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Review of  Formulaic Language and Second Language Speech Fluency

Reviewer: Eleonora Luzi
Book Title: Formulaic Language and Second Language Speech Fluency
Book Author: David C. Wood
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 22.2522

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AUTHOR: David C. Wood
TITLE: Formulaic Language and Second Language Speech Fluency
SUBTITLE: Background, Evidence and Classroom Application
PUBLISHER: Continuum International Publishing Group
YEAR: 2010

Eleonora Luzi, Department of Linguistics, Roma Tre University


The aim of Wood's monograph -- as it is clearly stated in the Introduction -- is
to fill a gap in the research on fluency, in particular between research on its
temporal correlates and research on formulaic language. Their relationship is
then investigated in this volume, illustrating in Part I the background on the
theoretical constructs of fluency, formulaic language, cognitive processing and
other social and cultural factors, presenting in Part II a research study, and
discussing in Part III classroom applications.

Part I. The first chapter deals with fluency. Wood provides a sketch of the
several meanings of fluency: beside the general meaning 'fluent' acquires in
language teaching as a synonym of 'native-like', fluency refers to different
aspects depending on whether it is employed in SLA studies (where it is usually
opposed to accuracy), or in proficiency testing studies (where we have witnessed
the attempt to isolate fluency from other proficiency parameters and to define
it on the basis of temporal variables). In empirical research on fluency,
temporal variables (i.e. speech rate) have been analyzed since the early 1980s,
but only from the mid 1980s has qualitative discussion been added, relating
quantitative results to strategy employment, to formulaicity and to transfer.
From the survey Wood carries out in this chapter, the most common temporal
variables investigated are: i) amount of speech; ii) rate of speech; iii) repair
phenomena; iv) pause phenomena; and v) length of fluent runs. Chapter 1 ends
with some considerations about what pause location and run length may indicate
about cognitive processing in production. In particular, the distribution of
pauses in production can reveal a transfer of procedural knowledge from the L1
and the reliance on declarative knowledge, or, on the contrary, automatized
procedural skill to buy time in order to plan the following sequence.

Chapter 2 presents a survey of the literature on the nature and function of
formulaic sequences, often addressed as fundamental in acquisition, processing
and production. Wood adopts and extends Wray & Perkins' (2000) definition of
'formula', considering it a form-meaning mapping, posited midway between lexicon
and syntax, stored as a single lexical unit, but also derivable from syntactic
rules. Wood illustrates, moreover, the criteria presented in Wray (2002, 2008)
for identifying formulas; that is, the structure, compositionality, fixedness,
invariability, intonational criterion and fluency criteria. The last part of
chapter 2 highlights the fundamental role of formulaic sequences in fluency.
Formulaic language helps fluency through 'routines', fixed utterances without
internal variation, and through 'patterns', utterances with fillable slots; both
working as 'islands of reliability' (Tomasello, 2003) once they have been
automatized, enhancing fluency, reducing planning, processing and encoding.

Chapter 3 provides a general and summarized theoretical background, with insight
into cognitive theories. Concepts like declarative and procedural knowledge are
introduced, illustrating the distinction between long-term, short-term and
working memory and how they are linked respectively to automatized, fast and
effortless processing, and to controlled, slow and effortful processing.
Automatic processing makes certain memory nodes activate every time a given
stimulus occurs: regular and repeated activation of these nodes as a consequence
of the occurrence of the type of stimulus, leads to learning and automating that
process, enhancing fluency. Furthermore some cognitive theories, such as
instance theory (Logan, 1988), restructuring (Cheng, 1985; McLaughlin, 1990),
connectionism (Ellis, 2002), and phonological memory (Baddeley, 2000) are
illustrated, highlighting - despite the specific differences - the agreement on
the speeding up with time and practice of the production of formulaic sequences
through psycholinguistic processes. Even though the existence of formulas and
their usefulness is then no longer in question, what still remains unclear is
how formulas are retrieved: Wood suggests that retrieval and storage could
depend on a combination of processes including frequency, pragmatic salience,
repetition and practice.

In chapter 4 a short panorama of social and cultural factors that can influence
L2 production is offered. They are anxiety, as a stable trait of the character
or as a temporal state that varies over time, self-efficacy, connected with
motivation, voice, cultural fluency and typology.

Part II. Chapter 5 illustrates the design of the research. It is a longitudinal
analysis of 11 English learners. The hypotheses tested in the research deal with
the increase over time of 1) the rate of production; 2) the amount of production
time spent speaking as opposed to pausing; 3) the length of runs between pauses;
and 4) the frequency of formulaic sequences in runs between pauses. The
subjects' L1s belong to 3 different linguistic types: inflecting (Spanish),
isolating (Chinese) and agglutinative (Japanese). Subjects were selected
according to the result of a placement test (intermediate level) and they were
shown 3 short films twice each, equally distributed, and they were asked to
retell them. In quantitative analysis, temporal variables were quantified
according to the following ratios and rates: phonation/time ratio, speech rate,
articulation rate, mean length of run and formula/run ratio. Formulas were
selected by 3 expert native speakers and only those with 66% agreement were

Chapter 6 reports the results of statistical analyses for each temporal
variable. Quantitative results suggest that participants improved significantly
over 6 months in fluency and in the number of formulaic sequences used: one-way
ANOVA tests showed significance in the change over time of all variables except
for one subject. Correlations for earlier and later viewings of the same film
were not systematically higher than correlations between scores based on
different films, suggesting that there was no effect of film prompt on temporal
variables. Two-way ANOVA tests showed no significance of L1 effect. The research
hypotheses seem to be supported by statistical results, since subjects recorded
an increase of articulation and speed rates, a decrease in the amount of
hesitation and an increased mean of length of runs and of use of formulas.

Chapter 7 presents the qualitative side of the analysis. Given the great
variability in the narrative skeleton of the retellings, in the discourse
strategies and in the linguistic choices, the initial idea of a one-by-one
comparison (i.e. first viewing vs. second viewing) was then abandoned. The final
analysis was two-fold: one qualitative analysis on narrative moves (e.g. setting
the scene, conclusion) and another one focusing on formulas. The second analysis
reveals the ways in which subjects make use of formulas to increase their
fluency, for example using self-task formulas (e.g. 'I know', 'I think'),
repeating the formula in a run, using multiple formulas to extend a run, using
more marking formulas (e.g. 'at the beginning', 'this is the end of the story')
and finally relying on one repeated formulas (e.g. 'then', 'next').

Chapter 8 summarizes the quantitative and qualitative results and offers clear
conclusions reconnecting findings with the initial hypotheses. The need for a
more extended corpus of real-communication data research to support the findings
the one hand, and for more strictly controlled experimental research to
highlight the cognitive implications on the other, is stated.

Part III, made up of just one chapter (chapter 9) proposes some classroom
applications. There is a scientific gap in pedagogical research on how training
on formulaic sequences can have positive effects on fluency. Language teaching
research has been carried out only recently on learning vocabulary by exploiting
collocations, chunks, and lexical phrases, but no research has been dedicated to
the relation between fluency and formulaicity. Wood in this chapter suggests
that instructors focus on several principles while preparing class materials,
like input authenticity, interaction, production, feedback and attention to
formulaic sequences. He also surveys and proposes some activities that,
focusing on formula learning, can enhance and then advance fluency, like the
'mingle jigsaw' (Wood, 1998), the '4/3/2 activity' (Nation, 1989), and the
Marketplace and Messenger, or class photo and family tree tasks (Gatbonton &
Segalowitz, 1988).


Wood's monograph is a great piece of research, addressed in form and in content
both to Second Language Acquisition and Language Testing experts, and to
non-experts. The clear statement of his goals in the Introduction and the
reasonable organization of the chapters help the expert reader to appreciate his
methodological choices, and the non-expert reader to understand the fundamental
motives behind SLA research. Clearly written, and therefore accessible to
everyone, Part I offers a well-balanced review of literature in which new trends
are introduced. The research gaps, highlighted in Part I, are then translated
into feasible research questions and hypotheses, tested and supported by
quantitative analysis, and enriched by qualitative considerations. In the final
part, probably the 'icing on the cake' of the entire monograph, Wood offers real
classroom application proposals: unlike most SLA research where very short space
is usually dedicated to classroom application, Wood lists in detail and explains
activities suitable for enhancing and improving formula learning and fluency.

Additional positive attributes are the well-organized structure of the
monograph, the reasoned selection of the subjects on L1 typology, the innovative
introduction to fluency research of the Formula/Run ratio as a variable relating
fluency and formulaicity, and broadly speaking the scientific innovation
underlying this connection, and the use of real-time data with a reduced degree
of elicitation.

One limitation of the monograph is the lack of a reference to a wider linguistic
framework in which all of the cited approaches can be embedded, for example,
Constructionism (Masini, 2007; Luzi, 2010). Constructionism is based on the idea
of construction as a form-function mapping, a more general theoretical construct
in which chunks, collocations, routines, patterns, and lexical phrases can be
included. Numerous relevant aspects, illustrated in Wood's monograph, have been
considered in depth within this general framework -- in which several linguistic
and acquisitional functionalist approaches converge -- like the role of formulas
in L1 acquisition (Goldberg, 2006) or the evolutionary side of the linguistic
research (Givón, 2009). A reference to this new linguistic strand would have
given the entire research project a wider scientific scope, strengthening the
connection not only with SLA research, but also with linguistic, cognitive and
evolutionary research.

Nevertheless, ''Formulaic Language and Second Language Speech Fluency'' can be
considered a good example of SLA research and a step forward toward the
identification of the cognitive processes underlying language acquisition.


Baddeley, Alan D. 2000. The episodic buffer: a new component of working memory?
Trends in Cognitive Science, 4. 417-423.

Cheng, Patricia. 1985. Restructuring versus automaticity: Alternative accounts
of skill acquisition. Psychological Review 92. 414-423.

Ellis, Nick C. 2002. Frequency effects in language processing. Studies in Second
Language Acquisition 24. 143-188.

Gatbonton, Elizabeth & Segalowitz, Norman. 1988. Creative automatization:
Principles for promoting fluency within a communicative framework. TESOL
Quarterly 22 (3). 473-492.

Givón, Talmy. 2009. The Genesis of Syntactic Complexity. Amsterdam,
Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Goldberg, Adele E. 2006. Constructions at Work. The Nature of Generalization in
Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Logan, Gordon D. 1988. Towards an instance theory of automatization.
Psychological Review 95. 492-527.

Luzi, Eleonora. 2010. L'apprendimento di costruzioni complesse in italiano L2.
PhD Dissertation: Roma Tre University.

Masini, Francesca. 2007. Parole sintagmatiche in italiano. PhD Dissertation,
Roma Tre University.

McLaughlin, Barry. 1990. Restructuring. Applied Linguistics 11. 113-128.

Nation, Paul. 1989. Improving speaking fluency. System 17(3). 377-384.

Tomasello, Michael. 2003. Constructing a Language. A Usage-Based Theory of
Language Acquisition. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press.

Wood, David. 1998. Making the grade: An interactive course in English for
Academic purposes. Toronto: Prentice Hall Allyn and Bacon.

Wray, Alison. 2002. Formulaic language and the lexicon. Cambridge: CUP.

Wray, Alison. 2008. Formulaic language: Pushing the boundaries: Oxford: OUP.

Wray, Alison & Perkins, Michael R. 2000. The functions of formulaic language: An
integrated model. Language and Communication 20. 1-28.

Eleonora Luzi graduated in Languages and Linguistics at the University of Roma Tre, and is now concluding her PhD in Applied Linguistics at the same university with a dissertation on the acquisition of Complex Constructions in L2 Italian. Her research interests are Second Language Acquisition, L2 Italian, acquisition of syntax, and assessment and testing.

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