Whether to teach and how to teach complex linguistic structures in a second language Colloquium: Half a century on: What relevance does generative SLA have for language teaching?


Abstract  This paper discusses the idea that universal semantic and pragmatic meaning should not be taught explictly in language classrooms because they would come for free once the learner has acquired the lexical items capturing these meanings. At the same time, more complex structures involving a combination of several grammatical meanings should be practiced in the classroom (DeKeyser 2007). We will take the example of the linguistic pragmatic meaning of conversational and scalar iplicatures as regulated by Grice’s maxims (Grice, 1967/89). These have been studied by Bouton (1988, 1994), Röver (2005), Taguchi (2008), Slabakova (2010), and Lieberman (2009), among others. Bouton’s findings suggest that implicature is a cognitive process distinct from cultural knowledge and that its acquisition does benefit from instruction and longer exposure to the target language. Slabakova’s and Lieberman’s studies offer a slightly different perspective on the issue. While the computation of scalar implicatures is universal, as demonstrated by Slabakova (2010), when processing resources come into play, we see a different picture. Lieberman (2009) tested the acceptance of computationally demanding indirect implicatures (e.g., Max didn’t read all of the books) and compared them to less demanding direct ones (e.g., Max read some of the books). When forced to judge the acceptability of these test sentences, native speakers as well as learners had difficulty computing the indirect implicatures compared to the direct ones. We will give further examples of such discrepancies. In sum, though universal meanings themselves present no difficulty, structural complexity interacts with them in an interesting way. However, this interaction is not unique to L2 learners. The growing literature on individual differences in native speakers’ linguistic processing (Chipere, 2003; Wells et al, 2009) shows that training in a complex structure improves comprehension significantly. We will propose concrete training procedures that enhance learners’ comprehension of complex structures.

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