directed at the
processing of formulaic sequences. The authors report on a
study that aimed to test the psycholinguistic validity of
frequent word strings (derived from a corpus) for both
native and non-native speakers. They selected 25 so-called
recurrent clusters, based on several published sources of
frequent clusters and inserted these into a story that was
then used in a dictation task. The results from the native
speaker group suggest that the clusters differ in their
psycholinguistic coherence, possibly due to differing
degrees of transparency. As could be expected, the non-
native speakers scored lower on the dictation task,
producing fewer wholly correct clusters, and more variation
or hesitation, a result which can be interpreted as
pointing to a non-holistic storage of the strings.

Geoffrey Underwood, Norbert Schmitt and Adam Galphin then
used the method of tracking eye movements during a reading
task as the basis for their study. Their assumption was
that the last word of a formulaic sequence would get less
eye fixation time than the same word outside a formulaic
sequence. The authors show that the last word in a
formulaic sequence does indeed get less fixation time, thus
confirming the hypothesis that the last word was expected
by the reader. But the hypothesis was borne out only for
the case of the native speaker readers. The results from
the experiments with the non-native speakers were less
conclusive and difficult to compare to the results of
native speakers. Non-native readers obviously have
considerably more fixations on the text as a whole, but the
last words of formulaic sequences received fewer, not
shorter fixations. Theories on reading and eye-movement do
not seem to offer an explanation of this phenomenon.

In the follow-up experiment, Norbert Schmitt and Geoffrey
Underwood used self-paced reading (by clicking a key to see
the next word on the screen) to find out whether formulaic
sequences were processed faster than non-formulaic
sequences. While the native speakers read faster than the
non-natives, the terminal words in the lexical chunks did
not show a difference. Given these inconclusive results,
the authors point out that it is doubtful whether the
methodology is a useful approach to their research

In the next contribution, Carol Spöttl and Michael McCarthy
compared subjects' knowledge of formulaic sequences across
several languages. They report on the results of think-
aloud protocols by multilingual participants who were asked
to translate formulaic sequences from English into their L1
(German) and then into their L3 (and L4). The authors show
that only some well-known and frequent expressions were
translated holistically and without hesitation. Most
expressions gave rise to some analysis and evaluation on
the part of the participants.

Typographic salience provides the background for Hugh
Bishop's study on look-up behaviour and comprehension of
formulaic sequences by language learners. While studies on
single word salience and ensuing look-up behaviour do not
show a clear advantage for marked texts, the author set up
an experiment for formulaic sequences based on the
assumption that learners do not necessarily recognize such
unknown lexemes in a running text and therefore miss out on
the noticing stage generally assumed to be essential to
learning. Results show that there is indeed a clear
difference in students' look-up behaviour if formulaic
sequences are made salient. One reason for this is probably
the fact that single words within a printed texts are set
off by blanks, but multi-word units do not have this
identifying feature and thus go unnoticed much more easily.
Typographic salience could thus make a much more marked
difference for multi-word units than for single words.

Alison Wray's contribution is based on data from a
beginning Welsh learner, who spent a few intensive days
memorizing Welsh in order to appear on television. In the
programme, ''Welsh in a Week'', individual learners are
taught enough Welsh phrases to get them through a specific
situation. The phrases were taught (and learnt presumably)
as holistic units, and at the end of the week, the learner
succeeded in giving her cookery demonstration in largely
correct, fluent Welsh. Five months later, she still
remembered most of her text, but despite the strongly
holistic teaching approach, she introduced a small number
of errors, a phenomenon which must be due to linguistic
analysis. This suggests that learners, adults at least, do
analyse chunks of language, even if it would serve their
immediate goals better to just learn the text by heart.

In the last chapter of the volume, Martha Jones and Sandra
Haywood report on a study which tried to raise their
students' awareness of formulaic sequences in academic
texts. After evaluating some widely used textbooks for
English for Academic Purposes (EAP), the authors chose a
corpus of lexical chunks typical for this genre and worked
on this set with their students, learners of English in a
presessional course at Nottingham. While they clearly
reached their goal of raising students' awareness,
students' use of formulaic sequences in the posttest hardly

The volume as a whole is a very accessible collection of
papers that show a good range of empirical studies on the
acquisition and processing of formulaic sequences. In
contrast to many other books on multi-word lexemes, this
volume does not concentrate on the selection of the
appropriate set of multi-word items, but focuses on second-
language learners and the possible processes that
facilitate the learning of formulaic sequences. While this
is certainly one of the strengths of this volume, this
focus might also have led to a less detailed consideration
of the lexemes used in the various studies. Multi-word
lexemes obviously come in many different types and sizes,
with widely varying syntactic structures and vast
differences in semantic opaqueness. Some contributions are
clearly inspired by research on vocabulary and tend not to
focus on the considerable differences between single words
and multi-word units. Schmitt and Underwood's self-paced
reading study, for example, does not seem to take into
account the syntactic structure of the formulaic sequences
used in the task, a factor that could certainly be expected
to have an impact on the speed of reading. Other factors,
such as the fact that translating is a rather specialized
skill and does not come to even very fluent bilinguals in a
natural way, could help to explain some of the results in
the Spöttle and McCarthy study. Being forced to activate
several languages in one's brain might impede easy access
to long phrases. Given Sinclair's idiom principle and open-
choice principle, language users typically have both routes
open to them and choose the idiom principle for speed and
ease of processing. For adult second-language learners, the
situation could well be different. Analysing strings of
language rather than learning them by heart might
facilitate long-term retention or provide an alternate
route to a formulaic sequence if holistic memory fails.

A number of the studies in the volume give rather
inconclusive results, an aspect which could be somewhat
frustrating to the authors, but also tends to highlight the
fact that we still have much to find out about formulaic
sequences. We probably need an even more strongly
interdisciplinary approach to such lexemes in order to
reach more solid findings. But ending up with more
questions after reading a book than one started out with is
not necessarily a bad thing after all and should be seen as
doing credit to this book.

Sinclair, J. (1991). Corpus, Concordance, Collocation.
Oxford: OUP.

Wray, A. (2002). Formulaic language and the lexicon.
Cambridge: CUP.
Cornelia Tschichold teaches English linguistics at the
University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Her research
interests focus on English phraseology, computational
lexicography and intelligent computer-assisted language