Saturday, April 20, 2013

94. The complex world we live in

Google Images

‘I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.’ Socrates

The Vocabulary Movement stated, among other fundamental ideas, the fact that knowing a word – we finally agreed in the previous post to call it a lexical unit (precisely because it may be represented by more than one stretch of letters) – makes it easier to recognize the structure the unit is used in. Again, what about the structure? Don’t we have to know that, too?

I’ll take an example, and if its combinatorial possibilities make it easier for me to get to the meanings it has developed, I will agree that knowing that lexical unit is enough for me to build fluency. Now, knowing the lexical unit with all its combinatorial possibilities should lead us to the next step: how many of them are necessary for a student to say he or she has a command of the whole field that the nucleus has developed?

I chose POINT (noun) – from the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online (LDOCE). You will find the full display with examples in the attached pdf:

How many of the following uses do you know?
1. [countable] a single fact, idea, or opinion that is part of an argument or discussion:
point about
2. the point
3. [uncountable] the purpose or aim of something:
point of
4.  [countable] a particular place or position:
5. [countable] an exact moment, time, or stage in the development of something:
6.  [countable usually plural] a particular quality or feature that something or someone has
Google images:
Socrates drinking hemlock (condemned to commit suicide)
somebody's/something's good/bad points
point of
7.  [countable] one of the marks or numbers that shows your score in a game or sport:

8.  [countable] a sharp end of something:
9. boiling point/freezing point/melting point etc
10. the point of no return
11. point of departure
12. be on the point of (doing) something
13. up to a point
14. to the point
15. make a point of doing something
16. when/if it comes to the point
17. in point of fact
18. not to put too fine a point on it
19.  [countable] a sign (. ) used to separate a whole number from any decimals that follow it
20. [countable] a mark or measure on a scale:
21.  [countable] a very small spot of light or colour:
22.  [countable] one of the marks on a compass that shows direction:
23.  [countable] a long thin piece of land that stretches out into the sea:
24.  [countable] British English a piece of plastic with holes in it which is attached to a wall and to which electrical equipment can be connected:
25. points
[plural] British English a piece of railway track that can be moved to allow a train to cross over from one track to another.

Then again, you might like it in the shape of a 'semantic flower', like this (Visual Thesaurus):

Friday, April 19, 2013

93. Where Does Structure Come into Play?

Google Images
Here’s another challenging myth which, unfortunately for most students, hovered over [English] language teaching since the 1980s.
The importance of vocabulary cannot be denied. Still, the very notion of vocabulary sends us to the dictionary – such a useful tool when it comes to looking up meanings (and translations). But wait: take any ‘word’ – let’s call it a lexical unit – and see if it functions in isolation, if it helps you create an utterance. Any good dictionary will give you examples of that lexical unit’s environment and so it will make you see that lexis without structure as a support for phonological realization will take you nowhere.

Google Images
If language is used and useful for communication, wouldn’t it be natural to ask ‘how much lexis and how much structure’ is necessary for someone to boast of good language skills? Yes and no. Honestly, it would be almost indecent to think about a person’s head (in this case the person is a student of English) as if it were a bowl in which to mix ingredients. But wait, there’s more: such ingredients as lexis and grammar must not be mixed, or blended, they must be combined. It is the combinatorial possibilities of the language that leaves us a faint hope of creating our discourse, for – in fact – languages have already been created and, like all living languages, they are constantly renewed, enriched, and transformed through use by their speakers, who have inherited it and are passing it on to their children.Well then, where does vocabulary stop its influence and where does the fearful <grammar> start manifesting?

Google Images
Google Images
I’m looking at one of those areas where finding the fine line between ‘lexis’ and ‘grammar’ is almost impossible. They have been generally known as collocations, and they range from a combination of two words which generally go together to fully formed sentences (why? – because the speakers of the language found the combination useful and, by usage, it has become conventionalized, that is, a lexical unit).

The example is taken from Ronald Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar (2008) and, do believe me, it gives food for thought indeed.
When someone had the inspiration to combine moon with night so as to express the idea that that night there was no (visible) moon in the sky, the combination a moonless night was created. A good template it was, for other, similar combinations appeared:
A childless couple
A hopeless situation
Google Images
A treeless plain
A fruitless search
A cordless phone

What I mean by conventionalized lexical units in this case is that one cannot manifest his or her free will in order to come up with a combination like *a giraffeless zoo. It would be worthy of poetry, though. The conclusion is obvious: you have to accept them as they are and build fluency. It is practically impossible to build fluency without using conventionalized lexical units.