I have been a teacher of English as a foreign language for quite some time now, which means that it is very rare that I read something that revolutionises the way I see language or the best ways to teach it. This might mean that I have become a bit old in the tooth and set in my ways, but I try to combat this by remembering a few things that I read many aeons ago that did completely change the way I view my profession. And because I deal with language, when my view of language changes it changes my view of life and how I relate to it.
One such moment of clarity was while I was studying for my Diploma in teaching English about ten years ago. I read a book called ‘The Lexical Approach’ and its follow-up ‘Implementing the Lexical Approach’ by Michael Lewis. At the time there were a lot of controversial ideas in these books about how we use language, how we learn language and the best ways to teach language. Among these ideas were the fact that vocabulary, or lexis*, is far more important than grammar and that we shouldn’t worry about individual sounds when teaching pronunciation but on things such as word stress, sentence stress and intonation.
One of the main outcomes of the Lexical Approach has been to accept that we don’t construct sentences by putting individual words together. Instead, we have sort of prefabricated chunks of language that we can use in whole or in part. For example, if we really want a cup of tea we don’t search in our minds for the word I and then the word would or ‘d and then think of the word love, followed later by a and then cup to soon be followed by of and then finally the search for the word that means tea. The Lexical Approach teaches us that we have stored in our minds the expression I’d love with a slot that could filled with other fully formed expressions like an apple, a Ruby Murray or a cup of tea.
And so it was with some interest that I have been following my son’s journey on his language acquisition. Would he learn language in individual words, or would he acquire chunks of language. After all, just because we learn and use a second language in chunks, doesn’t necessarily mean we would learn our first language in the same way.
From the age of about 1 it seemed as if the ideas of the Lexical Approach wouldn’t really tell me much about how we learn our first languages. My son, Mr. T, was picking up and using individual words. He learnt the colour ‘blue’ and the adjective ‘big’ and the word ‘plane’. After a while he might say ‘big plane’, but it still seemed as if he was thinking about the two individual words, rather than using them together.
And things started to change. He never learned the word ‘read‘ or the word ‘book’, but that didn’t stop him saying ‘Daddy read book now.’ While we were in the UK this usage of chunks of language exploded. He came out with fully formed expressions such as ‘See you later’, ‘Look out the window’ and Go home Noel!’
And so I am pleased to report that my totally unscientific observations have proven that the Lexical Approach is 100% true for both first and second language acquisition.
*Lexis isn’t really the same as vocabulary. Vocabulary is usually thought of as individual words, whereas lexis is more about individual words and the way they appear with other words to form expressions or phrases.