2010 Language Teaching Christopher Brumfit Award winner Dr Susy Macqueen discusses her award winning dissertation

When we become highly proficient in a language, we tend to use it in chunks or patterns. For a native language especially, we learn and become adept at manipulating masses of word patterns such as absolutely not, as it were, in light of the fact that, curry favour, I think that, scattered showers, it’s worth –ing, just a sec, etc. Language patterns like these make communication efficient – we don’t need to spend time piecing together the smallest bits of language. Rather, we work with larger bits that are easily accessed in the memories of both the user and the receiver. However, the pervasiveness of patterning makes it quite a challenge to sound ‘natural’ in second languages. Grammatical rules themselves are patterns, but they are more broadly applicable. Beyond these general patterns, there are masses of idiosyncratic lexicogrammatical patterns that form the stuff of communication.  I set out to find out how second language users deal with the massive task of learning such patterns. In order to do this, I traced the development of chunks in the writing of four ESL users as they prepared for university study and later once they were in their university courses.

Second language users embark on a program of chunk-making and chunk-breaking. That is, they build up a stock of formulae and at the same time, they start learning how these can be applied and manipulated. One way the students in my study did this was through experimentation with patterns they had seen or heard. For some language learners, receiving teacher feedback can be an opportunity to experiment with chunks of language. If it doesn’t ‘work’, the teacher will provide feedback. The feedback process is therefore a safe place where students can take risks with language. This is significant for language teachers who may think that their students always aim to produce language they believe to be nativelike. In fact, students may be trying something they suspect is not nativelike, even if they know a nativelike alternative.

The language users in my study also actively sought to imitate the language of expert users. Imitation has a troubled history in the field of second language learning; it has behaviourist overtones and, in university contexts, it is haunted by the spectre of plagiarism. Imitation is, however, central to language learning. Chunks have to come from somewhere. It isn’t necessarily a mindless copying activity, however. The process revealed in the writing of these language users was one of adaptive imitation – ‘the purposeful detection and imitation of lexicogrammatical patterns which are adapted in order to participate in a discourse community’. Over time, it was possible to see how the learners gained increasing control over the discipline-specific language patterns that they gleaned from expert sources. Since lessons, language textbooks and teacher feedback can only provide a small sample of the number of patterns required to operate in a university context, it is arguable that most pattern learning occurs through this transformative process of imitation-for-learning.

Dr Susy Macqueen

Find out more -http://languages.unimelb.edu.au/about/staff/profiles/macqueen.html

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