Constructionist Approaches to Language Pedagogy 2

Plenary speakers


Keynote speakers:

Prof. Dr. Lourdes Ortega, Georgetown University, Washington DC

"Usage-inspired Language Pedagogy"

Understandings of what counts as effective language pedagogy have varied over the centuries (Howatt & Smith, 2014). But ever since the communicative language teaching revolution of the 1980s and up to the present heyday of focus on form, task-based language learning, and content and language integrated learning, all proposals concur that meaning and context shape linguistic competence and that it is imperative to make instruction relevant to individual learners and responsive to their different social and affective needs. Additionally, a new consensus about what it means to learn language is accruing from empirical studies that adopt usage-based, constructionist, and cognitive linguistic perspectives and document how, in child learners (Ambridge & Lieven, 2015) as well as in adult learners (Cadierno & Eskildsen, 2015), grammar emerges piece-meal from general psychological principles of statistical learning, abstraction, and categorization that are massively, redundantly, and compulsorily engaged during iterative social communication events. Moreover, the events, the statistics, and the categorization are specific to each person’s history of language experience (Ochs, 2012), driven by socially distributed meaning and grounded in the material world, that is, multimodal and embodied (Kiefer & Pullvermüller, 2012). How will these usage-based insights challenge, update, or transform what counts as effective language pedagogy in the foreseeable future?

In this presentation, I examine a broad palette of proposed applications of usage-based, constructionist, and cognitive linguistic insights to language teaching.  Some see effective language teaching as fundamentally implicit, since language learning is statistical and input driven (Verspoor, forthcoming). Some agree but also envision a larger role for explicit instruction of grammar as providing top-down short-cuts that strengthen cognitive processes of abstraction and categorization (Robinson & Ellis, 2008), particularly if the explicit content is informed by cognitive linguistic descriptions and appeals to meaning (Tyler, 2012; Tyler et al., forthcoming). A role for largely explicit pedagogies is envisioned by others (Zhang & Lantolf, 2015), hoping for instructional designs that can create “artificial” routes of explicit self-regulation into language development. Others (Wagner, 2015) have also called for instruction that orchestrates opportunities for contextualized social interactions “in the wild” with explicit reflections of one’s emergent usage history in the classroom. Yet, others have emphasized the need to put the complexities of learner-and-language at the center of instruction (Larsen-Freeman, 2015; Roehr-Brackin, 2014). In reviewing and evaluating these trends, I will look to distill theoretical principles that might open up a new kind of usage-inspired language pedagogy for the future.


Prof. Dr. Ewa Dabrowska, Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

"Experience, aptitude and individual differences in ultimate attainment: A comparison of L1 and L2 speakers"

One of the best established findings in L2 acquisition resesarch is the existence of age effects: older learners are typically not as successful in learning a second language as younger learners. It is controversial, however, whether age-related differences in ultimate attainment are attributable to learner biases, differences in the quality and quantity of the input, motivation, or maturational factors (e.g. capacity for implicit learning or access to UG). As a result, most L2 ultimate acquisition research focusses on adult learners' weaknesses rather than areas of relative strength. Furthermore, most adult L2 acquisition studies use highly educated learners (university students and graduates), and equally educated controls, ignoring the fact that there are considerable individual differences in first language ultimate attainment, and that many low-educated native speakers fail to master aspects of the grammar of their language (see Dąbrowska 2012, 2015).  For these reasons, I submit, our knowledge of L2 acquisition and attainment is quite biased.

In this presentation, I describe the outcome of a relatively large-scale study that aims to provide a more balanced view of L2 attainment. The study involved testing native and adult L2 English learners' comprehension of a range of grammatical structures, vocabulary size and knowledge of collocations as well as three nonlinguistic measures (nonverbal IQ, language aptitutde and print exposure). The native control group (N=90) included participants from a variety social and educational backgrounds, with the sample approximating, in so far as possible, the demographics of the UK population. The nonnative participants (N=69) consisted of L2 speakers who arrived in the UK at age 16 and resided in an English-speaking country for a minimum of three years, again recruited from a variety of social and educational backgrounds. As anticipated, the native group outperformed the L2 speakers on all three language measures. However, the effect sizes varied according to area of linguistic knowledge: relatively small for grammar, moderately large for vocabulary, and very large for collocations. Moreover, there was considerable overlap between the scores in the two groups, particularly for grammar, where 74% of the nonnative participants fell within the native speaker range, and 49% perfomed above the native mean. These results are difficult to reconcile with critical period explanations of age effects. However, regression analyses revealed some interesting differences between the groups in which nonlinguistic measures best predict performance on the language tasks. The results of the study suggest that L1 and L2 learners rely on the same cognitive mechanisms when learning language, albeit to different extents, and that the differences between the two populations are explainable in terms of the amount and type of linguistic experience, and possibly motivation. Furthermore, once we go beyond structures that are known to be particularly difficult for L2 learners and consider a more varied native control group, L2 learners can be seen as very successful, considering the amount of exposure they get. I conclude with some implications for L2 pedagogy.


PD Dr. Katrin Lindner, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, München

"Learning German as a second language: Findings from a pilot study with refugees aged three and four"

The current situation for refugees in Germany calls for new language learning programs. So far, usage based approaches have rarely formed the basis for such a project. In a classroom study, Madlener (2015) showed how exposure to skewed input can successfully be employed in instructed adult L2 acquisition.  

In February we started a three-month-program for three and four year old refugees to prepare them for kindergarten. Children’s family language is Arabic or Dari.  Their access to German is rather limited. Only one of the children has an older brother who recently started grade school. We interact with the children every morning for 30 minutes, selecting everyday topics and a small set of constructions, e.g. colors (x is blue) or animals moving in space (the pony can run). Constructions are presented with high token frequency and some variability.  The talk will report on details of the program and line out the development of two Syrian children, a girl and a boy. It will concentrate on the acquisition of verb placement, NP-structures and wh-questions and the amount of input for each of these structures to emerge.