Means and ends

“All kinds of effective training programmes may be based on simplifying assumptions which turn out to be or are known to be false.”

(Harris, 2000: 186)

The above is part of a footnote by Roy Harris (2000) on the subject of the relation between speech and writing and in particular a critique of phonics training.

Previously on this blog I have reported on studies from cognitive linguistics (or more specifically cognitive semantics as Frank Boers, 2021, puts it) which has shown the effectiveness of using “core” meanings of expressions in improving the learning of polysemous words:
“Verspoor and Lowie (2003) who found that students who were given a core meaning were better able to interpret extended meanings better than students who were given translated meanings of a more peripheral sense. This difference held when students were tested 2 weeks later.” (Funky images)

Geoff Hall (2012) begs to differ and claims that such learning gains are incidental to cognitive linguistic strategies rather than direct results of them. He outlines several problems with the assumptions of cognitive linguistics in this area of which some are:

“presumption of precise semantic meanings for individual vocabulary items” (Hall, 2012: 184) which needs to account for meaning in longer stretches of discourse.

“distinguishing core senses from peripheral senses” (Hall, 2012: 185) – Verspoor & Lowie (2003) define core meaning as literal but not necessarily concrete and not frequent. This last aspect of low frequency recognises that metaphorical meanings dominate in frequency over literal meanings which begs the question why teach less frequent core meanings?

Hall (2012) points out that the literal sentences used in the Verspoor & Lowie (2003) study are artificial e.g. “What is the bulge in your pocket?” (Verspoor & Lowie 2003: 561). Further outside of its context the sentences taken from the New York Times “make minimal sense or seem actually eccentric. A repeated example of a bulge as a basketball score is not comprehensible out of context” (Hall 2012: 185). The sentence being – “A breakaway dunk by Raheed Wallace ended a 12-0 run by the Bullets that gave them their 5-point bulge.” (Verspoor & Lowie 2003: 557)

“metaphor use is sporadic, one-shot rather than systematic and consistent” (Semino, 2008 as cited in Hall, 2012: 183)

“metaphor use in conversation is negotiated, emergent and highly contextualised” (Cameron & Deignan, 2006 as cited in Hall, 2012: 183)

Replications of Verspoor & Lowie (2003) have been done although they have been mixed and other studies looking at explaining links for semantic extensions (as opposed to core sense-based guessing of peripheral senses) have resulted in learning gains (see Lu et al., 2020). Notably Lu et al. (2020) found that cognitive linguistic enhancements to dictionary entries have some short term benefits over and above dictionary entries on their own.

Hall (2012) goes on to distinguish a weak claim and a strong claim from cognitive linguistics’ work. The weak claim is that “organising vocabulary learning in almost any way is better than not organising it at all” (Hall 2012: 189). The strong claim is that “cognitive linguistic approaches work because they are really telling us something about how the mind works” (Hall 2012: 189).

He then draws on Widdowson idea of linguistics applied where “the assumption is that the problem can be reformulated by the direct and unilateral application of concepts and terms deriving from linguistic enquiry itself.” which contrasts with applied linguistics where “recognition that linguistic insights are not self-evident but a matter of interpretation; that ideas and findings from linguistics can only be made relevant in reference to other perceptions and perspectives that define the context of the problem.” (Widdowson 2000: 5). As an aside this charge turns out to be double edged as Hall (2012) himself promotes the findings of corpus linguistics which Widdowson (2000) charged as being linguistics applied.

So what? The temptation to fall into the linguistics applied approach as a teacher when reading research needs to be noted and balanced by the fact as Hall (2012) says

“For everyday teaching, the means can justify the ends, this is not a problem, ‘it works’, so let’s use it where we can.”

(Hall, 2012: 191)

Do you agree?

Thanks for reading.


Boers, F. (2021). Evaluating Second Language Vocabulary and Grammar Instruction: A Synthesis of the Research on Teaching Words, Phrases, and Patterns. Routledge.

Hall, G. (2012). Revenons à nos moutons! Metaphor and idiom in EFL and ESL teaching and learning. In Burke et al. (Eds) Pedagogical stylistics. Current trends in language, literature and ELT. London: Continuum. 179-192.

Harris, R. (2000). Rethinking Writing. London, Athlone.

Lu, H., Zhang, Y., & Hao, X. (2020). The Contribution of Cognitive Linguistics to the Acquisition of Polysemy: A Dictionary Entry-Based Study with Chinese Learners of English. International Journal of Lexicography, 33(3), 306-336.

Verspoor, M. H., & Lowie, W. (2003). Making sense of polysemous words. Language Learning, 53, 547–586.

Widdowson, H. G. (2000). On the limitations of linguistics applied. Applied linguistics, 21(1), 3-25.

See also

Certainty and the threat of scepticism


2 thoughts on “Means and ends

  1. I wonder how much of my own teaching / training practice would fall under the categories of (1) doing the right things for the wrong reasons, or (2) doing the wrong things for the right reasons.

    1. That’s a good way to put it; in my more cyncial moments I think teachers (implicitly) recognise that there is no science of teaching languages in the sense that there has been no progress so that a teacher 400 years ago could easily understand modern approaches
      Thanks for commenting

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