Lexical phrases in
language use and language acquisition
Recent research in computer analysis of language has revealed a widespread occurrence
of lexical patterns in adult language use. Pawley and Syder (1983:214) claim that
"lexicalized sentence stems and other memorized strings form the main building blocks
of fluent connected speech." Such stereotyping in language performance applies to
language acquisition as well. Research into L1 (Peters 1983; Clark 1993) and L2
acquisition (Hakuta 1974; Peters 1983; Vihman 1982) has shown that routinized patterns are
a recurrent feature in the process.
Lexical phrases defined
One of the first problems we are faced with is terminology. Researchers and linguists
have coined their own idiosyncratic terms. Corder (1973:13031) refers to
"subroutines or ready-made sub-plans;" Hakuta (1974:289) distinguishes between
"routines" and "pre-fabricated patterns;" and Peters (1983:6) uses the
terms "formulaic frames" and "unit."
The term lexical phrases is adopted here to mean "multi-word lexical phenomena. .
. which are conventionalized form/function composites that occur more frequently and have
more idiomatically determined meaning than the language that is put together each
time" (Nattinger and DeCarrico 1992:1).
Lexical phrases and language teaching
The fact that lexical phrases are a recurrent feature of language use and language
acquisition does not support the claim that they constitute an ideal unit for teaching.
Let us now consider what makes them particularly advantageous for teaching purposes.
Fluency at early stages of language acquisition
Lexical phrases may be treated as wholes, either as complete or partially preassembled
units. As such, they are stored in the lexicon as unanalyzed chunks just like words. Being
ready-made, they are easily retrieved. Consequently, they offer learners the possibility
of expressing themselves in the absence of rich linguistic resources.
Beginnerschildren, elementary students, and particularly adults, who have already
developed their cognitive and semantic structures but lack the linguistic tools necessary
to use the target languagebecome conversationally competent without the need to know
the underlying structure of these phrases. Lexical phrases prove highly motivating by
developing fluency at very early stages and thus promote a sense of achievement.
Growth in language development
Lexical phrases are not dead ends. They are analyzable by the rules of grammar.
Therefore, they are dual in nature. Depending on the situation, they may be treated as
unanalyzed units in the lexicon or produced afresh using the rules of syntax. This fact
ensures a steady growth in language development. Lexical phrases allow for the expansion
of previously acquired knowledge as learners become more proficient. The reason for this
is that they have associated functional uses. Lexical phrases may be used to maintain a
conversation, change the topic, make a request, greet people, and so on. For instance, a
basic phrase to express sympathy would be Im sorry. As learners become more
proficient, the pattern may be expanded to obtain phrases like Im
(very/terribly/awfully) sorry about/to hear; thats (awful/terrible), what a
(pity/shame)! This functional feature of lexical phrases offers learners the possibility
of expressing the same function in increasingly more difficult ways by expanding an
initial formula. Therefore, it constitutes a springboard for language development.1
The fact that lexical phrases may be analyzed by the rules of syntax should not lead
teachers to assume that analysis is always convenient. Sometimes a phrase is most
efficiently treated as a whole rather than broken down into its constituents. For
instance, a phrase like If I were (you/the headmaster/the president, etc.) may be
available for ready access since it is associated with certain situations and has a
particular function (expressing advice). By contrast, an expression like If I were the
person chosen to deliver the speech would be handled differently because the associated
functional use is lost. It is generated by a process of creative construction by the rules
of syntax. The fact that lexical phrases may be manipulated by learners in this way
resulting in patterns of increasing generalizationconstitutes the basis for language
Overcoming processing constraints
Cook (1977) has suggested that the capacity of speechprocessing memory is
constrained by syntactic complexity both in adult and children native speakers. This
limitation is especially acute in second language learners. This fact is further supported
by research in computational analysis of language. Pawley and Syder (1983:191) refer to
"native-like fluency" as the ability native speakers have to produce long
strings of speech which exceed their capacity for encoding and decoding speech. Lexical
phrases are a way of overcoming such constraints because they are stored as wholes and are
therefore readily accessible. This means that learners do not need to pay attention to
grammar if they use these phrases. By shifting their attention from grammar to features
such as relevance, coherence, and appropriateness, learners are able to organize their
speech at discourse level and maintain the flow of conversation.
Easy acquisition: frequency and context-dependence
Lexical phrases are easy to acquire for two reasons. First, they occur very frequently.
Research (Yoshida 1978) has shown that recurrent phrases are acquired as memorized forms.
High frequency provides natural recycling of such frames. Second, these formulas are
context-bound and have situational meaning associated with them. Being recurrently
associated with a certain context, learners are able to recall these phrases in similar
situations (Huang and Hatch 1978). Frequency of occurrence and context association make
lexical phrases highly memorable for learners and easy to pick up.
Efficient device for use
Because lexical phrases are context-bound and high in frequency, they can be easily
acquired as wholes because of the recurrent association of form-context-function without
the need to know their internal constituents. Stored as units, they are easily
retrievable, highly accessible without the need for analysis by the rules of syntax.
Therefore, they constitute an efficient device for use. This is particularly true of fixed
phrases which are ready for access with minimal effort. Sperber and Wilson (1986:49) claim
that "all human beings aim at the most efficient information processing
possible." Fixed phrases have a small processing cost and their contribution is
significant. They are a short-cut available to minimize effort.
Some implications for teaching grammatical and pragmatic competence
Following Widdowson, competence can be defined as ones knowledge of language and
ability to use it. Therefore, "competence has two components: knowledge and
ability.... Knowledge can be characterized in terms of degrees of analyzability, ability
can be characterized in terms of degrees of accessibility" (1989:132). In this
framework, grammatical competence accounts for the learners knowledge of lexical
forms and their syntactic behavior. It encompasses knowledge of prefabricated language as
well as knowledge of how to generate sentences by the rules of syntax. Pragmatic
competence, on the contrary, is responsible for the learners ability to access
lexical phrases ready for use in appropriate contexts.
Lexical phrases as a harmonious balance
The structural approach, with its strong emphasis on grammatical competence, did not
give learners the tools to access all the analyzed knowledge they possessed. By contrast,
the communicative approach provided learners with a repertoire of patterns to be accessed
in appropriate contexts of use, but they remained grammatically incompetent. Lexical
phrases offer a balance because they allow teachers to foster both accessibility and
analyzability and thus contribute to the development of the learners grammatical and
Problem of selection
If indeed lexical phrases are an ideal unit for teaching, and given that our aim is to
develop grammatical and pragmatic competence in learners, the question arises as to which
phrases are the most effective for teaching.
One might logically want to teach those formulas most frequently used by native
speakers as revealed by concordance data. I would suggest, however, that frequency does
not equate with desirability for teaching. These two factors do not necessarily coincide.
If they do, frequent phrases effective for teaching will enjoy the additional advantages
mentioned so far. If they do not, we run the risk of encouraging learners to adopt phrases
in a parrot-like fashion. Despite the fact that memorized forms may help make a learner
conversationally competent because of their accessibility, much of their potential would
Degrees of variability and flexibility
Lexical phrases belong to a continuum. At one end there are fixed phrases such as by
the way, have a nice day, etc., which are not subject to alterations. Other phrases,
however, allow some degree of modification. Such modification may be syntactic or lexical.
Sometimes the degree of syntactic modification possible is highly variable. For example,
not only, but also, and as well as are extremely flexible. Similarly, variation of lexical
content within a syntactic structure is also a matter of degree. For instance, a phrase
like a _____ ago accepts variations such as a day ago, a week ago, a month ago, a year
ago, and so on. But in this case variations are constrained in the sense that only nouns
or noun phrases may fill the slot. Other categories such as adjectives or adverbs are not
It is evident that lexical phrases enjoy different degrees of variability and
flexibility. To maximize the raw material these phrases offer for language development,
teachers need to consider factors such as productivity, not only frequency of occurrence
in concordance data, when selecting phrases. Focusing on fixed nonproductive phrases may
have a hindering effect in the sense that there is no scope for expanding the frames as a
way of enhancing learning. By contrast, more general, less fixed, more productive lexical
phrases allow different degrees of analyzability and act as a catalyst to encourage the
acquisition of new phrases.
Learners need awareness of two facts. First, not all easily accessible phrases are
appropriate for all contexts. The naturalness or unmarkedness or neutrality of phrases
like hello, hi, good (morning/afternoon/evening), depends on the situation. Hi, for
example, would be appropriate among friends in a party but perhaps not in a conference.
Second, there are limits to the extent a phrase is analyzable. Some syntactic
modifications may be grammatically correct but odd. If the greeting How are you? was
analyzed and How are you going to be? was produced, the function of the phrase as a
greeting would be lost. Similarly, some lexical changes may be ungrammatical. We say a
short time ago but not two short times ago. Making learners aware of these subtleties of
the language is part of the task of developing their competence.
Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) suggest that syntactically simple phrases which allow a
considerable amount of lexical variation may be the most powerful pattern generators. The
frame modal + you + VP constitutes one example. The syntactic pattern is simple and it is
paradigmatically flexible, that is, several modals and VP may be easily substituted. This
ensures a steady growth in language development. Learners may generate increasingly more
complex phrases as they become more proficient (e.g., Can you open the window? Could you
lend me some money? Would you type this for me? with optional slots such as please,
Grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar
Peters (1983) and Vihman (1982) have shown that both in L1 and in L2 acquisition,
children start by selecting preassembled unanalyzed chunks to fit different situations.
Only gradually do they expand those patterns by applying syntactic or grammatical rules as
the link between lexis and context becomes insufficient to meet new communicative needs.
The creative process of generating sentences by rules would have the supporting auxiliary
role of adjusting already known formulas to new contexts.
If one acknowledges this shift of focus from grammar to lexis, two corollaries follow.
First, some patterns which traditionally receive grammatical pedagogic treatment might
indeed be best introduced as lexical phrases. This may apply to the first, second, and
third conditionals; the passive; reported speech; the -ing form; the past participle; and
will, would, and going to. Irregular past tense forms such as was, had, got, said, did,
made, came, thought, and went may be first learned as lexical items. The concept of time
may be most efficiently presented through lexis rather than tense. Second, some patterns
relegated in language teaching, and usually reserved for advanced learners, might have a
larger role than is often assumed. This is so in the case of idioms, metaphorical
expressions, collocations, phrasal verbs, and institutionalized units like Not yet,
certainly, I see your point but...,as far as I know, and for that matter.
How can teachers operationalize these ideas to relate them to the practicality of the
classroom context? I contend that presenting learners with a set of prototypical examples
of a chosen phrase in clear contexts is a good starting point. The phrase would be
introduced as an unanalyzed whole. Learners would be encouraged to understand the
pragmatic meaning of the whole phrase, not its constituents, in relation to the context in
which it occurs. If the unit is too long or unfamiliar for learners, drilling activities
may give them practice in articulating the new pattern.2 Lexical exercises would follow.
Lewis (1993:131) offers the following examples:
1. We say on television. How many other words can you think of which are similar to
television, and go in the sentence Its on...?
2. How many expressions can you make which use:
a. part of the verb have with:
b. part of the verb give with:
|1. a party
||6. a cup of tea
|2. lunch 7
||7. time to
|3. a pound 8
||8. a hand
|4. a present for 9
||9. a cold
|5. a present to 10
||10. the chance to
How does grammar fit into this picture? Following Lewis, grammatical explanations have
a minor role. Instead, learners explore grammar by themselves and construct their own
personal, provisional rules. "Grammar is primarily receptive" (1993:149) and
should aim at learner awareness. Learners would be given the opportunity to observe
language by themselves and critically reflect on what they perceive.3 This proposal
highlights the use of identifying, sorting, matching, and comparing activities whose goal
is consciousness raising. Questions like Can you find...? and Did you notice...? are
crucial. The following are some examples:
1. Listen to the tape. Write A each time you hear can /kn/ and B every time you
hear cant ka:nt/ (identifying).
2. Sort the following into two groups: adjective + at; adjective + to (sorting).
3. Match the verb play with the phrases it is usually associated with (a party, the
piano, breakfast, tennis, a car, a record, etc.) (matching).
4. Read the following extracts. What differences can you find? Why are they different?
Grammar and syntax have been favoured for years. However, the primary role of lexical
phrases in both L1 and L2 acquisition and use has been strongly supported by research.
Careful scrutiny of the nature of these phrases reveals that they enjoy advantageous
features which warrant their restoration as an ideal unit for teaching. It is now our
responsibility as teachers to make the most out of them.
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