La Rivista per l'insegnamento e l'apprendimento delle lingue

Towards a Lexical View of Language – a Challenge for Teachers

Michael A. Lewis
Hove (UK)

Notre compréhension de la nature du langage et de la manière dont notre cerveau stocke et conserve l’information a connu des changements récents qui rendent également nécessaires des changements dans l’enseignement des langues. La division traditionnelle entre grammaire et vocabulaire, en particulier, n’est plus pertinente: une part importante de chaque langue est en effet constituée de phrases préfabriquées – qui offrent des possibilités plus ou moins grandes de variation; ces items lexicaux préfabriqués facilitent les processus de traitement chez le lecteur ou l’auditeur qui peuvent dès lors se concentrer sur l’information nouvelle contenue dans le message.
C’est pourquoi le vocabulaire apparait aujourd’hui bien plus important que la grammaire. Et les enseignants devraient avant tout s’efforcer d’aider les apprenants à découvrir les multiples possibilités de collocation de la langue (les “chunks”) plutôt que de gaspiller le temps des apprenants en leur infligeant trop d’exercices de grammaire. (réd.)

Do you think you would teach languages the way you do if you had not been trained as a language teacher? How closely do you think the activities you use in the classroom resemble those of learners who learn a language ‘naturally’ by being immersed in situations in which they need to use the language. I suspect many of your classroom activities focus on vocabulary (‘new words’) or grammar, particularly the ‘tenses’, while I suspect ‘natural’ learners are preoccupied with only one thing, the apprehension and creation of meaning. The purpose of this article is to argue that modern research in corpus linguistics strongly suggests classroom practice needs to move away from vocabulary and grammar and towards lexis and a new way of looking at text through lexical eyes precisely because that is how meaning is created. First, however, some background.
Why do you teach languages they way you do? Habit? Because it is how you were taught at school yourself? Just following the coursebook? Do you give your learners explicit grammar rules? Encourage them to record “new words” in vocabulary lists? Do transformation exercises (‘Put the following into the passive’)? Do you work with the ‘tidy’ language of typical language learning materials (or do you prefer to use real, naturally occurring English from, for example, magazines or the internet)? Reflective teachers base their teaching on their more or less explicit beliefs about the nature of language and the nature of learning. Any new understanding of either should prompt changes in what happens in the classroom. This article will consider the implications of recent changes in our understanding of the nature of language and the way our brains store and retrieve language. It will suggest that all of the activities mentioned above may actually make learning more difficult, and that these activities need to be replaced by other, more efficient, ones. This will only happen, however, if teachers understand why any such changes are desirable.
It is only comparatively recently that the phenomenon that is language (as opposed to languages) has been studied. The earliest studies were often of Latin which is highly inflected. One consequence has been that in Europe the study of languages has always placed a disproportionate value on what has traditionally been called “grammar”, concentrating on the forms of the verb. Until the last 25 years the study of language was essentially intuitive, although certain pseudo-scientific claims were made. In truth, it is only since the advent of computer corpora of naturally occurring language that properly scientific study has been possible. [...]

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