Whether to Teach and How to Teach Complex Linguistic Structures in a Second Language

  • Roumyana SlabakovaEmail author
  • María del Pilar García Mayo
Part of the Educational Linguistics book series (EDUL, volume 16)


This chapter discusses the idea that universal semantic and pragmatic meaning need not be taught in language classrooms because they would come for free once the learner has acquired the lexical items capturing these meanings. At the same time, more complex structures involving a combination of several grammatical meanings should be practiced in the classroom. We will take the example of two existing studies investigating the acquisition of a relatively complex but universal meaning, that of scalar implicatures (e.g., Some elephants have trunks). The studies examine knowledge of this construction in simple as well as in more complex sentences. We will argue that since the meaning is universal, it does not need to be taught in language classrooms for the basic knowledge of this construction to become part of interlanguage grammar. However, we will show that the correct interpretation of this construction depends on processing resources, for native speakers and second language speakers alike. It is for this reason that we suggest that the construction has to be practiced in classrooms, and in the second part of the chapter, we suggest some ideas that can be used as the basis for tasks that could ensure second language learners are aware and can process this linguistic construction.


Native Speaker Language Acquisition Conversational Implicature Bilingual Child Scalar Implicature 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The research discussed in this chapter was presented at the AAAL conference in Chicago in March 2011. We are grateful to the organizers of the colloquium “Half a century on: What relevance does generative SLA have for language teaching?” and to the editors of this ­volume for their careful editing. The research published in Slabakova (2010) was conducted with the financial and logistical support of the Obermann Center for Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Iowa, which we acknowledge with gratitude. The first author is grateful to all the participants in the experiment, as well as the following research assistants: Kum Young Lee, Min-A Park, and Jae-Eun Kim. The second author wishes to acknowledge funding from the following research grants: FF12009-10264 and CSD2007-00012 (Spanish Ministry of Education), IT-311-10 (Basque Government), and UFI11/06 (University of the Basque Country).


  1. Alegría de la Colina, Ana, and María del Pilar García Mayo. 2009. Oral interaction in task-based EFL learning: The use of the L1 as a cognitive tool. International Review of Applied Linguistics 47(1): 325–346.Google Scholar
  2. Azkarai Garai, Agurtzane, and María del Pilar García Mayo. 2013. Does gender influence task performance in EFL? Interactive tasks and language related episodes. In Language learners’ discourse across L2 instructional settings, ed. Eva Alcón Soler and María Pilar Safont Jordá, 249–278. Amsterdam: Rodopi.Google Scholar
  3. Bailey, Nathalie, Carolyn Madden, and Stephen D. Krashen. 1974. Is there a “natural sequence” in adult second language learning? Language Learning 24: 235–243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bardovi-Harlig, Kathleen, and Zoltan Dörnyei. 1998. Do language learners recognize pragmatic violations? Pragmatic vs. grammatical awareness in instructed L2 learning. TESOL Quarterly 32: 233–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bardovi-Harlig, Kathleen, and Beverly Hartford. 1996. Input in an institutional setting. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 17: 171–188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Basterrechea, María, and María del Pilar García Mayo. 2013. Language-related episodes (LREs) in collaborative tasks by CLIL and EFL learners: Effects of oral interaction on written production. In Interaction in diverse educational settings, ed. Kim McDonough and Alison Mackey, 25–44. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  7. Bouffard, Laurie Annie, and Mela Sarkar. 2008. Training 8-year old French immersion students metalinguistic analysis. An innovation in form-focused pedagogy. Language Awareness 17: 3–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bouton, Lawrence F. 1988. A cross-cultural study of ability to interpret implicatures in English. World Englishes 7: 183–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bouton, Lawrence F. 1994. Can NNS skill in interpreting implicature in American English be improved through explicit instruction? A pilot study. In Pragmatics and language learning monograph series, vol. 3, ed. Lawrence F. Bouton, 88–109. Urbana: DEIL, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.Google Scholar
  10. Cameron, Lynne. 2001. Teaching languages to young learners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Chierchia, Gennaro, Stephen Crain, Maria Teresa Guasti, Andrea Gualmini, and Luisa Meroni. 2001. The acquisition of disjunction: Evidence for a grammatical view of scalar implicatures. In Proceedings of the 25th Boston University conference on language development, ed. Anna H.-J. Do, Laura Dominguez, and Aimee Johansen, 157–168. Somerville: Cascadilla Press.Google Scholar
  12. Clahsen, Harald, and Claudia Felser. 2006. Grammatical processing in language learners. Applied PsychoLinguistics 27: 3–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Collins, Laura, Pavel Trofimovich, Joanna White, Walcir Cardoso, and Marlise Horst. 2009. Some input on the easy/difficult grammar question. The Modern Language Journal 93: 336–353.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Crain, Stephen, and Rosalind Thornton. 1998. Acquisition of syntax and semantics. In The handbook of psychology, ed. Mattew J. Traxler and Morton Ann Gernsbacher, 1073–1110. Amsterdam: Elsevier.Google Scholar
  15. DeKeyser, Robert. 2005. What makes second-language grammar difficult? A review of issues. Language Learning 55 (Supplement 1): 1–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. DeKeyser, Robert. 2007a. Practice in a second language. Perspectives from applied linguistics and cognitive psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  17. DeKeyser, Robert. 2007b. Introduction: Situating the concept of practice. In Practice in a second language. Perspectives from applied linguistics and cognitive psychology, ed. Robert DeKeyser, 11–18. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  18. DeKeyser, Robert. 2007c. Conclusion: The future of practice. In Practice in a second language. Perspectives from applied linguistics and cognitive psychology, ed. Robert DeKeyser, 287–304. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  19. DeKeyser, Robert. 2010. Practice for second language learning: Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. International Journal of English Studies 10: 155–165.Google Scholar
  20. Doughty, Catherine, and Jessica Williams. 1998. Focus on form in second language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Dulay, Heidi C., and Marine K. Burt. 1973. Should we teach children syntax? Language Learning 23: 245–258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Dulay, Heidi C., and Marina K. Burt. 1974. Natural sequences in child second language acquisition. Language Learning 24: 37–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Ellis, Rod. 2006. Modelling learning difficulty and second language proficiency: The differential contributions of implicit and explicit knowledge. Applied Linguistics 27(3): 431–463.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Ferreira, Fernanda. 2003. The misinterpretation of noncanonical sentences. Cognitive Psychology 47: 164–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Ferreira, Fernanda, Vittoria Ferraro, and Karl G.D. Bailey. 2002. Good enough representations in language comprehension. Current Directions in Psychological Science 11: 11–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Fortune (with Mandy R. Menke), Tara Williams. 2010. Struggling learners and language immersion education: Research-based, practitioner-informed responses to educators’ top questions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition.Google Scholar
  27. García Mayo, María del Pilar. 2002a. The effectiveness of two form-focused tasks in advanced EFL pedagogy. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 12: 156–175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. García Mayo, María del Pilar. 2002b. Interaction in advanced EFL pedagogy: A comparison of form-focused activities. International Journal of Educational Research 37: 323–341.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Goldschneider, Jennifer M., and Robert DeKeyser. 2001. Explaining the “natural order of L2 ­morpheme acquisition” in English: A meta-analysis of multiple determinants. Language Learning 51: 1–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Grice, Paul. 1969. Utterer’s meaning and intention. Philosophical Review 78: 147–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Grice, Paul. 1989. Studies in the way of words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Guasti, Maria Teresa, Gennaro Chierchia, Stephen Crain, Francesca Foppolo, Andrea Gualmini, and Luisa Merori. 2005. Why children and adults sometimes (but not always) compute implicatures. Language & Cognitive Processes 20(5): 667–696.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Gillingham, Gwendolyn. 2007. Not every implicature is computed by default. Investigations into the effect of linguistic context on the rate of computation of scalar implicature. Unpublished honours thesis. McGill University.Google Scholar
  34. Harley, Brigitte, and Merrill Swain. 1984. The interlanguage of immersion students and its implications for second language teaching. In Interlanguage, ed. Alan Davies, Clive Criper, and Anthony P.R. Howatt, 291–311. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Horn, Laurence R. 1972. On the semantic properties of the logical operators in English. Doctoral dissertation. UCLA.Google Scholar
  36. Kroll, Judith F., and J.A. Linck. 2007. Representation and skill in second language learners and proficient bilinguals. In Grammatical gender in the bilingual lexicon: A psycholinguistic approach, ed. Ivan Kecskes and Liliana Albertazzi, 237–269. Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  37. Jackendoff, Ray. 2002. Foundations of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Liebermann, Mordecai. 2008. An indirect look at second language acquisition of scalar implicatures. Manuscript. McGill University.Google Scholar
  39. Lieberman, Mordecai. 2009. Interpretation at the semantics/pragmatics interface: Scalar implicatures in L2 acquisition. Paper presented at The Mind/Context Divide conference, University of Iowa, Iowa City, May.Google Scholar
  40. Long, Michael H. 1996. The role of linguistic environment in second language acquisition. In The handbook of second language acquisition, ed. William C. Ritchie and Tek K. Bathia, 413–468. San Diego: Academic.Google Scholar
  41. López, Luis. 2009. A derivational syntax for information structure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Muñoz, Carmen. 2007. Age-related differences and second language learning practice. In Practice in a second language. Perspectives from applied linguistics and cognitive psychology, ed. Robert DeKeyser, 229–255. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Musolino, Julien, and Jeffrey Lidz. 2006. Why children aren’t universally successful with quantification. Linguistics 44: 817–852.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Nassaji, Hossein, and Sandra Fotos. 2011. Teaching grammar in second language classroom. Integrating form-focused instruction in communicative context. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  45. Nassaji, Hossein, and Daphnée Simard. 2010. Current developments in form-focused interaction and L2 acquisition. The Canadian Modern Language Review/La revue cannadienne des langues vivantes 66: 773–778.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Noveck, Ira. 2001. When children are more logical than adults: Experimental investigations of scalar implicatures. Cognition 86: 253–282.Google Scholar
  47. Noveck, Ira, and Anne Reboul. 2008. Experimental Pragmatics: A Gricean turn in the study of language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12(11): 425–431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Pakulak, Eric, and Helen J. Neville. 2009. Proficiency differences in syntactic processing of monolingual native speakers indexed by event-related potentials. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 22(12): 2728–2744.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Papafragou, Anna, and Julien Musolino. 2003. Scalar implicatures: Experiments at the semantics-­pragmatics interface. Cognition 86: 253–282.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Reinhart, Tania. 2006. Interface strategies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  51. Röver, Carsten. 2005. Testing EFL pragmatics. Frankfurt: Gunter Narr.Google Scholar
  52. Segalowitz, Norman. 2010. Cognitive bases of second language fluency. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  53. Shak, Juliana, and Sheena Gardner. 2008. Young learner perspectives on four focus-on-form tasks. Language Teaching Research 12: 387–408.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Siegal, Michael, Laura Iozzi, and Luca Surian. 2009. Bilingualism and conversational understanding in young children. Cognition 110: 115–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Simard, Daphnée, and Gladys Jean. 2011. An exploration of L2 teachers’ use of pedagogical interventions devised to draw L2 learners’ attention to form. Language Learning 61: 759–785.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Slabakova, Roumyana. 2008. Meaning in the second language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Slabakova, Roumyana. 2010. Scalar implicatures in second language acquisition. Lingua 120: 2444–2462.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Slabakova, Roumyana. 2013. What is easy and what is hard in second language acquisition: A generative perspective. In Contemporary approaches to second language acquisition, ed. María del Pilar García Mayo, M. Junkal Gutierrez-Mangado, and María Martínez Adrián, 5–28. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  59. Spada, Nina. 2011. Beyond form-focused instruction. Reflections on past, present and future research. Language Teaching 44: 225–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Sperber, Daniel, and Deirdre Wilson. 1986/1995. Relevance: Communication and cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  61. Storch, Neomy. 2002. Patterns of interaction in ESL pair work. Language Learning 52(1): 119–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Street, James A., and Ewa Dąbrowska. 2010. More individual differences in language attainment: How much do adult native speakers of English know about passives and quantifiers? Lingua 120: 2080–2094.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Swain, Merrill. 1985. Communicative competence: Some rules of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In Input in second language acquisition, ed. Susan Gass and Carolyn Madden, 235–253. Rowley: Newbury House.Google Scholar
  64. Swain, Merrill, and Sharon Lapkin. 1982. Evaluating bilingual education. A Canadian case study. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.Google Scholar
  65. Swain, Merrill, Lindsay Brooks, and Agustina Tocalli-Beller. 2002. Peer-dialogue as a means of second language learning. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 22: 171–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Taguchi, Naoko. 2008. Cognition, language contact, and the development of pragmatic comprehension in a study-abroad context. Language Learning 58: 33–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Takimoto, Masahiro. 2006. The effectiveness of explicit feedback on the development of pragmatic proficiency. Language Teaching Research 10: 393–417.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Townsend, David J., and Thomas G. Bever. 2001. Sentence comprehension: The integration of habits and rules. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  69. Tragant, Elsa, and Mia Victori. 2006. Reported strategy use and age. In Age and rate of foreign language learning, ed. Carmen Muñoz, 208–236. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.Google Scholar
  70. VanPatten, Bill. 1990. Attending to form and content in the input. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 12: 287–301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. VanPatten, Bill (ed.). 2004. Processing instruction. Theory, research and commentary. Mahwah: LEA.Google Scholar
  72. VanPatten, Bill. 2012. Input processing. In The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition, ed. Susan Gass and Alison Mackey, 268–281. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  73. Vygotsky, Lev. 1978. Mind in society. The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roumyana Slabakova
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • María del Pilar García Mayo
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of LinguisticsUniversity of IowaIowa CityUSA
  2. 2.IKERBASQUE Basque Foundation for ScienceBilbaoSpain
  3. 3.Department of English StudiesUniversity of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU)Vitoria-GasteizSpain

Personalised recommendations