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The Idiom Principle Put to the Test: An Exercise in Applied Comparative Linguistics

vrijdag, 11 september, 2009 - 11:45
Campus: Brussels Humanities, Sciences & Engineering campus
Faculteit: Arts and Philosophy
Hélène Stengers

This dissertation comprises a comparative study into standardised phraseology, or formulaic language, in two typologically different languages, namely English and Spanish.

This relatively recent topic of interest developed independently in several language-related fields, which provided me with the incentive to approach the realm of phraseology from an ‘interdisciplinary’ perspective in this dissertation. Consequently, the study is fuelled by insights from a variety of research domains, such as Second/Foreign Language Acquisition (SLA/FLA), psycholinguistics, foreign language pedagogy and corpus linguistics.

Two major investigations are presented in this dissertation, which are essentially quantitative in nature. They were set up in an attempt to probe the applicability and effectiveness of an instructional method known as the Lexical Approach (LA) (Lewis 1993, 1997, 2000). The LA relies on the ubiquity of formulaic sequences in language, i.e. what Sinclair (1991) has called the idiom principle. The reported studies investigate the applicability of the LA beyond the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classroom, more precisely to the teaching of Spanish as a foreign language. The principal reason why Spanish was chosen as a target language for this comparative angle is that Spanish, being a Romance language, is typologically different from English. Both quantitative investigations give equal recognition to the significance of formulaic word combinations for linguistic competence from two different perspectives. Whereas the first investigation presents a quantitative comparison of the relative pervasiveness of idiomaticity or ‘phraseomaticity’ in English and Spanish native speaker usage, the second investigation deals with both the role of phraseology in adult FL learning, especially as manifested in oral production, and the teaching and learning of two typologically distinct foreign languages, in this case English and Spanish.

As the scope of application of such a phrase-oriented approach largely depends on the language’s relative ‘richness’ in (prefabricated) lexical patterns, i.e. the relative prevalence of Sinclair’s (1991) idiom principle, the first quantitative investigation of this dissertation reports a quantitative comparison of the relative pervasiveness of the idiom principle in English and Spanish native speaker discourse. The initial aim was to carry out a comparative study of collocational strength, but due to corpus-technological problems, an alternative investigation was devised. This alternative investigation bears on both a ‘narrow’ and a ‘broad’ conception of idiomaticity and is comprised of two studies (i) a corpus-based comparison of the frequency of figurative idioms and (ii) a quantitative study of expert speakers’ identification of English and Spanish formulaic sequences in spoken language.

The pedagogical effectiveness of a phrase-oriented approach may also be affected by typological differences between the target languages, such as the extent of inflectional morphology and word order. The second quantitative investigation reports a study which experimentally probes the relevance of a phrase-oriented foreign language instructional method such as Lewis’ (1993, 1997, 2000) LA not only to EFL, but also to Spanish as a Foreign language (ELE, or Epañol como Lengua Extranjera). Two controlled experiments with a pre- and post-test design were conducted with the participation of intermediate adult learners of English and Spanish as an FL. The aim of this comparative study was two-fold:

-          to measure the extent to which an instructional method fostering awareness of FL lexical phrases leads to a higher uptake (i.e. storage in long-term memory) of lexical chunks in comparison with a method with no awareness-raising of chunks in English and Spanish;

-          to measure the extent to which the appropriate chunk use by FL learners of English and Spanish is associated with their levels of FL English and FL Spanish oral proficiency.

The research presented in this dissertation is original and has clear relevance for FL teachers and FL pedagogy.