LINGUIST List 23.4180

Mon Oct 08 2012

Review: Cognitive Science; Language Acquisition: Tyler (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>



Date: 08-Oct-2012
From: Eve Higby <evehigbyyahoo.com>
Subject: Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Learning
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Careful reviewer; did revisions quickly and efficiently.

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-1950.html

AUTHOR: Andrea TylerTITLE: Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language LearningSUBTITLE: Theoretical Basics and Experimental EvidencePUBLISHER: RoutledgeYEAR: 2012

Eve Higby, Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences, The Graduate Centerof the City University of New York

INTRODUCTIONAndrea Tyler's book, "Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Learning" offersreaders, and especially teachers, an exciting new way of viewing language andlanguage learning. This is one of the first texts to apply concepts fromCognitive Linguistics (CL) to second language learning and it does so byoffering a detailed description of certain relevant concepts in CL, followed byan analysis of three aspects of the English language that are notoriouslydifficult to teach (and learn): modal verbs, prepositions, and dativealternations. The information is backed up by experimental results showing thepositive effects of CL-based instruction.

SUMMARYThe book consists of two main parts: an introduction to concepts in CognitiveLinguistics and an in-depth analysis of certain aspects of English syntax from aCL perspective. Chapters 1-2 comprise the first section and chapters 3-6 make upthe second section.

The introduction, Chapter 1, gives a broad overview of several CognitiveLinguistics concepts and contrasts them with ideas that are prevalent in thefield of foreign language education (e.g., presenting grammatical constructs asmeaningful linguistic units rather than the traditional view that meaning ismapped onto grammar through lexical items). The contrast is helpful as most ofthe CL concepts will be quite novel to traditionally trained ESL teachers.However, the result of this flurry of new concepts is a bit of confusion at theend of this chapter as many of the terms have yet to be defined.

Chapter 2 is an excellent introduction to several ideas in CL regarding howlanguage is conceptualized. These topics are neatly organized into sub-sectionsand include: a usage-based approach to language, situated communication andconstrual, frequency, embodiment, Conceptual Metaphor Theory, mental imagery andspatial scenes, categorization, prototypes and centrality effects, polysemy, andschemas. Each topic is described in enough detail for readers to understand theconcept without being overloaded.

In the next chapter, the author builds upon the concepts in Chapter 2 bydemonstrating how they can be applied to second language learning and presentingexperimental research, mostly through effects of instruction studies in L2classrooms. The chapter summarizes the results of some studies, while presentingothers in more depth. First, the concept of construal is demonstrated in lightof the English article system, countability of nouns, and perfective vs.imperfective aspect. Second, conceptual metaphors are used to explain idioms,cross-linguistic differences between English and Spanish for verb states, andSpanish diminutive suffixes. Next, the concept of categorization is used toexplain extended meanings of words, overlapping semantic networks of words, andthe German dative case. Embodiment is introduced as a means for teaching phrasalverbs, using visual representations, and English manner of motion verbs.Finally, a usage-based approach to language is shown to underlie aspects oflanguage such as frequency effects, verb/construction distributions, collexemes,and the multiple uses of 'like.' The chapter ends with a look at examples ofcross-linguistic influence in second language acquisition.

The fourth chapter is dedicated to the analysis of the English modal verbssystem. Traditionally, modals are taught in groups of functional categories,which, while seemingly systematic, leaves the language learner with a lot ofunanswered questions, such as why certain modals (e.g., 'could,' 'must') can befound in multiple functional categories, and why modals that are treated assynonyms cannot always be used in the same ways (e.g., 'should,' 'must').Therefore, the author suggests teaching modals using a different approach.First, she advocates the use of pictorial representations of the meanings of themodals, of which she provides examples. Second, rather than grouping multiplemodals by function, she suggests grouping modals by form (e.g., the word 'must')and explaining the relationship between the multiple functions of that form (asocial function and a logical function). Additionally, she demonstrates that therelationship between modals that have historically been used as present and pasttenses of each other (e.g., 'can/could,' 'will/would,' 'shall/should') can beshown as stronger/weaker versions of the same semantic concept. Threeexperimental investigations are reviewed, two of L2 English students of law andthe other of a group of general advanced L2 learners at an American university,all of which showed gains by the students in the correct use of modals after aCL-based instruction of selected modals.

Chapter 5 deals with English prepositions. These are notoriously difficult forstudents to learn and for teachers to teach in a systematic way. In fact, Tylerprovides a more complete description of prepositions than any I have seen. Hermodel is based on the concept of polysemy networks for words. She states thatall prepositions have a core meaning, which is physical, and that all other usesof that preposition stem from the core meaning in systematic ways. Threeprepositions are described in detail: 'for,' 'to,' and 'at,' and drawings oftheir polysemy networks are included as illustrations.

The last chapter discusses the dative alternation pattern. The dativealternation consists of ditransitive verbs that are allowed in two differentpatterns: the double-object construction and the prepositional dativeconstruction. For example, the verb 'give' can be used in either 'I gave Mariathe book' or 'I gave the book to Maria.' In this chapter, Tyler attempts toaddress a frustratingly difficult question: Why are certain verbs only allowedin one of the dative constructions (e.g., 'build' is only allowed indouble-object constructions, while 'contribute' is only allowed in prepositionaldative construction), whereas other verbs (e.g., 'give' and 'sing') can go ineither construction? Tyler uses CL analyses of these constructions to explainwhat aspect of these verbs causes them to be restricted to certainconstructions. This analysis is also contrasted with Pinker's (1989) treatmentof this subject matter. Despite the large number of examples given, theinformation presented in this chapter was not as clear as the others, making thekey distinctions that she makes difficult to grasp.

EVALUATIONThis book aims to introduce a new approach to grammar for English as a ForeignLanguage/English as a Second Language (EFL/ESL) teachers, based on CognitiveLinguistics, which is a more complete and accurate description than what isstandardly found in EFL textbooks. This approach attempts to account for allaspects of language use, including those typically considered "exceptions to therule" and tries to give a more systematic way of learning certain grammaticalconstructions besides rote memorization. The author has done an excellent job ofintroducing CL concepts to an audience which is largely unfamiliar with them.While some of the ideas may appear repetitive, the repetition may be necessaryto really allow these novel approaches to understanding grammar to sink in.

The book's biggest weakness is that it does not make these concepts useful at apractical level (which, admittedly, is not one of the book's stated aims, butwhich must be considered for any book that addresses teaching methods). Afterproviding a convincing description of language through a Cognitive Linguisticslens, the interested teacher will be eager to discover how these ideas can beapplied to the classroom. However, the book doesn't quite bridge the necessarygap. Some of the experimental descriptions lend themselves to replication, butare not quite detailed enough to give the teacher confidence in how to applythem in the classroom.

After reading this book, I led a two-part workshop for my teaching staff at aprivate ESL institute in New York City. The teachers were highly receptive tothe approach offered by Cognitive Linguistics and most of them were previouslyunfamiliar with these concepts. They were intrigued by the claim that CL couldoffer an explanation for modals and double-object constructions that didn'tinclude a list of exceptions. However, the analyses became more and moredifficult for the teachers to comprehend. While the explanation of modal verbswas favorably received, the explanations of the prepositional structures and thedative alternation seemed hard for them to grasp. In the end, the feedback fromthe teachers was that it opened their eyes to a different way of conceptualizinglanguage, but until a grammar text comes out that offers a full description andsome focused student practice, trying to implement these ideas in their ownclassrooms would not be easy.

It is not just teachers who have to wrap their head around a new way of thinkingabout grammar, but also students will be unfamiliar with these concepts and mayhave already studied the topic the traditional way. The author acknowledges thisobstacle (p. 128) and suggests that more time may need to be spent on this formof instruction than a traditional presentation since students are being asked tothink about these concepts in a radically different way from the one in whichthey have previously been taught. While CL claims to employ a more cognitivelyintuitive way of thinking about language and its use, students presented withthese concepts will likely try to reconcile the new information with the old"rules" they have previously learned, which well could in the end result in abit of confusion for the learner. Two of the teachers on my staff chose to tryone of the concepts I presented (modals and articles) in their classes. Bothsaid that students were receptive to the presentation, but had few questions.They seemed to understand the notions, but not apply them with confidence.Therefore, teachers wishing to engage in a CL-based form of instruction may needto arm themselves with a large number of examples and to be patient withstudents who do not pick up on the ideas right away.

In conclusion, the text presents an exciting introduction of concepts fromCognitive Linguistics to the field of Applied Linguistics, backed up by a hostof experimental evidence and a thorough analysis of three of the most difficultconcepts for second language learners to acquire. The book fulfills its aims andis written in a clear, approachable manner with examples at every point, thoughthe material gets increasingly more esoteric for teachers with less grounding intheoretical linguistics. As far as a pioneering text of this type is concerned,it is a valuable introduction to a new approach to teaching grammar. However, Icannot see too many teachers who would be willing or able to directly apply itto their own teaching without some practical advice on how to present it or asupplementary teachers' grammar text that could aid them and the studentsthrough the process of learning to see the grammar in this way. Several of theteachers in my workshop were interested in reading Tyler's book themselves, andif a CL-based grammar text were available, I believe some of them would be readyto try it out. All in all, the book is intriguing and informative and provides asolid basis for future works in this nascent area of research.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTSI would like to thank Loraine Obler for her helpful suggestions on this review.Any shortcomings are the responsibility of the author alone.

REFERENCESPinker, S. (1989). Learnability and cognition: The acquisition of argumentstructure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

ABOUT THE REVIEWEREve Higby is a doctoral student in the Speech-Language-Hearing SciencesDepartment at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York witheight years' experience as an ESL teacher and school administrator. Herresearch interests include bi/multilingualism, second language acquisition,cross-linguistic influence, language change, and the neural bases of language.

Page Updated: 08-Oct-2012