Factors Contributing to the Acquisition of Formulaic Sequences in L2

  • Written by: Valentina Temina-Kingsolver
  • Country: United States
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  • Factors Contributing to the Acquisition of Formulaic Sequences in L2

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Different factors that might affect the extent of exposure to a language include classroom focus, the time spent in a country where the language is spoken as native, and the amount of reading in the language.

It is generally known that extensive exposure to the target-language environment through social and cultural adaptation and an on-going contact with local native speakers can lead to students' increase of the use of FS in their speech production, and subsequently to the increase of their overall language proficiency (Adolphs & Durow, 2004; Dornyei et al., 2004; Wong Fillmore, 1976).

Some studies investigated the impact of social interaction on acquisition of formulaic sequences (FS) by L2 learners and the importance of FS for increasing L2 speakers' fluency.  For example, Adolphs and Durow (2004) reported two studies, the purpose of which was to investigate how and to what extent the exposure to a language and social-cultural integration influence the acquisition of FS by L2 learners over an extended period of time.

Two female Chinese participants studying at a university in the UK were selected for the study on the basis of high vs. low levels of integration with native speakers.  The first participant, Beth, had some contact with native speakers prior to her arrival in the U.K.  After she arrived, she made many friends and appeared to have a much more varied social life than Ann, the second participant, who had communicated more with co-nationals than with native speakers.  As a result, Beth managed to achieve more social integration with native speakers than Ann.

In the first study, the two participants were interviewed five times at different periods of their stay in the U.K.  The interviews were transcribed and analyzed in terms of frequently-used sequences.  The sequences derived from the non-native speakers' output were compared with native-speaker corpus.  The purpose of such comparison was to determine whether the overall percentage of the recurrent phrases would increase or decrease over time, which would show which FS the participants relied on the most.  The researchers chose 10 3-word sequences that they included in the analysis of all five interviews. In addition to semantically tangible multi-word sequences (e.g., I don't know, it's very nice, etc.), the researchers also included in their analysis sequences that serve a specific function in discourse (e.g., yeah just er as a hesitation marker).  Besides the comparison of the use of FS by each of the participants separately, the results were compared between the participants to see if the differences in cultural integration would mark the differences in the quantity and quality of the FS used by the two participants.

The results of this study clearly showed that Beth increased the use of FS over time, while Ann failed to show any significant increase in her use of FS.  The researchers also reported a change in the type of FS between the first and the last interviews: frequent hesitation markers in Interview 1 were substituted in subsequent interviews with FS that had meaningful lexical items (e.g., a lot of, it's very nice, etc. were used instead of er just er, I think er).  When FS were compared in the five interviews, it was noticed that Beth's FS were more diverse and more resembled a native speaker's repertoire than Ann's.  Ann, on the other hand, tended to use the same FS recurrently.  Thus, the authors suggested that lack of interaction with native speakers was one of the problems that L2 learners encountered while studying in their native countries and even in the country of the target language.

The main focus of the second study was on the most frequent lexical items used by the two participants and the FS that were formed around those items.  A sequence analysis of these items was carried out with the help of Wordsmith Tools.  There was little overlap between the type of FS in the output of the two participants and the type of FS found in the native-speaker corpus.  Since the data obtained from the interviews were small, it was not possible to make any reasonable generalizations about the quality and the quantity of FS in the speech production of the participants.  The authors of the article concluded that there is a relationship be­tween social integration and the acquisition and usage of FS.  However, they admitted that the small set of data did not allow them to draw any stronger conclusions, and called for more research on this question.

In another study, Regan (1998) focused on acquisition of sociolinguistic competence by L2 learners during a period of study abroad.  She discussed various aspects of sociolinguistic competence, and described some principle factors that affect sociolinguistic competence; namely, context of acquisition, level of proficiency, degree of contact with native speakers, role of input, individual differences and native speaker norms.  Her major purpose was to investigate if there are any benefits of studying abroad for the acquisition of sociolinguistic and sociocultural competence by L2 learners.  She compared that type of learners with those who have not been abroad.

According to Reagan, L2 learners can be characterized "by a drive towards approximating native speaker behavior and accommodation to native speech norms" (p.62). They acquire more than just ‘linguistic knowledge'.  The knowledge of native speech variation and native speakers' norms and culture are important for building their sociolinguistic knowledge.  She also observed that, "the learner in a study abroad situation becomes sensitive to the choices the native speaker makes in relation to possible variants in the L2" (p.  62).

One of the studies described by Regan was study conducted by Marriott's (1995), in which Australian secondary students lived in host families in Japan, thus having plenty of contact with native speakers.  They were able to acquire politeness forms (including the knowledge of the honorific system), that constitute a crucial area of sociolinguistic knowledge in Japanese.   The fact that learners lived in a native speech community and had plenty of contact with native speakers contributed to their relative success in acquisition of Japanese as a second language.

The author discussed various factors that affect acquisition of sociolinguistic knowledge while studying abroad, including the following: (1) context of acquisition, i.e. interaction of a social and oral nature; naturalistic learning and involvement with a variety of media presumably facilitate L2 acquisition; (2) the kind of stay abroad, i.e. whether students stay in a host family, university dorms or share an apartment with other non-native speakers; Regan notes that, "students in a study abroad program frequently have difficulty accessing native speakers due to the fact that the learners have to live in university residences or in homes where there are other non-native speakers" (p.  68); (3) level of proficiency: research in this area claims that lower proficiency learners make the most obvious progress in language acquisition; however, Regan suggests that advanced learners might be better in acquiring subtle registers in pragmatics (e.g., politeness forms) than beginners; advanced learners are also more likely to seek contact with native speakers; (4) role of input, i.e. the relationships between exposure, intake and actual production of linguistic structures: negotiated input and learning through interaction are crucial for L2 acquisition: the exchange students in Marriott's study failed to acquire addressee honorifics because they did not receive and utilize corrective feedback; Regan suggests that practice, i.e. the output, is also important here; (5) native speaker sociolinguistic norms: in Adamson and Regan's (1991) study, L2 learners failed to produce prestige forms in monitored style; Regan sees the input as a possible explanation for that and suggests that, "the students may have not have come into contact with as many speakers of the prestige norm" (p. 73); according to Regan, "the native speaker makes the choice between linguistic forms in a predictable way" (p. 79) and L2 learners must learn to make similar choices; (6) individual differences of learners, i.e. differences in monitoring style and in preference for certain communication strategies; such differences can include differences in the number of years of study, previous trips to the target-language countries, and attitude toward native speakers; and finally (7) formulaic language: it is used by speakers for reasons of ‘buying time' and fluency; in Marriott's study, learners of Japanese as L2 successfully acquired polite formulaic expressions which helped them to achieve "ease of delivery and the ability to select appropriate level of politeness" (p. 82); Regan refers to Freed's (1995) study where a German speaker of French as L2 was perceived more fluent due to the extensive use of formulae.

All these issues are interrelated and are important for successful acquisition of FS and for L2 development in general.

Regan raises a question of "what it is exactly students learn when they go abroad in relation to sociolinguistic and sociocultural competence" (p. 65).  She admits that it is not clear what makes a learner sound like a native speaker.  Nevertheless, Regan was able to notice that "issues of fluency, of native speaker norms, dialects, context and style shifting, knowledge of variation in the target language and use of formulaic phrases may all be among the aspects which appear to form part of what is perceived as the improvement after the stay abroad" (p. 77).  Her major conclusion, however, is that "despite the very considerable improvements, stay abroad alone does not seem to produce complete native speaker competence" (pp. 84-85).

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