ConceptThe rules you’re taught are not the same thing as the rules you use
L2 learners are often explicitly taught rules as statements using words like question, verb, auxiliary etc. For example, on the website Eslbase the question rule Barbara constructed is described in the following terms (with example sentences omitted):
- 1. In questions, the first auxiliary verb comes before the subject.
2. If there is no auxiliary verb we use do (or does, did).
ActivityHere are examples of Barbara’s use of the question rule from Fig. 3.13:
● Would you read this one (.) would you read it for me?
● Will you look at them now?
When Barbara actually forms questions like these, can she possibly be looking up the actual words of the rule as it is stated in Eslbase or a textbook?
FeedbackNo, of course not. Barbara doesn't even know what words like auxiliary and subject mean! And yet the word order she uses in these examples demonstrates that she knows the rule. Somehow, the mental representation of it must be stored in her mind not in the form of words, but in some mental code that is accessed instantaneously as soon as she formulates her intention to ask something and selects the words she needs to do so.
Barbara was four years old when the recordings we’ve been looking at were made. When she went to school, she would have learned how to read and write, and may also have had grammar lessons in the ‘standard’ version of her native language, like many children around the world. She would certainly have been exposed to more formal language (both lexically and grammatically), and would hear accents from beyond Belfast and Ireland itself.
● What effect do you think this would have on her language, both as mental representation and as actual practice?
● Can you identify any parallels between what happens with pupils like Barbara in a ENL school context and what happens with the students in traditional EFL or ESL classes?
FeedbackBarbara would enter school with quite a complex Belfast English mental grammar and a vocabulary of a few thousand words, mostly related to her daily experiences. She would have very limited familiarity with genres beyond those of family life and play with other children. In school she would encounter other versions of the language, predominantly 'Standard English', as this is the version used in formal writing. She would also have to get to grips with more formal genres like lessons and school assemblies.
It is likely that she would be corrected when she used (spoke or wrote) constructions like:
● I have went
● I don't [VERB] no more
● Will I [VERB]?
…even though these are grammatical (coded in neural circuits) in the version of English she learned. She would therefore have two versions of some rules: one capturing a regularity of Belfast English, in a mental representation that unconsciously guides her usage, and one regulating her usage of 'Standard English', perhaps consciously memorised as a statement made up of words (e.g. DON'T USE A DOUBLE NEGATIVE, or TWO NEGATIVES MAKE A POSITIVE). In actual practice, she will automatically and unconsciously activate mental representations of Belfast English, but must consciously monitor her constructions as she formulates them, and suppress them if they don't coincide with what she knows (has been taught) about 'Standard English'.
This is very similar to what happens with students in many traditional EFL and ESL classrooms at beginner level and beyond. They enter the class with one kind of linguistic knowledge (their L1), governed by unconscious but automatically available rules which they have constructed out of the regularities in the speech of those around them. They are then taught another set of language rules of a regulatory sort (corresponding to the L2), which they must use if they are to do well in the subject and not to 'make mistakes'. Additionally, they will formulate their own system on the basis of their actual experience of English usage, which may or may not coincide with the rules they are taught.