Language in Use: Cognitive and Usage-based Approaches to Language and Language Learning
(Selected papers from Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 2003)

Edited by Andrea Tyler, Mari Takada, Yiyoung Kim, and Diana Marinova



In recent years, there has been growing awareness of the importance of studying language and language learning in its context of use. Researchers who identify themselves as taking a cognitive approach (broadly defined) and those who take various discourse perspectives have sounded the theme, often independently of each other, that an accurate understanding of the properties of language requires an understanding of how language is used to create meaning. Moreover, an increasing number of researchers language learning have argued that in acquiring a language the learner experiences the language in context. This perspective emphasizes the importance of studying language learning as it is embedded in meaningful communication and recognition that language learning is crucially shaped by the particular language patterns to which a learner is exposed. The aim of GURT 2003 was to bring together research from various perspectives that emphasize the shared notions that the properties of language and the process of language learning crucially involve how language is used in context and how these patterns relate to cognition more generally.

The presentations at GURT 2003 adhered to a shared set of tenets concerning language as it occurs in natural contexts. These shared tenets include the following : when humans use language, they do so for a purpose; with very few exceptions, the purpose is to communicate with other humans beings; communication always occurs in a context; language is created by humans who are unique not only in their language using ability but also in their particular physical and neurological anatomy, as well as many aspects of their social organization and culture making; and language is inevitably shaped by the nature of human cognition and social-cultural activity. In spite of the fact that these attributes stem from basic, common-sensical observations, for many linguists and language acquisitionists, they have not been of central concern. Placing this particular perspective on language at the center of our inquiries has profound consequences in terms of the questions we ask, the data we consider, the patterns we discover, and our interpretation of the import of those patterns.

Although cognitive researchers, discourse analysis researchers, and language researchers have the foregoing assumptions about language, the particular areas of inquiry and emphases of these subfields are diverse enough that many of us have tended to remain unaware of the interrelations among these approaches. Thus, we have also remained unaware of the possibilities for research from each of these perspectives to challenge, inform, and enrich the others. A key goal of GURT 2003, the success of which is admirably reflected in this collection of papers, was to begin to make these connections more transparent.

The papers collected in this volume represent a rich range of frameworks within a usage-based approach to language and language learning. They can be grouped into four strands that were central to the conference.

Language Processing and First Language Learning

The first strand of papers examines the nature of language through the lens of language processing and first language learning. Goldberg and Bencini present an impressive body of language processing evidence in support of a construction grammar model of language that is, a model that represents syntactic patterns as independently meaningful. From the area of language comprehension, they present evidence that suggests that comprehenders recognize that basic sentence patterns are directly linked to meaning, independently of the main verb. Reviewing priming studies, Goldberg and Bencini also provide evidence that units of the type and size of constructions can be primed in language production. Thus, the psycholinguistic evidence offers support for a constructional approach to grammar. Presenting new experimental findings, Casenhiser shows that young children tend to disprefer homophony. He argues that patterns of one-to-many mappings between form and meaning potentially reduce communicative efficiency and concludes that children’s dispreference for homophones supports the hypothesis that communicative goals of language are reflected in learning biases. Matsui, McCagg, and Yamamoto examine the development of young Japanese children’s use of datte, a discourse marker that roughly translates to but-because. Using both experimental and longitudinal observational data, they conclude that children as young as three years begin to use datte as a justification marker in communicative situations in which they sense opposition to their statements and only later in response to why questions. They argue that this development of the suasive marker reflects the children’s growing awareness of the particular contexts in which adults use datte, in conjunction with their growing theory of mind. Kyratzis also examines children’s use of a suasive discourse marker, the English because. Incorporating gender into her analysis of the discourse of pre-school play groups, Kyratzis finds that young girls tend to use because more often than boys of the same age. Using the construct of participation network and considering both the contextualized presence and absence of a linguistic feature, Kyratzis concludes that when these young girls use because, it tends to work as a marker of collaborative stance. In contrast, the absence of because that is characteristic of boy’s discourse, is used to convey either urgency or disagreement with the partner.

Issues in Second Language Learning

The second group of papers addresses insights that discourse and usage-based models provide into issues of second-language learning (L2). Bardovi-Harlig offers a comprehensive review of the literature on interlanguage pragmatics. She argues that interlanguage pragmatics research would benefit from a ‘recontextualization’ into the larger framework of communication and communicative competence. She advocates reorienting L2 pragmatic research to emphasize language learning embedded in social interaction and the importance of contextual constraints on appropriate language use and interpretation of utterances. Davies’ study offers a window into a natural process of language socialization, language coaching, with a focus--created and articulated by the participants themselves--on particular cognitive dimensions of the contextualized speech activity. Analyzing language-coaching discourse between two friends, who speak different varieties of English, Davies demonstrates the need to incorporate the cognitive dimension of collaboratively constructed intersubjectivity into a model of interactional competence. Niemeier provides a general overview of key points of cognitive linguistics and how they might apply to second language teaching. In particular, she emphasizes the tenet that there are no discrete boundaries between the lexicon and syntax; this perspective allows the L2 teacher to exploit the recurrent patterns, or operational uniformity, found at all ‘levels’ of linguistic organization. Taking a Vyogtskian perspective, Iddings and McCafferty examine naturally occurring interactions of third-grade children who do not share a mutual language. The interactions show how, through language play, the children created a hybrid functional system for making meaning that afforded them scaffolded opportunities to communicate, as well as to develop metalinguistic knowledge of their first languages. Scarcella and Zimmerman present a series of experiments focusing on L2 learners’ use of L1 cognates in L2 writing. They offer the surprising finding that native Spanish speakers used relatively few academically appropriate English lexemes that have cognates in Spanish. They conclude that cognate knowledge does not transfer automatically. They suggest that explicit teaching of cognates in the particular context of academic writing may be necessary before most L1 Spanish speakers will be able to effectively produce English cognates in written discourse.

Discourse Resources and Meaning Construction

Using a diverse array of methodologies, the third group of papers examines how speakers employ various discourse-level resources to structure interaction and create meaning. Wennerstrom considers the contribution of ‘contrast’ and ‘given’ intonation patterns to meaning construction and how prosodic analysis might contribute to cognitive models such as mental space theory (Fauconnier and Turner 2002) and Clark’s (1992) model of community membership. Wennerstrom concludes that discourse-level prosodics provide a rich resource for creating meaning and that analysis of their patterns of use can shed new light on cognitive constructions and processes. Waring presents evidence that speakers in graduate seminars use other-initiated repair as an interactional resource both to advance their potentially disaffiliative claims and to find a way out of interactional deadlock once a stalemate is reached. Rather than always employing repair initiations to address problems in speaking, hearing, or understanding, English speakers in this particular context use repairs as vehicles for conveying speaker stance. Using multi-dimensional analysis, Csomay provides a linguistic characterization of the lexically coherent discourse units found in university classroom discourse. Combining elements of quantitative and qualitative analysis, the methodology allows classification of lexical episodes into episode types (Involved Narrative, Procedural, Content-oriented), based on their shared linguistic characteristics and association of these lexical episode types with varying communicative purposes. In the final paper in this group, Thepkanjana and Uehara add a diachronic dimension by considering how speakers’ contextualized uses of linguistic resources give rise to implicatures that subsequently become entrenched (or grammaticalized) and eventually shape the language. They examine a set of polysemous Thai lexemes that synchronically function both as directional verbs and success markers. They argue that these lexemes express notions of motion and direction (coming from the earlier, core meaning of the directional verbs), while also expressing the meaning of success that arises from pragmatic inferences linked to the general human conceptualization of forward motion along a path correlating with reaching a goal. The authors argue that the multiple meanings associated with these directional verbs/success markers indicate they are in an early stage of grammaticalization, in which meaning shift rather than semantic bleaching has occurred.

Language and Identity

The final set of papers addresses issues of language use and creation of social identity. Gordon analyzes parent-child discourse involving a three-year-old’s narratives concerning her yet-to-be-born brother. The analysis reveals how the interactions allow the young child to rehearse the future role of being a big sister and thus to actively shape her identity through imaginative (or hypothetical) discourse. This discourse is a stunning example of a young child, in collaboration with her parents, actively creating multiple, complex conceptual blends. Premilovac investigates the ways in which the discursive construction of local identity (i.e., identity tied to place such as town versus country) is used at a reunion among old, ethnically diverse friends from Bosnia-Herzegovina to reassert a multi-ethnic community in the wake of radical, exclusionary nationalism. She argues that because the construction of local identity can cut across ethnic and national boundaries, this discursive construct allows accentuation of similarities among the groups and can serve as a basis for re-building communities’ multi-ethnic composition. Reynolds offers an ethnographic study of language maintenance and social identity among the contemporary Igbo diaspora living in the United States. Unlike many historical immigrant groups, the Igbo have not settled in distinct neighborhoods. Nevertheless, through specific cultural organizations and special gatherings, which constitute ‘key sites’ for language use, the group creates contexts in which Igbo verbal arts and identity are performed and transmitted to a new generation.

This volume presents a glimpse into the rich, intersecting lines of research represented at GURT 2003. For language researchers who are unfamiliar with usage-based approaches to language, they offer a vibrant introduction to the range of research currently being undertaken within this framework. For those working within usage-based models, they demonstrate the challenges and potential rewards when, to paraphrase Proust, we seek discovery not by simply searching for new landscapes, but in seeing the familiar with new eyes.


Clark, Herbert H. 1992. Arenas of language use. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner. 2002. The way we think: Conceptual blending and the mind's hidden capacities. New York: Basic Books.