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Review of  Applied Construction Grammar

Reviewer: James Robert Garner
Book Title: Applied Construction Grammar
Book Author: Sabine De Knop Gaëtanelle Gilquin
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 28.1032

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The past decade has seen a great increase in the amount of linguistic research undertaken from a Construction Grammar (CxG) framework. While CxG covers a wide range of theoretical models, the central tenet of all of them holds that language is a collection of form-meaning mappings (constructions) that range in size from single morphemes to complex verb-argument constructions (i.e. the ditransitive, the prepositional dative, the caused motion construction). Despite the growing popularity of this model of language, CxG studies so far have largely been either theoretical or descriptive in nature. They have compared CxG with other linguistic theories, focused on describing specific constructions (e.g. the ditransitive), or described how CxG principles are realized across languages. In comparison, research taking a CxG approach to Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and foreign language pedagogy remains relatively rare. It is this gap in the literature that Sabine De Knop and Gaëtanelle Gilquin address with their edited volume, “Applied Construction Grammar”. In this volume, De Knop and Gilquin have brought together twelve chapters divided over three sections focusing on how CxG can be applied to specific issues in SLA and foreign language learning and teaching. The chapters in Part One of the volume examine how constructionist approaches can be used to enhance foreign language pedagogy. Part Two investigate the influence, both positive and negative, that L1 constructions may have on the learning of an L2. The last section of the volume includes chapters that address ways for building learners’ inventories of L2 constructions.

Preceding the main body of the volume is an introduction written by the editors that lays the foundation for the rest of the volume. It begins with brief introduction to the main tenets of CxG and a review of the few CxG studies addressing L2 acquisition. According to the editors, these previous studies could be divided into two broad groups. The first group includes studies investigating, either through psycholinguistic or corpus-based methods, the existence of constructions in L2 varieties of English. Example studies reviewed in this section include Ellis and Ferreira-Junior (2009), and Ellis, O’Donnell, and Römer (2014), Gries & Wulff (2005, 2009), and Liang (2002). These studies have shown not only that constructions exist in L2, but that they can also influence L2 acquisition. The second group of studies includes Holme (2010) and Wee (2007) and focuses on how insights from constructionist approaches can be used to enhance language pedagogy. For example, Holme (2010) emphasizes teaching approaches that encourage students to generalize knowledge of constructions through repeated exposure to various instantiations of it in real contexts. While the editors make it clear that all of the reviewed studies have made valuable contributions to our understanding of L2 constructions and their acquisition, they also point out that these studies are still few in number and limited in their overall scope. The second half of the introduction, in typical fashion for introduction chapters, briefly presents the chapters that will follow in the volume. However, unlike most introductions, the editors do not present each chapter in order, but rather according to major themes that cut across chapters and sections. These themes include the nature of L2 constructions, transfer of L1 constructions into L2, constructionist views towards L2 acquisition, and CxG-inspired teaching strategies.

Part one of the main body of the volume, “Constructionist approaches to L2 learning and teaching”, begins with a chapter by Thomas Herbst in which he highlights the benefits CxG and usage-based approaches can have for foreign language teaching. Through the presentation of four common topics in grammar instruction, he highlights some problematic issues that plague current grammar teaching methods. These include an overreliance on grammatical terms that poorly reflect the current state of English grammar, the sometime unsystematic approach to grammar teaching, and the inconsistency with which the functions of formal linguistic units are identified. Following a quick review of the key tenets of CxG, Herbst then shows how shifting the focus to constructions can alleviate these problems. For example, Herbst claims that by focusing on the will-construction and the going to-construction rather than the “future tense”, confusing and unnecessary terminology can be avoided. Herbst ends his chapter by proposing seven principles of what he calls “Pedagogical Construction Grammar”. These principles include the principle of presenting constructions as form-meaning pairs, the principle of indicating chunks, and the principle of authenticity. While none of his proposed principles are revolutionary, they do indicate the significant benefits some of the basic ideas of CxG can have for foreign language learners.

Chapter three of the volume is written by Sabine De Knop and Fabio Mollica and shows how the concepts of verb valency and constructions can help L2 German learners acquire ditransitive phraseologisms. Specifically, the authors focus on whether the knowledge of ditransitive constructions can be generalized to ditransitive idioms and the benefits this may have for the acquisition of these items. Following a review of the literature on ditransitive constructions and verb valency, the authors present three experiments aimed at providing evidence for the connection between ditransitive constructions and ditransitive idioms. The experiments include a sorting task, a multiple-choice meaning guessing task, and a guess the meaning in context task. The results for both the L1 Belgian-French and L1 Italian learners indicated that L2 German learners not only classified ditransitive idioms according to the construction, but they can also guess the meaning of the idioms based on their knowledge of the ditransitive construction. The chapter concludes with suggestions for teaching approaches that start with the prototypical, non-idiomatic use of a construction and then expands to covering idiomatic uses of the construction.

In their chapter, Min-Chang Sung and Hyun-Kwon Yang compare the effects of construction-based and form-based instruction on the learning of the transitive resultative construction. In addition, the authors investigated the effects of the two instruction methods on other constructions that exists in the same network as the transitive resultative, such as the caused motion and intransitive motion constructions). The subjects of their study included four groups of L1 Korean middle school and high school students. Two groups received construction-based instruction that focused student attention towards construction as the determiner of the meaning of the sentence. The other two groups received form-based instructions that drew student attention to the sentence as a structural unit consisting of a verb and its arguments. The pre- and post-tests consisted of two translation tasks, one that asked students to translate Korean sentences to their English equivalents and one that asked students to do the opposite (English to Korean translation). The results showed that, while both groups improved in their ability to translate transitive resultative constructions, the group receiving construction-focused instruction showed greater improvement. The results also showed that instruction focusing on one construction can have positive effects on the learning of other related constructions, given that the other constructions are less marked and directly related to the target construction.

The final chapter of part one, written by Gaëtanelle Gilquin, compares the acquisition of the periphrastic causative construction (e.g. X cause Y Vto-inf) by ESL and EFL students. Based on the concept of input-dependent language acquisition, the author hypothesizes that ESL learners, with their increased exposure to English, will be better able to employ this construction than their EFL counterparts. To test this hypothesis, she analyzed the use of the periphrastic causative containing the verbs cause, get, have, and make in EFL and ESL texts from the International Corpus of Learner English (ICLE) and the NUS Corpus of Learner English (NUCLE). The reference corpus used in the study comprised texts taken from the academic writing subsection of the British National Corpus (BNC). In regard to frequency of the causative constructions in the three corpora, the results showed that both ESL and EFL students overused these constructions, although the EFL students showed a greater degree of overuse. The syntactic analysis revealed a more mixed pattern. While ESL students were closer to native speakers in their use of constructions with ‘cause’, EFL students better approximated native speakers in terms of their use of constructions with ‘make’. The results for the phraseological analysis, which employed distinctive collexeme analysis (Gries & Stefanowitsch, 2004), indicated that the ESL writers were closer to the native speakers than the EFL students in their choice of verbs in the non-finite verb slot. Nevertheless, evidence of overuse of high-frequency and general-purpose verbs by both groups of learners was found. Taken together, these results lead Gilquin to propose three refinements to the input-dependent acquisition hypothesis. First, she claims that not all aspects of a construction benefit from the same kinds of input in an equal fashion. Second, future studies of input-dependent acquisition should include amount of formal instruction as a variable in the model. Lastly, future analyses should take individual variation into account, as some students will benefit from naturalistic or enhanced input more or less than other students.

Part two of the main body of the volume, titled “Crosslinguistic Applications of Constructional Approaches”, begins with a chapter by Francisco José Ruiz de Mendoza Ibáñez and María de Pilar Agustín Llach that proposes a blending of Cognitive Grammar and Pedagogical Grammar into Cognitive Pedagogical Grammar (CPG). Their model of CPG entails carrying out Cognitive Linguistic analysis on similar constructions in two languages and looking for similarities and differences that can cause difficulties for learners. Based on this work, the next step would involve drawing pedagogical implications that can lead to teaching strategies within a usage-based teaching framework. In order to illustrate their model, the authors explore similarities and differences in how Spanish and English rely on figurative language, constructions, or a combination of the two to derive meaning. Based on their cross-linguistic analysis, the authors then propose two implications for the teaching of English to native Spanish speakers. First, teaching strategies need to be devised for figurative language that has strong a lexical or constructional grounding that differs from L1 to L2. Second, the authors suggest that constructions that are similar in their conceptual and formal structure be taught in relation to each other. These implications are expanded upon in two concrete pedagogical examples as well as a detailed description of how they could be implemented in a sequence of classroom activities.

In their chapter, Alberto Hijazo-Gascón, Teresa Cadierno, and Iraide Ibarretxe-Antuñano explore the differences between Danish and Spanish placement caused motion constructions, with special focus on the effect these differences may have for L1 Danish learners of Spanish. The authors choose to focus on this construction because Spanish and Danish differ in how they encode Path in motion constructions. Spanish, a verb-framed language, encodes Path in the verb, while Danish, a satellite-frame language, encodes Path outside of the verb. According to the authors, L1 Danish learners of Spanish might have difficulty expressing caused motion in their L2 due to their experience with their L1. In order to investigate this possibility, the authors undertook a small-scale study comparing how monolingual Danish, Danish L2 speakers of Spanish, and monolingual Spanish speakers described caused motion events shown to them in short video clips. The videos varied in the nature of the movement and configuration of objects, the tools used to move objects, and the manner in which they were moved. Results showed that while the L2 Danish speakers were able to use the Spanish caused motion construction, they were unaware of some of the preferred verbs and semantic categories for this construction. For instance, the L2 Spanish subjects over relied on a single general verb (poner, “put”) and seemed unaware of how support, containment, and intentionality are expressed in this construction. Based on these findings, the authors claim that pedagogical focus should be given to the different nuances of the construction once its general pattern has been acquired. Teaching strategies suggested by the authors included spot-the-difference and Total Physical Response tasks that highlight the various placement events that can be encoded in the construction.

In her chapter, Annalisa Baicchi investigates the priming of constructions for intermediate learners of English. In doing so, she aims to provide further empirical support for the notion that constructions can offer an alternative to the debate between the form-mapping and meaning-mapping approaches in priming research. After presenting both approaches, she provides an in-depth review of one study taking the form-mapping approach and one taking a meaning-mapping approach. These studies serve as the basis for Baicchi’s experiment. In her experiment, two groups of intermediate L1 Italian university learners of English were primed to produce three different sentences describing transfer (double-object, dative, fulfilling). The two groups of subjects corresponded to the B1 and B2 proficiency levels on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR, Council of Europe, 2001). The results indicated that subjects in both groups produced the double-object construction, a construction found in English but not in Italian. In addition, subjects in the B2 produced the double-object construction more than the B1 subjects and more than the dative construction, the prototypical Italian transfer construction. According to Baicchi, these results indicate that not only do learners possess constructions in their interlanguage, but also that with increasing proficiency learners can more easily utilize these constructions.

Part two of the main body of the volume ends with a chapter by Paolo Della Putta in which the author explores the unlearning of constructions in order to avoid transfer issues in L2. The specific constructions under investigation in this chapter were the Spanish planned future periphrasis, iterative periphrasis, and their literal equivalents in Italian. While these constructions share some similarities in both languages, subtle differences in their functions may cause transfer issues for L1 Spanish learners of Italian. To test this possibility, three groups of subjects completed a picture-based task in which they were asked to complete dialogues discussing planned future or iterative events. The three groups were comprised of L1 Spanish non-instructed learners of Italian who had long-term exposure to Italian, L1 Spanish instructed learners of Italian with limited exposure to the target language, and L1 speakers of Italian. The results indicated that, regardless of exposure or instruction, both L1 Spanish groups performed poorly on the task. These results lead Della Putta to conclude that learners would greatly benefit from instruction that focuses on the unlearning of L1 constructions. The author ends the chapter with specific pedagogical suggestions for assisting learners in the unlearning of constructions. These suggestions include transcodification activities, interactive strategies for noticing ungrammaticality, and input manipulation that gives learners positive evidence for L2 constructions.

The third and final part of the volume, titled “Constructing a Constructicon for L2 Learners” includes three chapters that present different approaches to help learners build their inventory of constructions in L2. The first chapter of this part, written by Bert Cappelle and Natalia Grabar, describes how n-gram extraction can be employed in the creation of an n-grammar for use in the language classroom. According to the authors, an n-grammar consists of the most frequent structural strings found in a large reference corpus, in the case of this study the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA; Davies, 2009). In order to create their list, the authors first downloaded lists of the most frequent lexical 5-grams (contiguous sequences of five words) with their part-of-speech information from the COCA website. Then, the sequences were grouped according to their part-of-speech sequences. For example, the 5-grams ‘the rest of the world’ and ‘the end of the day’ would be classified into the same syntactic 5-gram, the Xnoun of the Ynoun. The syntactic 5-grams were then placed into a frequency list based on their type frequency (i.e. number of different lexical 5-grams). Lastly, the 100 most frequent syntactic 5-grams were included in the authors’ n-grammar. In addition to providing a detailed explanation of their approach, the authors also spend significant time addressing possible criticisms as well as further developments of their approach for implementation in the language classroom.

In their chapter, Hans C. Boas, Ryan Dux, and Alexander Ziem introduce a newly created resource for helping L1 English students learning German, the German Frame-Based Online Lexicon (G-FOL). Highlighting the shortcomings of traditional resources in presenting both lexical and syntactic information to learners, the authors show how an online resource based on Frame Semantics and the lexical database FrameNet can address these shortcomings. They then lead the reader through the creation of G-FOL and present example entries focusing on grooming verbs in German. The authors highlight how the features of these entries can help L1 English speakers learn the subtle differences in grooming verbs between German and English. Although G-FOL does not currently contain constructions, the authors do present ways in which they may be added in the future.

The final chapter of the volume, written by Lisa Loenheim, Benjamin Lyngfelt, Joel Olofsson, Julia Prentice, and Sofia Tingsell, discusses the current shortcomings in second language pedagogy as they pertain to construction learning and presents an electronic resource for addressing such shortcomings. The chapter begins with a review of four textbooks widely used in L2 Swedish classrooms, with attention paid to their treatment of constructions. Through their review, the authors find that all four textbooks fail to address the productivity of constructions or the variability of formulaic language. Following this textbook review, the authors present the Swedish constructicon (SweCcn), an online database of Swedish constructions designed to assist in the creation of teaching materials. They show the various ways in which teachers can search for constructions in the database. For example, constructions can be searched for based on their type (e.g. construction of comparison, construction with verb particle), category (e.g. NP, VP), or semantic frame (e.g. time, motion). The chapter ends with a discussion of the advantages a constructional approach to language teaching may have for both teachers and learners.


Overall, this volume, through its emphasis on the application of CxG insights on language learning and teaching, makes a strong contribution to the CxG field. The main strengths of the chapters in this volume, and the volume as a whole, are the wide range of constructions and languages covered, the reliance on empirical data, and the in-depth discussions of pedagogical implications. The chapters in this volume address issues in constructional learning not only for English, but also other languages such as German, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish. In addition, a diverse range of L1 student backgrounds is also addressed, further widening the coverage of the volume. A further strength of the volume is the reliance on empirical data. Every claim was supported by either psycholinguistic, corpus, or experimental data collected and analyzed by the contributing researchers. Lastly, every chapter of the volume included lengthy discussions of pedagogical implications, with some even including sample activities and materials that teachers can adapt for their own classrooms. Despite these strong points, the volume is not without its limitations. The most obvious limitation is the lack of a chapter or chapter section thoroughly introducing readers to some of the basic concepts in CxG. In addition, several of the chapters assume that readers already know a great deal about CxG or other relevant topics (i.e. verb valency). While this may not be a limitation for more experienced practitioners, relative newcomers may find some of the concepts more challenging to understand. Nevertheless, this volume serves as a valuable resource for those interested in applying CxG theories and principles to the challenges of language acquisition and language pedagogy, a crucial step in the continuing growth of this field.


Davies, Mark. 2009. The Corpus of Contemporary American English: 450 million words, 1990-present. Available online at: http://corpus/

Ellis, Nick C., & Ferreira-Junior, Fernando. 2009. Constructions and their acquisition: Islands and the distinctiveness of their occupancy. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 7. 187-220.

Ellis, Nick C., O'Donnell, Matthew B., & Römer, Ute. 2014. Second language verb-argument constructions are sensitive to form, function, frequency, contingency, and prototypicality. Linguistic Approaches to Bilingualism 4(4). 405-431.

Gries, Stefan T. & Stefanowitsch, Anatol. 2004. Extending collostructional analysis: A corpus-based perspective on “alternations”. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 9(1). 97-129.

Gries, Stefan T., & Wulff, Stefanie. 2005. Do foreign language learners also have constructions? Annual Review of Cognitive Linguistics 3. 182-200.

Gries, Stefan T., & Wulff, Stefanie. 2009. Psycholinguistic and corpus-linguistic evidence for L2 constructions. Annual Review of Cognitive Linguistics 7. 163-186.

Holme, Randal. 2010. Construction grammars: Towards a pedagogical model. AILA Review 23. 115-133.

Liang, Junying. 2002. How do Chinese EFL learners construct sentence meaning: Verb-centered or construction based? M.A. thesis. Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, Guangzhou.

Wee, Lionel. 2007. Construction grammar and English language teaching. Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching 3(1). 20-32.
James Garner is currently a PhD student in the Department of Applied Linguistics and ESL at Georgia State University. His current research interests include Corpus Linguistics, Phraseology, and Usage-based Second Language Acquisition.