Formulaic sequences

Formulaic sequences: Acquisition, processing and use. Ed. by Norbert Schmitt. (Language learning & language teaching 9.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2004. Pp. 304. ISBN 1588115003. $54.

Reviewed by David Oakey, University of Birmingham

Formulaic sequences have a precise, if elastic, definition: ‘a sequence, continuous or discontinuous, of words or other meaning elements, which is, or appears to be, prefabricated: that is, stored and retrieved whole from memory at the time of use, rather than being subject to generation or analysis by the language grammar’ (Wray, Alison. 1999: Formulaic language in learners and native speakers. Language teaching 32.4.214). The written and spoken formulaic sequences studied in Formulaic sequences: Acquisition, processing and use range from you know to something like that to I don’t know what to do.

Norbert Schmitt and Robert Carter, in their wide-ranging overview of the field in the introductory chapter to this book, make no claim as to the status of formulaic sequences in any mentalist theories of language, but argue that the ubiquity of these units in language data suggests that their cognitive role—in first and second language acquisition, reception, and production—is an important one. The papers in this collection draw on research methods from the fields of corpus linguistics, sociolinguistics, and psycholinguistics, as discussed in the chapter by John Read and Paul Nation, to add weight to this claim.

The chapter by Schmitt, Zoltán Dörnyei, Svenja Adolphs, and Valerie Durow presents the results of a longitudinal study that measured the acquisition of receptive and productive knowledge of formulaic sequences by second language learners. Martha A. Jones and Sandra Haywood measure in more detail the awareness and production of formulaic sequences by learners of academic English. Two chapters examine the relationship between the acquisition of formulaic sequences and the extent to which learners of English studying in the UK can become socially integrated with the ‘host’ culture. Dörnyei, Durow, and Khawla Zahran describe a qualitative study, while the chapter by Adolphs and Durow uses a more quantitative approach. All these studies conclude that raising learners’ awareness of target formulaic sequences increases their ability to recognize—but not necessarily use—these items.

The next chapters describe attempts to measure the cognitive processing of spoken and written formulaic sequences. For a frequently recurring cluster of words to be termed a formulaic sequence, it needs to be shown that it is ‘stored’ as a holistic unit in the minds of proficient language users. Schmitt, Sarah Grandage, and Adolphs attempt to do this by comparing native and nonnative speakers’ use of formulaic sequences in a dictation recall task, while the chapters by Geoffrey Underwood, Schmitt, and Adam Galpin and by Schmitt and Underwood analyze, using different tools, how readers process a written text ‘seeded’ with target formulaic sequences.

Two chapters look at formulaic sequences in languages other than English. An unusually wide comparison is made by Carol Spöttl and Michael McCarthy, who compare knowledge of formulaic sequences across L1, L2, L3, and L4, while Alison Wray measures the acquisition of Welsh formulaic sequences by a learner of Welsh. The chapter by Koenraad Kuiper sits less well with the others, but provides a detailed account of how ballad singers, auctioneers, and sports commentators use formulaic sequences in the acquisition of their respective oral traditions.

Although slightly repetitive in places—every chapter starts by citing important prior research that has already been introduced in the first chapter—this collection is a valuable addition to the fields of language description, acquisition, and phraseology.

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