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Formulaic Language and Second Language Speech Fluency: Background, Evidence and Classroom Applications..

By DAVID WOOD. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012. Pp. 242. ISBN 9781441142405. $44.95 (Pb).


University of North Texas at Dallas

Formulaic sequences are multiword expressions that are processed cognitively as single unit lexemes. Idioms, phrasal verbs, figurative speech, discourse markers, and collocations are all examples of formulaic language which share two key features: they occur together frequently as a fixed combination of words and they are stored and retrieved from long-term memory as whole lexical chunks. For example, the expression in the nick of time appears together in speech and written corpora as a recurrent phrase that is retrieved more quickly than other non-formulaic prepositional phrases which would otherwise undergo grammatical analysis. In the nick of time is fixed and unchanging (*on the nick of time, *in the nicks of times, *in any nick of time) and therefore is retrieved from our memory as rapidly as a single morpheme entry, such as, punctual. Research in corpus linguistics has demonstrated that the highly formulaic nature of language plays a pivotal role in all types of social interactions, first- and second-language acquisition, and the development of registers, genres, and other field-specific language.

In his new book, David Wood examines the role of formulaic language in developing speech fluency as it relates to second language acquisition. He maintains that speech fluency is aided by the mastery of formulaic language since speakers rely so heavily on ready-made lexical chunks for everyday interactions. Acquiring formulaic sequences in a second language aids fluency which along with complexity and accuracy constitutes the essential components of language proficiency. Fluency allows for greater social interaction with native speakers of the target language, buys the speaker time to construct other parts of an utterance, and expresses ideas in a conventionalized, socially normative manner which brings learners closer to native-like speech. In the study reported in this publication, Wood examines English L2 learners' improvement in speech fluency and formulaic language in a semester long language class.

In chapter one, Wood outlines the parameters in which fluency, as an observable linguistic behavior, can be measured and operationalized in research. Quantitatively, linguists determine the level of second language fluency through the following variables: number of syllables per minute, number and location of pauses, number and length of hesitations, and length of fluent runs. In addition to these six variables, Wood attempts to address one other factor - clause complexity. As learners progress from simpler to more complex sentences, their overall speech rate does not always increase due to the greater cognitive load required to process, for example, relative clauses, irregular verbs, and less frequently used vocabulary. Controlling language complexity has always existed as an issue when measuring speech and other linguistic proficiencies; Wood's literature review succeeds in bringing the issue to the fore in his study.

In chapter two, 'Formulaic Sequences', Wood reviews the various definitions, categories, and taxonomies that have been developed to research this linguistic phenomenon. The basic criteria of formulaic sequences are delimited, from two-word collocations (cosmetic surgery) to complex sentences with tillable slots (If you want to X, then I'll Y). Importantly, this chapter clearly articulates the connection that emerges between formulaic language and language acquisition. Speech by native speakers in English is perceived to be 'fluent' and 'natural' when pauses occur between clauses and when the clauses themselves are delivered without any breaks or hesitations. Delivering a continuous string of words in a clause has been shown to be challenging for L2 language learners. Formulaic sequences allow learners to mimic the oral discourse structure in English through their use of memorized chunks which are stored cognitively as single words and thus easily retrievable. English language learners (ELLs) rely heavily on formulaic strings in order to buy the needed time to think of novel components in an utterance.

The third chapter draws attention to cognitive processing and offers an explanation as to how mental processing of language is associated with the mastery of formulaic phrases and speech fluency. Wood provides insight into three concepts which are believed to be contributing factors in speech production and fluency: declarative and procedural knowledge; long-term and short-term memory; and controlled and automatic processing. Automatization is a process in which declarative knowledge (factual knowledge) is transformed into procedural knowledge (knowledge of how things are done). As it pertains to formulaic language, automatization allows language to be retrieved from long-term memory more efficiently. In the remaining sections of this chapter, Wood provides a brief, though comprehensive, summary of the leading theories on the automatization process.

The author, in chapter four, identifies several social and cultural factors that impact fluency in a second language: language anxiety, self-efficacy, voice, social identity, culture fluency, and the nature of the first language. Language anxiety is typically associated with the fear of speaking in public and can subsequently be a determining factor in the quality of a person's oral language performance as it often leads to dysfiuency. Self-efficacy, voice and social identity are interrelated factors that rely on the individual's self-determination, sense of authority, and confidence when speaking. Wood argues that it is through self-efficacy that an individual's voice and L2 social identity emerges, resulting in a higher production of automatized formulas and accurate speech.

In his research study, Wood recruited eleven college students who were studying abroad at a Canadian university. The students were native speakers of Japanese (N=4), Chinese (Mandarin) (N=3), and Spanish (N=4); had finished secondary school in their home countries; and were at an intermediate level of English. Six speech samples based on participants' retellings of videos they watched were collected over a six-month period. Four temporal variables were measured: Phonation/Time Ratio; Speech Rate; Articulation Rate; and Mean Length of Run. The author hypothesized increases in speech rate, time spent producing speech, and mean length of runs, and decreases in hesitations. The proceduralization of formulaic sequences was predicted to facilitate the increase in the mean length of runs.

The overall results of the quantitative data (chapter six) indicate that the L2 language learners improved their fluency over the six month period and increased their use of formulaic sequences. As was predicted, speech and articulation rates, mean length of runs, and formulaic sequences increased while hesitations decreased. Participants' first language and gender were shown to have no statistically significant effect on measured speech fluency. As a group, speech rate, length of continuous speech phrases ('runs'), and formulaic sequences appear to be interconnected: when speech increases and hesitations decrease, the mean length of runs increase; when formulaic language increases, the mean length of runs increase. Put differently, formulaic sequences appear to improve a speaker's mean length of runs, and in turn, speech rate (i.e. fluency).

Although the study's qualitative analysis (chapter seven) required a close examination of individual performances, the overarching trend reveals how the use of formulaic sequences in the participant's second retelling of the film prompt leads to improved fluency and more coherent narrations. In addition, the participants' use of formulas most often came in the form of self-talk and fillers, repetitions, rhetorical devices, and continuous speech runs. When using self-talk and filler formulas (I know, 1 think, I guess, I don't know, I don't understand), participants were able to elongate runs and deliver a more fluent retelling. In other cases, participants efficiently produced extended runs and came across as more confident and fluent by simply repeating formulas and utilizing multiple formulaic sequences within a run. In other instances, participants conveyed a more organized and comprehensible narration through the use of automatized formulas in the form of rhetorical devices (at the beginning, this is the end of the story). At other times, they relied on simple formulas (and then, and next) when transitioning to another event in the story which allowed for smoother expressions and increased fluency.

In chapter eight, Wood attempts to develop a stronger connection between the results from both the quantitative and qualitative studies. Based on temporal variables such as speech rate, pauses, and length of fluent runs, the quantitative results do lend weight to the general thesis, revealing the important role of formulaic sequences in the development of L2 fluency. However, it is only through the micro analysis of particular utterances that Wood gains perspective on how learners interact with formulaic sequences during speech production. First, the development is not linear or incremental as learners employed difficult sequences along with, and sometimes before, simpler ones. Also, speech formulas used in the retellings differed from the ones offered by the other participants in the study. In short, although formulaic sequences were expanded as the learners' fluency increased, the paths in achieving this goal varied significantly.

By way of the quantitative and discourse analytic studies presented in this publication, Wood makes a strong case for supporting the role formulaic language plays in building second language fluency. Adding to widely recognized communicative language approaches, chapter nine lays out the how-tos of explicitly teaching fluency through the study and deployment of stock formulaic sequences. The inquiry-based program proposed by Wood requires the students to find sources of data (e.g., interview native speakers, listen and watch media with a range of oral registers), document and organize formulaic sequences, predict and interpret the possible semantic readings, locate associable cultural significations, and prepare specific sequences for employment in performance spaces within the classroom. The goal is to find authentic and useful lexical bundles that are worthy of automatization and proceduralization (i.e. bundles that will lead to longer speech runs, more appropriate pausing and prosody, and native-like speeds). In an effort to promote fluency through the use of formulaic language, Wood urges teachers and curriculum coordinators to consider the integration of formulaic sequence instruction into their communicative and focus-on-form teaching methods. This fluency-centered approach calls for input from native speaker models, deliberate attention and rehearsal of formulaic sequences, a wide range of activities that are conducive to spoken interactions, and feedback that guides the learner in form as well as fluency.

The main objective of Wood's study centered on garnering both qualitative and quantitative evidence for his main thesis: L2 speech fluency is aided by the mastery of formulaic language. For the most part, we conclude that he indeed shows evidence of this relationship. His results are amply explained and the discussion that evolves throughout the book is informative for all aspects of second language acquisition, not only speech. Despite a few shortcoming in an otherwise detailed mixed-methods research study, Wood has made an important contribution to the field of second language acquisition, one that will likely have a profound impact on future investigations in speech development and language learning. He has provided a clear sense of the pedagogical implications from the implementation of formulaic-informed teaching materials and dedicated an entire chapter to demonstrate how such an approach would play out in a language program. Along the way, Wood has made a strong case for why more research on formulaic sequences is warranted in other areas of applied linguistics.


Department of Teacher Education & Administration

University of North Texas at Dallas

Dallas, TX 75241



Department of Teacher Education & Administration

University of North Texas at Dallas

Dallas, TX 75241

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Publication:International journal of the Linguistic Association of the Southwest
Date:Dec 1, 2013

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