MED Magazine - Issue 52 - January 2009

Language Awareness
Lexical priming
Professor Michael Hoey,
Baines Professor of English Language, University of Liverpool

If you are an advanced learner of English, you have a great deal to be proud of. The fact that you are reading this article proves that you have already developed considerable skills in reading English. And yet the chances are that you sometimes feel that you struggle to sound fluent and natural in English. Fluency has nothing to do with intelligence. Native speakers of all types of intelligence are fluent speakers and of course sound effortlessly natural. So what makes it easy for them and difficult for you?

Grammar and vocabulary - the traditional view of language

The traditional view of English (and indeed every other language) is that it has a grammar and a vocabulary and that we produce sentences by putting words from the vocabulary into appropriate grammatical structures. In keeping with this view, very many coursebooks teach vocabulary separately from grammar, often providing lists of words to be learnt along with their translations; the grammar is either taught separately or is relegated to a small corner of the syllabus.

This view of English accounts well for creativity in language, but it does not account well for fluency. If we really stored words in lists in our minds, it would be a painfully slow process to complete any utterance. Native speakers would actually be less fluent than non-native speakers because they would have more words in their list to choose from! Fluency would not be difficult; it would be impossible. Likewise, if sentences really were produced by putting words into grammatical structures, there would be no reason why a sentence you produced should be any less natural than one produced by a native speaker, as long as it was grammatical. In fact, though, as already noted, a non-native speaker will often produce perfectly grammatical sentences with apparently well-chosen words that still manage to sound unnatural.

The explanation for the native speaker’s characteristic fluency and naturalness lies in the fact that we do not construct sentences out of single and separate words. A glance at any page of the Macmillan English Dictionary, shows that words are rarely used as separate pieces of language. They work together in predictable combinations. So the entry for crazy shows that the word is used in combinations like be crazy to do something, crazy about somebody, crazy about something, drive somebody crazy, go crazy, like crazy, and for very common words like hard it becomes very difficult for a dictionary to represent all the combinations that the word appears in. To give just a few examples, hard occurs after a range of verbs in phrases such as the following:

worked hard, tried hard, fought hard, die hard, found it hard, prayed hard, raining hard, squeezed hard

It also occurs before another range of verbs in phrases such as the following:

hard to believe, hard to understand, hard to imagine, hard to explain, hard to follow, hard to hear, hard to remember, hard to bear

Yet again, it occurs with a range of nouns in noun phrases such as the following:

hard luck, hard line, hard facts, hard evidence, hard lives, hard water, hard labour, hard winter, hard currency

Each of these combinations uses hard in a slightly different way and knowledge of the word hard includes knowledge of all these possibilities and very many more. Yet any native speaker of English, whether intelligent or not, will have immediate and automatic access to every one of these combinations. Where does this knowledge come from? Whatever the answer, the existence of combinations like these is proof that the traditional view of language as separate grammar and vocabulary has to be modified.

A new view of language

There is a way of looking at language that explains the existence of combinations like the ones above and accounts for native-speaker fluency. This view of language assumes that language users store the words they know in the context in which they were heard or read. According to this view, every time speakers encounter a word or phrase, they store it along with all the words that accompanied it and with a note of the kind of context it was found in – spoken / written, colloquial / formal, friendly / hostile, and so on. Bit by bit, they begin to build up a collection of examples of the word or phrase in its contexts, and subconsciously start to notice that these contexts have some pattern to them. More specifically, whenever a native speaker encounters a word, he or she makes a mental note, quite subconsciously, of:

the words it occurs with
the grammatical patterns it occurs in
the meanings with which it is associated.

They also make a subconscious note of:

whether it is used to be polite (or rude)
what kind of style it tends to occur in
whether it occurs more often in speech or writing
whether the speaker is someone younger or older.

They also notice where the person who has used the word comes from and whether he or she was being humorous or serious. They notice, too, whether the word or phrase is typically used in particular kinds of text, in academic writing, for example, rather than novels, advertisements or newspaper writing. They even notice whether it is associated with the beginnings or ends of sentences or with paragraph boundaries.

This process of subconsciously noticing is referred to as lexical priming. Noticing all these things is what makes it possible for a speaker to use the right phrase in the right context at the right time. Without realizing what we are doing, we all reproduce in our own speech and writing the language we have heard or read before. We use the words and phrases in the contexts in which we have heard them used, with the meanings we have subconsciously identified as belonging to them and employing the same grammar. This is how native speakers are able to be fluent and because the things they say are subconsciously influenced by what everyone has previously said to them, it also explains why they almost always sound natural.

Our ability to be fluent and natural is, however, limited to the situations we are familiar with. If we have heard a word used repeatedly in particular ways in casual conversation with friends, we will be able to use it confidently in the same situation. It does not follow that we will feel confident about using it in academic writing or talking to strangers. So learning a word means learning it in many different contexts.

A case study: ‘the time has come’

To show how lexical priming might work in practice, let us take the example of the word time as it appears in the following sentence from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, ‘to talk of many things.’

Most speakers would know, as a result of repeatedly hearing or reading the word time, that it sometimes occurs with has come and the in the combination the time has come.

But the average speaker would know much more than this. Here are just a few of the things that most native speakers would have learnt from their repeated exposure to this phrase:

They would subconsciously have worked out that about a third of the time the phrase occurs with verbs of thought and feeling:
I feel the time has come for our team to move in a new direction.

Without realizing it, they would know that the time has come is, about a fifth of the time, followed by some reference to speech or communication:
the time has come to declare failure
They would know (without knowing that they know) that most of the time the time has come is followed by a non-finite clause beginning with to. All the examples above illustrate this.
They would also know that the time has come occurs almost half the time at the beginning of sentences.
The time has come to give this up.
They may also have noticed that the time has come often appears inside quoted speech.
Markovic said: ‘The time has come to change roles. . .’
They also know that time in the time has come won’t be repeated. It won’t contribute to the cohesion of the text.
Finally they know that the time has come often occurs at a point of major change, as the examples above illustrate – a new direction, failure, giving up and changing roles are all possible instances of major change.

The example from Lewis Carroll illustrates five of these points:

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, ‘to talk of many things.’

In this sentence, the time has come occurs with a reference to communication (talk of many things), it is used with a non-finite clause (to talk of many things) in sentence-initial position in quoted speech, and it does not contribute to the cohesion of the poem. It does not, though, occur with a verb of thought or feeling and there is no point of major change. This shows that noticing the ways words are used does not force us to repeat what other people have said. We are always capable of doing something different, however slightly. So lexical priming is quite compatible with being creative.

What it means to ‘know’ a word

Knowing all this is what it means to know a word. Native speakers have acquired a large corpus of examples of the words of English in their typical contexts, and from this they learn how the words are used. By contrast, non-native speakers have typically heard (or read) relatively few examples of even the more common words in natural use and have therefore had less opportunity to learn the way these words typically occur. However, from another point of view, there is no difference in principle between a native speaker and a non-native speaker, in that both never stop being learners. The differences in practice between a native speaker and a non-native speaker are twofold. Firstly, a non-native speaker is typically exposed to less language and to a narrower range of language, and, secondly, the non-native speaker has previously been primed for another language, which initially affects the way he or she is primed in English.

So what can the language learner do to learn a word fully? A clue comes from the article you have just been reading. In the course of reading it, you have been primed consciously about the word time in the phrase the time has come; whether this was an expression you were already familiar with or not, you will, I suspect, feel more confident about using it in the future. At the same time, you have subconsciously also been primed for several other expressions using the word time. For example, when I started discussing the sentence from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I used the phrase most of the time and then a little below that I used the similar expressions about a fifth of the time, half the time, almost half the time, and so on. Without (perhaps) your realizing it, I have, by using these expressions, been priming you to recognize that time may occur with of the and with a measure of quantity or proportion (most, a third, half) and that this may occur with a word showing that the measure is only approximate (about, almost). The implications are that learners need to be exposed to as much authentic material as possible and teachers need to find ways of accelerating the priming processes by drawing attention to the patterns of use that a text (or conversation) reveals.

Another clue on how to learn vocabulary in context is within your grasp, in the form of the Macmillan English Dictionary. MED has been constructed from the evidence of authentic language use provided by our corpus. As a result, the definitions, comments on usage, and examples all reflect the natural patterns of English.

You can accelerate your own priming (or that of your students) by paying close attention to the examples that accompany the definitions as well, of course, as noticing the many phrases the word appears in. To use one of the phrases quoted near the beginning of this article, you’d be crazy not to.

Next in the series

Next in the Language Awareness series: Metaphor

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