Top Down Usage-Based Language Pedagogy: Integrating Sociocultural Theory and Cognitive Linguistics

by James P. Lantolf (Pennsylvania State University)

In 2012 I gave a talk at the annual meeting of the Heritage Language Conference that addressed what researchers in Sociocultural Theory (SCT) refer to as The Pedagogical Imperative. In the talk I presented an approach to language pedagogy called Concept-Based Language Instruction (CBLI). The approach integrates systematic conceptual knowledge of language features as developed in meaning-based theories of language, primarily Cognitive Linguistics and Systemic Functional Linguistics, with psychological principles of SCT. Since that time theoretical and empirical research on CBLI have expanded. This presentation considers some of what has transpired in both domains in the hopes that those who are most directly concerned with Heritage Learners and language pedagogy will find this work relevant.  
Usage-based theories of language appropriately assume that given sufficient exposure over a sufficient period of time, learners will develop a high level of ability in the relevant language. The problem of course is what counts as sufficient exposure for a sufficient time period. Tyler (2012) suggests that it can take up to 10 years or longer for children to master the morphological and pragmatic features of their L1. Vygotsky (1994) argued that for children to develop uniquely human, culturally determined, mental systems, including memory, perception, attention, emotion, imagination, and communication, requires access to appropriate ideal models in appropriate social situations of development (ideal here is not a metaphysical concept but instead refers to reality as it has been configured and made sense of by practical human activity). Without access to such models, development will be hindered resulting in problematic outcomes. Indeed, studies on children raised in institutional settings (e.g., Shütte, 2016; Moraru, et al 2013), or children with biological issues such as otitis media or deafness (with non-signing parents, Hsin, 2017; Pierce, et al, 2017) are very likely to have communicative deficits. Heritage learners in some familial settings may also experience restricted access to robust models of a particular language which is also likely to result in limited linguistic ability (e.g., Flores, Gürel, & Putnam, 2020). Finally, it almost goes without saying that adults whose only exposure to a second language occurs in classroom settings are the group least likely to receive sufficient access to a new language through exposure alone, despite what is argued by Krashen, Van Patten, or those whose pedagogical recommendations are informed by Complex Dynamic Systems Theory. While it might well be possible for classroom learners, including those with Heritage backgrounds, to figure out how relatively simple features of a language operate (e.g., English plural morphology, gender concord in Romance languages,) more complex and subtle features such as verbal aspect and mood in Spanish, articles in English, motion prefixes in Russian, word order in Chinese, discursive cohesion, figurative languages, indexicality and self-presentation, are going to confront virtually insurmountable difficulties unless we provide them with high quality explicitly organized information regarding such features. CBLI is a pedagogical approach designed to address the reduced exposure conundrum of classroom settings. To date CBLI research has been in several L2s, including Spanish, Chinese, English, French, and Japanese, and with a focus on a variety of language features, including verbal aspect, article use, honorifics, motion verbs, sarcasm, figurative language, pragmatics, and literacy. The approach has also been extended to instruction in legal reasoning in American common law, and to teacher education.  
In this presentation I will explain the most recent CBLI framework and will illustrate how it was implemented in a completed as well as in an in-progress project on Chinese word order and a new experimental project on Spanish mood. A list of relevant publications will be provided.  

Published: Sunday, May 24, 2020