Grammar Mining (and the collected Mark SLA Lexicon)

Many of us agree that teaching “at the point of need” (as I believe Meddings and Thornbury put it) is an ideal context for formal grammar teaching.  Students’ trying to communicate something provides clear evidence that they need the grammar that would facilitate communicating it, and depending on how close they come to natural expression, evidence that their internal representation of English is capable of taking on this additional piece of information.

In interlanguage punting, I conjectured that taking a guess at grammar students may need in the future and organizing a lesson around a particular grammar point was justifiable if the lessons you used to introduce that grammar would be memorable long enough for a “point of need” to be found before the lesson was forgotten.  At the time, I was teaching weekly 1-hour grammar workshops with rotating groups students at different levels, and as I could not teach reactively I had to justify my grammar-first (formS-focused) approach.

Read on for the last post before the new semester starts.

A similarly flying blind approach that I mean to introduce here is grammar mining, or formally introducing grammar points that you assume with no direct evidence that students have been using or hearing.  It’s basically teaching reactively without use or input to react to, just some guesses about the current state of their interlanguage.  I mean to differentiate it from merely reviewing the simple present for the 9th time or teaching at the i or i+1 level.  The metaphor of mining is meant to evoke the growing hill-like structure of the students’ interlanguage, which includes some formally represented information and (one hopes) lots accumulated statistical, informal, or implicit information, outside of which is material which has not been acquired (although it might have been learned, in the manner of building a house on a mudslide-prone hill, scaffolded or simply skyhooked in).  Grammar mining is digging into that loose, unstructured information between “the present perfect” and “2nd conditionals” and putting some supports and ventilation in there.

In practice, it means zooming in on grammar that is common enough that you can be fairly confident that most of the students have experience with it but is not usually treated in grammar syllabi.  (I have to assume that most of my students have had fairly orthodox grammar classes before I see them, whether in Japan or in ESL in California.)  In the past, these topics have included dummy “it”, the structure “for n to v”, the relationship between a to-infinitive and its subject, past participles as adjectives, hedging, and hypotheticals in polite requests.  I tend to assume that different teachers will come up with different grammar points that they think previous syllabi have neglected, but maybe these are similar the world over.  I know I’ve never seen an introductory textbook that treated hedges as a topic in themselves, and certainly not a grammar textbook.


So add “grammar mining” to my growing list of self-indulgent (maybe a caveat that one doesn’t need on a blog) coinages.  I’ve been meaning to collect these somewhere, if only for my own need to catalog my own thoughts – so why not in this post, which attempts another such coinage?  Feel free to browse and validate my whimsy.  I will add to this list as I continue to refer to myself (mostly for lack of academic library access) in future posts.

The Lexicon to date:


Dead quantitatives.  Phrases like “a lot of” which are not considered the noun phrases that they appear to be, instead functioning like adjectives.  This much is not news, but I showed in an experiment that teachers may be more likely to consider them noun phrases if instructed to consider “grammar”.  Gestalt quantitatives like “a group of” are sometimes considered noun phrases and sometimes adjectives (in which case they are often called “quantifiers”), depending on context.

Decorative Engrish/Japanese Quasi-Pidgin Engrish/Engrish as a Lingua Franca. Varieties of Engrish.

Discursive stowaways.  Referents for “dangling” modifiers that I hypothesized would render any such modifier more comprehensible even if they don’t appear in the sentence that contains the modifier.  I suggested that the range of these referents might include the speaker, the discourse, or the content of another clause, but it turned out that these don’t predict comprehensibility in “dangling” modifiers as much as other contextual factors.  I have them in this list of coinages basically because I still think the idea is worth exploring in other ways and I like the name.

Infinitive noun.  A usage of a noun not as a reference to it either as a bounded or unbounded (i.e., countable or uncountable) instance but to the concept.  Yields errors that appear at first to be dropped plurals – “friend is important”, etc.

Interlanguage punting.  Teaching grammar in anticipation that interlanguage will catch up before the lesson is forgotten.

Salieri point The level of proficiency at which you can fully appreciate how much better than you native speakers are.

Skyhooking.  Teaching new concepts “dropped in from on high” without regard for scaffolding, Zones of Proximal Development, or interlanguage development.

Translationism.  I’m definitely not the first to use this term, but I haven’t seen an attempt at a description of translation as an ideology elsewhere, so I’m claiming it.

The Uncanny L2 Valley The way in which people react to an L2 speaker who is just good enough to seem like he/she should be much better.

Society, etc.

Feigned interactions.  A rhetorical strategy of appearing to communicate with one party while really communicating with another, with that appearance being part of the intended message.  Sounds complicated, but I believe it comprises a large percentage of political communication.

Infinite virtue.  The tendency of societies to consider any amount of countervailing evidence insufficient to disprove or mitigate its defining characteristic – e.g., “freedom” in the US.

The low-frequency trap.  The cycle by which low-frequency occurrences are estimated to be more common or more likely because of their ease of recall (the availability heuristic) in turn due to their rarity.  Basically, something being rare in a sense facilities its being considered common.

Missionary Japanism.  Japan and Japanese culture as a colonial value.

Struggling homunculi.  The tendency of people to ascribe poor behavior of others to a “struggle” between a synthesized part of their personality which wants to do the right thing and a temporarily more powerful one which doesn’t, e.g. “Junior is struggling to behave in class.”

The urinal cake principle.  My handy explanation of dead metaphors.

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