Successful Spoken English – interview with authors

The following is an email interview with the authors, Christian Jones, Shelley Byrne, Nicola Halenko, of the recent Routledge publication Successful Spoken English: Findings from Learner Corpora. Note that I have not yet read this (waiting for a review copy!).

Successful Spoken English

1. Can you explain the origins of the book?

We wanted to explore what successful learners do when they speak and in particular learners from B1-C1 levels, which are, we feel, the most common and important levels. The CEFR gives “can do” statements at each level but these are often quite vague and thus open to interpretation. We wanted to discover what successful learners do in terms of their linguistic, strategic, discourse and pragmatic competence and how this differs from level to level.  

We realised it would be impossible to use data from all the interactions a successful speaker might have so we used interactive speaking tests at each level. We wanted to encourage learners and teachers to look at what successful speakers do and use that, at least in part, as a model to aim for as in many cases the native speaker model is an unrealistic target.

2. What corpora were used?

The main corpus we used was the UCLan Speaking Test Corpus (USTC). This contained data from only students  from a range of nationalities who had been successful (based on holistic test scoring) at each level, B1-C1. As points of comparison, we also recorded native speakers undertaking each test. We also made some comparisons to the LINDSEI (Louvain International Database of Spoken English Interlanguage) corpus and, to a lesser extent, the spoken section of the BYU-BNC corpus.

Test data does not really provide much evidence of pragmatic competence so we constructed a Speech Act Corpus of English (SPACE) using recordings of computer-animated production tasks by B2 level learners  for requests and apologies in a variety of contexts. These were also rated holistically and we used only those which were rated as appropriate or very appropriate in each scenario. Native speakers also recorded responses and these were used as a point of comparison. 

3. What were the most surprising findings?

In terms of the language learners used, it was a little surprising that as levels increased, learners did not always display a greater range of vocabulary. In fact, at all levels (and in the native speaker data) there was a heavy reliance on the top two thousand words. Instead, it is the flexibility with which learners can use these words which changes as the levels increase so they begin to use them in more collocations and chunks and with different functions. There was also a tendency across levels to favour use of chunks which can be used for a variety of functions. For example, although we can presume that learners may have been taught phrase such as ‘in my opinion’ this was infrequent and instead they favoured ‘I think’ which can be used to give opinons, to hedge, to buy time etc .

In terms of discourse, the data showed that we really need to pay attention to what McCarthy has called ‘turn grammar’. A big difference as the levels increased was the increasing ability of learners to co-construct  conversations, developing ideas from and contributing to the turns of others. At B1 level, understandably, the focus was much more on the development of their own turns.

4. What findings would be most useful to language teachers?

Hopefully, in the lists of frequent words, keywords and chunks they have something which can inform their teaching at each of these levels. It would seem to be reasonable to use, as an example, the language of successful B2 level speakers to inform what we teach to B1 level speakers. Also, though tutors may present a variety of less frequent or ‘more difficult’ words and chunks to learners, successful speakers will ultimately employ lexis which is more common and more natural sounding in their speech, just as the native speakers in our data also did.

We hope the book will also give clearer guidance as to what the CEFR levels mean in terms of communicative competence and what learners can actually do at different levels. Finally, and related to the last  point, we hope that teachers will see how successful speakers need to develop all aspects of communicative competence (linguistic, strategic, discourse and pragmatic competence) and that teaching should focus on each area rather than only one of two of these areas.

There has been some criticism, notably by Stefan Th. Gries and collaborators that much learner corpus research is restricting itself factorwise when explaining a linguistic phenomenon. Gries calls for a multi-factor approach whose power can be seen in a study conducted with Sandra C. Deshors, 2014, on the uses of may, can and pouvoir with native English users and French learners of English. Using nearly 4000 examples from 3 corpora, annotated with over 20 morphosyntactic and semantic features, they found for example that French learners of English see pouvoir as closer to can than may.

The analysis for Successful Spoken English was described as follows:

“We examined the data with a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data analysis, using measures such as log-likelihood to check significance of frequency counts but then manual examination of concordance line to analyse the function of language.”

Hopefully with the increasing use of multi-factor methods learner corpus analysis can yield even more interesting and useful results than current approaches allow.

Chris and his colleagues kindly answered some follow-up questions:

5. How did you measure/assign CEFR level for students?  

Students were often already in classes where they had been given a proficiency test and placed in a level . We then gave them our speaking  test and only took data from students who had been given a global pass score of 3.5 or 4 (on a scale of 0-5). The borderline pass mark was 2.5 so we only chose students who had clearly passed but were not at the very top of the level and obviously then only those who gave us permissions to do so. The speaking tests we used were based on Canale’s (1984) oral proficiency interview design and consisted of a warm up phase, a paired interactive discussion task and a topic specific conversation based on the discussion task. Each lasted between 10-15 minutes.

6. So most of the analysis was in relation to successful students who were measured holistically?  


7. And could you explain what holistically means here?

Yes, we looked at successful learners at each CEFR level, according to the test marking criteria. They were graded for grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, discourse management and interactive ability based on criteria such as  the following (grade 3-3.5) for discourse management ‘Contributions are normally relevant, coherent and of an appropriate length’. These scores were then amalgamated into a global score. These scales are holistic in that they try to assess what learners can do in terms of these competences to gain an overall picture of their spoken English rather than ticking off a list of items they can or cannot use. 

8. Do I understand correctly that comparisons with native speaker corpora were not as much used as with successful vs unsuccessful students? 

No, we did not look at unsuccessful students at all. We were trying to compare successful students at B1-C1 levels and to draw some comparison to native speakers. We also compared our data to the LINDSEI spoken learner corpus to check the use of key words.

9. For the native speaker comparisons what kind of things were compared?

We compared each aspect of communicative competence – linguistic, strategic, discourse and pragmatic competences to some degree. The native speakers took exactly the same tests so we compared (as one example), the most frequent words they used.


Thanks for reading.



Deshors, S. C., & Gries, S. T. (2014). A case for the multifactorial assessment of learner language. Human Cognitive Processing (HCP), 179. Retrieved from



Overloading on cognitive load theory in SLA

This is a response to a John Sweller article in 2017 on applying cognitive load theory to language teaching.

Geary and the interface hypothesis

I want to first discuss cognitive developmental and evolutionary psychologist David Geary’s, 2007,  two types of knowledge since Sweller invokes Geary to assert a critical division or discontinuity between child first language acquisition and adult second language acquisition.

Geary’s first type of knowledge (or abilities/domains/cognition, Geary uses these terms interchangeably) has evolved over human evolutionary time and is labelled primary knowledge. Such knowledge (such as your first language) is said to be fast and implicit. Geary’s second type of knowledge develops due to cultural reasons and is slower and explicit. Geary uses reading as an example of secondary type of knowledge. I have dropped the label biological as I think it is unhelpful for the present discussion.

We could see a parallel here between Geary’s division and the conscious/unconscious or explicit/implicit division discussed in second language acquisition (SLA). The following quotes of Geary:

“I focus on primary abilities because these are the foundation for the construction of secondary abilities through formal education.” Geary, 2007:3
“Academic learning involves the modification of primary abilities…” Geary, 2007:5
“I assume that primary knowledge and abilities provide the foundation for academic learning.” Geary, 2007:6

seem to indicate when applied to language that there is some sort of interface between conscious learning of language and its unconscious acquisition.

So does such an interface exist? If so how does it work? Absent answers to such questions we should accept the default position that there is no interface, that explicit conscious language knowledge is separate from implicit unconscious knowledge (John Truscott, 2015).

Discontinuities and the nature of language

Cognitive scientists such as Susan Carey (2009) class language as a core cognitive activity (core cognition differs from sensory-perceptual systems and theoretical conceptual knowledge) along with object, number, and agent cognition. And there is (largely) a continuity of such core cognitions from childhood to adulthood. Discontinuities happen with say object knowledge and physics knowledge – infants know that objects are solid yet when older the theory of physics tells them that objects are not really solid. Here the physics is “incommensurate” with object cognition and this contributes to the difficulty for students of studying physics at school. Physics is at the same time more expressively powerful than object cognition.

It is unclear from Geary what kind of discontinuity is being described or even if there is one (as the labels primary and secondary seem to point to). From what I can gather Geary seems to think that primary knowledge can help with secondary knowledge (seen as the interface position in SLA) and so the two may not be so conflictual after all. I may of course be mistaken in my reading here of Geary.

The unclarity from Geary of what kind of discontinuity he means may explain the logical leap that Sweller seems to have made, namely, adult second language acquisition is secondary knowledge and incommensurate with the child’s first language acquisition. Let’s look at the passage where he indicates this:

“Learning a second language as an adult provides an example of secondary knowledge acquisition as do most of the topics covered in educational institutions. We invented education to deal with biologically secondary information. Learning to listen to and speak a second language as an adult requires conscious effort on the part of the learner and explicit instruction on the part of instructors. Little will be learned solely by immersion. Furthermore, since learning to read and write are biologically secondary because we have not evolved to acquire these skills, they also require conscious effort by learners and explicit teaching by instructors, irrespective of whether we are dealing with a native or second language.”

Sweller seems to be mixing up literacy skills with (adult) language acquisition. And further seems to switch between the two – compare “learning to listen to and speak a second language as an adult requires conscious effort” and “learning to read and write are biologically secondary”. Also he assumes that because languages are taught in schools that means they are like other school subjects i.e. language is like developing conceptual knowledge in physics, maths, chemistry etc.

This assumption that language is like conceptual knowledge is very evident in this 1998 article by Graham Cooper and his use of a “foreign language” example to explain an aspect of cognitive load theory:

Graham Cooper “foreign language” and element interactivity

Most language teachers will find this view of language very peculiar. For example, the assumption that because a vocab item may be a single word it can be classed as a low element interaction. This ignores the semantics of single words for a start. More generally, as seen in the screenshot, there is an assumption that language is an object that can be transmitted to learners from the environment much like concepts in a subject like maths.

Ignoring SlA

I want to now comment on some more paragraphs in the Tesol Ontario article. Let’s start with the first paragraph:

“Most second language teaching recommendations place a considerable emphasis on “naturalistic” procedures such as immersion within a second language environment. Immersion means exposing learners to the second language in many of their daily activities, including other educational activities ostensibly unrelated to learning the second language.”

I guess by “naturalistic” procedures Sweller may be alluding to the Natural approach by Krashen? If so he has badly understood what that means and is badly out of date with the debate. Badly understood since the natural approach does not entail immersion and badly out of date by ignoring developments such as task based learning which arguably “includes other educational activities ostensibly unrelated to the second language”.

“Information-store principle. In order to function, we must store immeasurably large amounts of information in long-term memory. The difference between people who are more as opposed to less competent in any area including competence in a second language is heavily determined by the amount of knowledge held in long-term memory (Ericsson & Charness, 1994; Nandagopal & Ericsson, 2012).”

This may, with caveats, apply to vocabulary learning or pragmatics, but how applicable is it to other language systems such as syntax or phonology. Further the studies quoted are based on novice and experts in non-language domains like chess.

“In second language learning, this means teachers should explicitly present the grammar and vocabulary of the second language rather than expecting learners to induce the information themselves (see Kirschner et al., 2006, for alternative formulations that emphasise implicit learning) as occurs when dealing with a biologically primary task such as learning a native language as a child.”

Sweller is characterizing child acquisition as “expecting learners to induce the information”. What is meant by induction here? Does he mean usage based notions of induction where statistical information in the environment is used by the child to learn a language? If so then usage folks say the same process also happens in adult language learning and further that process is not explicit in the sense used by Sweller.

“Requiring learners to go to a separate dictionary imposes an additional cognitive load. Learners should not be required to search for needed information.”

How does this claim compare with say the involvement load hypothesis of Batia Laufer and Jan Hulstijn from 2001, where “search” is one of the cognitive components and more “search” e.g. consulting a dictionary is said to lead to better vocabulary retention? (as an aside – involvement load hypothesis was influenced by the levels of processing theory, a general critique of cognitive load theory is why should more load lead to learning problems? Contrast this to levels of processing which implies deeper (more load?) processing would lead to better performance).

“Another recommendation is to avoid redundancy. Unnecessary information frequently is processed with learners only finding after the event that they did not need to process the additional information in order to learn.”

Considering the reported benefits for novice language learners of elaborated input (not translations but “redundancy and clearer signaling of thematic structure in the form of examples, paraphrases and repetition of original information, and synonyms and definitions of low-frequency words” – Sun-Young Oh, 2001), what evidence is there that such elaborated input is not as beneficial for more expert language learners?

To conclude, note that the summary report from the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2017) which ELT Research Bites covered, describes several criticisms of cognitive load theory in general. My discussion attempted to critique the application of this theory to language acquisition. This critique is only very cursory but it is I think enough to raise serious doubts about the extent of Sweller’s awareness of SLA research and hence to take any applications very critically. This does not preclude future applications of cognitive load theory in language teaching and certainly, notwithstanding the general critiques, it is applicable in the domain of instructional design where it originated.

Thanks for reading.


Carey, S. (2009). The origin of concepts. Oxford University Press.

Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation. (August, 2017). Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand. Downloaded from

Cooper, G. (December 1998). Research into Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design at UNSW. Retrieved from

Geary, D. C. (2007). Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology. In J. S. Carlson & J. R. Levin (Eds.), Educating the evolved mind: Conceptual foundations for an evolutionary educational psychology (pp. 1–99). Greenwich: Information Age. Retrieved from

Laufer, B., & Hulstijn, J. (2001). Incidental vocabulary acquisition in a second language: The construct of task-induced involvement. Applied linguistics, 22(1), 1-26.

OH, S. Y. (2001). Two types of input modification and EFL reading comprehension: Simplification versus elaboration. Tesol Quarterly, 35(1), 69-96.

Sweller, J. (August 2017). Cognitive load theory and teaching English as a second language to adult learners. Contact Magazine, 43(2), 5-9. Retrieved from

Truscott, J. (2015). Consciousness and second language learning. Multilingual Matters.

CORE blimey – genre language

A #corpusmooc participant in answering a discussion question on what they would like to use corpora for replied that they wanted a reference book that shows various common structures in various genres such as “letters of condolence, public service announcements, obituaries”.

The CORE (Corpus of Online Registers) corpus at BYU along with the virtual corpora feature allows a way to reach for this.

For example, the screenshot below shows the keywords of verbs & adjectives in the Reviews genre:

Before I briefly show how to make a virtual corpus do note that the standard interface allows you do to a lot of things with the various registers. The CORE interface shows you examples of this. For example the following shows the distribution of the present perfect across the genres:

Create virtual corpora

To create a virtual corpus first go to the CORE start page:

Then click on Texts/Virtual and get this screen:

Next press Create corpus to get this screen:

We want the Reviews Genre so choose it from the drop down box:

Then press Submit to get the following screen:

Here you can either accept these texts or say you want to build only a film review corpus manually look through links and filter for film reviews only. Give your corpus a name or add it to an already existing corpus. Here we give it the name “review”:

Then after submitting you will be taken to the following screen which shows you all your virtual corpora collection we can see the corpus we just created at number 5:

Now you can list keywords.

Do note that the virtual corpora feature is available in most of the BYU collection so if genre is not your thing maybe the other choices of corpora might be useful.

Thanks for reading and do let me know if anything appears unclear.


Affix knowledge test and word part technique


There is a new online test, the CAT-WPLT (computerized adaptive testing of Word Part Levels Test) to assess students word part knowledge, i.e. prefix, suffix and stems (though the test only uses affixes for receptive use). The (diagnostic) test is composed of three parts – form, meaning and use. The form part presents 1 real affix and 4 distractor affixes for the test user to choose. The meaning part presents 1 correct meaning and 3 distractor meanings and the use part presents 4 parts of speech to match one of these correctly to the affix.

Try out the test – CAT-WPLT.

The online test takes about 10-15mins to complete and results in a nice feedback screen showing how the test taker did on the form, meaning and use of the affixes. There are comparison advanced, intermediate and beginner profiles.

Figure from Mizumoto, Sasao, & Webb (2017) pg. 14

So say you have a profile of a student who shows weakness in form and meaning. What now? Mizumoto,  Sasao, & Webb (2017) suggest giving learners their pdf list of 118 affixes (assuming you don’t need to use the test again). So if your learner is at level 1 for recognizing the form of an affix, the affixes listed as level 2 can be focused on.

Another possibility is a memory technique called the word part technique.

Word part technique
Very simply it is using an already known word which contains the same word stem/root as the new word to be remembered.

More specifically the system Wei and Nation (2013) describe lists very frequent stems i.e. stems which appear in words in the most frequent 2000 words of the BNC. These are then used to learn stems appearing in the remaining 8000 mid-frequency words in the BNC wordlist. For example a high frequency word like visit has the root -vis- which appears in mid-frequency words such as visible, envisage, revise.

Once a form connection is seen between a known high frequency word and a mid-frequency word a meaning connection needs to be made i.e. explaining the form connection. So to explain the word visible we can say visible is something that you can see. Here the explanation uses the meaning of -vis- i.e. see.

(high freq. word) visit -> go to see someone
(stem)                  vis -> see
(mid-freq. word)  visible -> something that you can see

According to Wei & Nation (2013) the most difficult step is explaining the connection. Though I think the most difficult is the first step – seeing the connection i.e. the stem/root word. Wei & Nation (2013) encouragingly state that making the connection and explaining it can develop with practice.


Screen Shot 2017-09-07 at 2.03.44 PMScreen Shot 2017-09-07 at 2.04.08 PMScreen Shot 2017-09-07 at 2.04.21 PMScreen Shot 2017-09-07 at 2.04.31 PM

Click here to see top 25 word stems taken from Wei & Nation (2013)

They go on to recommend that once students have worked with this technique with the teacher they can go on to use it themselves as a strategy.

The technique’s efficacy is on par with the keyword technique and learners own methods or self-strategies (Wei, 2015). The word part technique has the added benefits that come with the nature of etymology and the history of words.

Thanks for reading.


Mizumoto, A., Sasao, Y., & Webb, S. A. (2017). Developing and evaluating a computerized adaptive testing version of the Word Part Levels Test. Language Testing, 0265532217725776.

Wei, Z., & Nation, P. (2013). The word part technique: A very useful vocabulary teaching technique. Modern English Teacher, 22, 12–16.

Wei, Z. (2015). Does teaching mnemonics for vocabulary learning make a difference? Putting the keyword method and the word part technique to the test. Language Teaching Research, 19(1), 43-69.

Corpus linguistics community news 8

First up is the news that there are more than 700 members. Nice.

Important date for your diaries is 25 September 2017 when another round of #corpusmooc is launching. This time new sections are promised and most notable new addition is a new version of LancsBox. Check out the following two cute vids being used to promote #corpusmooc 2017:


Also if you use Twitter you can follow the bot corpusmoocRT@corpusmoocFav.

Next up are some great plenary videos from this years Corpus Linguistics 2017 knees-up in Birmingham plus related notes from conference by John Williams.

Checking the distribution of the pair on the one hand/on the other hand in BYU-COCA sections.

A graphic trying to depict keywords as calculated in AntConc.

A possible way to find collocations suitable for various proficiency levels.

And finally for a bit o’ fun is this the longest term in ELT? And The Banbury Corpus Revisted by Michael Swan.

Thanks for reading and for those coming off a summer break much energy to you for the new teaching year.


ELTJam, machine learning, knowledge and skill

“Knowledge and skill are different. Vocabulary acquisition tools help learners improve their knowledge, which may in turn have a positive impact on skill, but it’s important to be cognisant of the differences.” []

“We need to be careful though not to oversell the technology and be clear about what it can and can’t do. There is no silver bullet. This is especially the case when it comes to skills vs knowledge; a lot of the applications that could come from this sort of technology will help improve knowledge of English, and may contribute to accuracy” []

The above two quotes are from a nice series of posts by ELTJam on a machine learning workshop. The first point from the first quote is indeed important to recognize. Bill VanPatten (2010) has argued that knowledge and skill are different. However what is meant by knowledge and what is meant by skill? For a nice video summary of the VanPatten paper see the video linked below.

Knowledge is mental representation which in turn is the abstract, implicit and underlying linguistic system in a speaker’s head. Abstract does not mean the rules in a pedagogical grammar rather it refers to a collection of abstract properties which can result in rule-like behaviors. Implicit means that the content of mental representation is not accessible to the learner consciously or with awareness. Underlying refers to the view that a linguistic system underlies all surface forms of language.

The actual content of mental representations include all formal features of syntax, phonology, lexicon-morphology, semantics. And a mental representation grows due to input being acted on by systems from the learners mind/brain.

Skill is the speed and accuracy with which people can do certain behaviours. For language skill this refers to reading, listening, writing, speaking, conversational interaction, turn taking. To be sure being skilled means that the person has a developed mental representation of the language. However having a developed mental representation does not entail being skilled. How skill develops depends on the tasks that people are doing. A person learns to swim by swimming. A person learns to write essays by writing essays.

It follows that the Write&Improve (W&I) tool (as the flagship example of machine learning based tool for language learning) can be seen as targeting how to be skillful in writing Cambridge English Exam texts. The claim that machine learning, and by implication the feedback by W&I, is changing the knowledge of the learner’s English does not accord with VanPatten’s description of knowledge as mental representation. His description implies that no explicit information, in the form of feedback in the case of the writing tool, can lead to changes in the mental representation of the language of writing. He states that research into writing is unclear as to whether feedback impacts writing development.

My point in this post is to briefly clarify the distinction between knowledge and skills (do read the VanPatten paper) and to suggest that the best machine learning based tools can offer are opportunities for students to practice certain skills.


W&I has never claimed that its tool has impact on language knowledge. See Diane Nicholls comment below.


Van Patten, B. (2010). The two faces of SLA: Mental representation and skill. International Journal of English Studies, 10(1), 1-18. PDF available []

BlackBox Videocast 2: Mental Representation and Skill

What Chomsky said about “native speakers” in 1985

This is taken from a rambling but fascinating project by lexicographer Thomas M. Paikeday titled The Native Speaker is Dead published in 1985. He sent a 10 point memo to some linguists on the question of what is a native speaker.  I thought it would be useful to put this up here, since notable ELT bods such as Scott Thornbury used a recent native speaker debate to critique Chomsky (see Geoff Jordan’s response). As to whether Chomsky answered the memo is up for grabs. Personally I think, like David Crystal who also responded to the Paikeday memo, that Chomsky deftly sidesteps the import of the initial memo. The Paikeday book is available on the net but takes some searching, let me know and I can email it to anyone interested.

I marked one passage in orange as it is not clear if this was a response to a specific and separate question asked by Paikeday (on what Chomsky meant by “grammaticalness” from his book Aspects of the theory of syntax) or whether it was excerpted from the response Chomsky gave to the Paikeday memo. In Paikeday’s book this passage is the first one but it seems to be oddly placed to me.


I read your comments on the concept “native speaker” with interest. In my view, questions of this sort arise because they presuppose a somewhat misleading conception of the nature of language and of knowledge of language. Essentially, they begin with what seem to me incorrect metaphysical assumptions: in particular, the assumption that among the things in the world there are languages or dialects, and that individuals come to acquire them.

And then we ask, is an individual who has acquired the dialect D a native speaker of it or not, the question for which you request an “acid test” at the end of your letter.

In the real world, however, what we find is something rather different, though for the usual purposes of ordinary communication it is sufficient to work with a rather gross approximation to the facts, just as we refer freely to water, knowing, however, that the various things we call “water” have a wide range of variation including pollutants, etc.

To see what’s wrong with the question, let’s consider a similar one (which no one asks). Each human being has developed a visual system, and in fact visual systems differ from individual to individual depending on accidents of personal history and maybe even genetic differences. Suppose we go on (absurdly) to assume that among the things in the world, independently of people, there are visual systems, and particular individuals acquire one or the other of them (in analogy to the way we think of languages).

Then we could ask, who has a “native” visual system V, and what is the acid test for distinguishing such a person from someone who has in some more complex or roundabout way come to be “highly proficient” in the use of V (say, by surgery, or by training after having “natively” acquired a different visual system, etc.). Of course, all of this is nonsense.

But I think uncritical acceptance of the apparent ontological implications of ordinary talk about language leads to similar nonsense.

What we would say in the case of the visual system is this. There is a genetically determined human faculty V, with its specific properties, which we can refer to as “the organ of vision.” There may be differences among individuals in their genetic endowment, but for the sake of discussion, let’s put these aside and assume identity across the species, so we can now speak of the visual organ V with its fixed initial state V-0 common to humans, but different from monkeys, cats, insects, etc. In the course of early experience, V-0 undergoes changes and soon reaches a fairly steady state V-s which then remains essentially unchanged apart from minor modifications (putting aside pathology, injury, etc.). That’s the way biological systems behave, and to a very good first approximation, this description is adequate. The things in the real world are V-0 and the various states V-s attained by various individuals, or more broadly, the class of potential states V-s that could be attained in principle as experience varies.

We then see that the question about “native” acquisition is silly, as is the assumption that visual systems exist in some Platonic heaven and are acquired by humans.

Suppose now that we look at language in essentially the same way – as, I think, we should – extricating ourselves from much misleading historical and philosophical baggage. Each human has a faculty L, call it “the language faculty” or, if you like, “the language organ,” which is genetically-determined.

Again, we may assume to a very good first approximation that [the language faculty or language organ] is identical across the species (gross pathology aside), so that we can speak of the initial state L-0 of this organ, common to humans, and as far as is known, unique in the universe to the human species (in fact, with no known homologous systems in closely related or other species, in contrast now to V). In early childhood, the organ undergoes changes through experience and reaches a relatively stable steady state L-s, probably before puberty; afterwards, it normally undergoes only marginal changes, like adding vocabulary. There could be more radical modifications of a complex sort, as in late second language learning, but in fact the same is very likely true of the visual system and others.

Putting these complications aside, what is a “language” or “dialect”? Keeping to the real world, what we have is the various states L-s attained by various individuals, or more generally, the set of potential states L-s attained that could in principle be attained by various individuals as experience varies. Again, we see that the question of what are the “languages” or “dialects” attained, and what is the difference between “native” or “non-native” acquisition, is just pointless.

Languages and dialects don’t exist in a Platonic heaven any more than visual systems do. In both cases, there is a fixed genetic endowment that determines the initial state of some faculty or organ (putting aside possible genetic variation), and there are the various states attained by these systems in the course of maturation, triggered by external stimuli and to some rather limited extent shaped by them. In both cases, there is overwhelming reason to believe that the character of the steady state attained is largely determined by the genetic endowment, which provides a highly structured and organized system which does, however, have certain options that can be fixed by experience.

We could think of the initial state of the language faculty, for example, as being something like an intricately wired system with fixed and complex properties, but with some connections left open, to be fixed in one or another way on the basis of experience (e.g., do the heads of constructions precede their complements as in English, or follow them as in Japanese?). Experience completes the connections, yielding the steady state, though as in the case of vision, or the heart, or the liver, etc., various other complications can take place. So then what is a language and who is a native speaker? Answer, a language is a system L-s, it is the steady state attained by the language organ. And everyone is a native speaker of the particular L-s that that person has “grown” in his / her mind / brain. In the real world, that is all there is to say.

Now as in the case of water, etc., the scientific description is too precise to be useful for ordinary purposes, so we abstract from it and speak of “languages,” “dialects,” etc., when people are “close enough” in the steady states attained to be regarded as identical for practical purposes (in fact, our ordinary usage of the term “language” is much more abstract and complex, in fact hardly coherent, since it involves colors on maps, political systems, etc.). All of that is fine for ordinary usage. Troubles arise, however, when ordinary usage is uncritically understood as having ontological implications; the same problems would arise if we were to make the same moves in the case of visual systems, hearts, water, etc.

About the term “grammaticalness,” I purposely chose a neologism in the hope that it would be understood that the term was to be regarded as a technical term, with exactly the meaning that was given to it, and not assimilated to some term of ordinary discourse with a sense and connotations not to the point in this context.

Such questions as “how many languages are there” have no clear meaning; we could say that there is only one language, namely, L-0 with its various modifications, or that there are as many languages as there are states of mind/brain L-s, or potential states L-s. Or anything in between. These are questions of convenience for certain purposes, not factual questions, like the question of “how many (kinds of) human visual system are there?”

Apparent problems about the number of languages, native speakers, etc. arise when we make the kind of philosophical error that Wittgenstein and others warned against.

I think that looked at [my] way, the questions you raise no longer seem puzzling, and in fact dissolve.


Paikeday, T. M. (1985). The native speaker is dead! An informal discussion of a linguistic myth with Noam Chomsky and other linguists, philosophers, psychologists, and lexicographers. Toronto and New York: Paikeday Publishing