Teaching Formulaic Language. Analysis of Two Schoolbooks

Term Paper, 2011

9 Pages, Grade: 1,7


1. Introduction

In the last few years there has been much interest in second language teaching1and in the phenomenon of formulaic language (see Wray 2000: 463). As learning formulaic language is increasingly viewed as an important component to achieve native-like production (see Pawley & Syder 1983: 191), more and more teaching material dealing with the acquisition of formulaic language can be found.

When I started to learn English at school, it was a common practice to learn single words whereas formulas were not seen as essential to the general language acquisition process. This present paper examines if the same approach in language teaching is still in use ten years later or if there are completely new ways of teaching foreign languages which focus on formulaic language and not just on vocabulary, learned word by word. The goal of this paper is to discuss the differences of the usage and teaching methods of formulaic language between a Spanish and an English textbook both used in German schools. Regardless of the differences between the two languages, it is the basic aim to find out whether the approaches are similar or entirely different.

After a short overview on formulaic language, the following paper will demonstrate why teachers nowadays should teach formulaic language and that formulaic language should be a component of the curriculum. The subsequent contrastive schoolbook analysis will examine the occurrences of formulas in a Spanish and an English textbook. Afterwards various explanations for the results will be given, before finally concluding with a summary and some suggestions for future teachers.

2. Teaching formulaic language

As said above, in recent years, the interest in this area has increased (see Wray 2000: 463). In the following section, the nature of formulaic language will be described so that later on the importance of formulaicity in second language teaching can be revealed.

2.1. Defining formulaic language

There have been many attempts to categorize formulaic language, but there is no single satisfactory definition of formulaic language, and researchers differ in what they consider formulaic. Potential parts of formulaic language are chunks, collocations, conventionalized forms, holophrases, idioms, proverbs etc. (see Wray 2000: 465). Most definitions agree that formulas are “multiword units of language that are stored on long-term memory as if they were single lexical units” (Wood 2002: 2). As a basis of my work, I choose the following definition:

A sequence, continuous or discontinuous, of words or other meaning elements, which is, or appears to be, prefabricated: that is, stored or retrieved whole from memory at the time of use, rather than being subject to generation or analysis by the language grammar. (Wray & Perkins 2000: 1)

This means that the words of the formulaic speech are glued together and stored as a single big word (see Ellis 1996: 111).

As I am also going to look at a Spanish schoolbook, a definition what formulaic language means in the Spanish speaking world is needed. According to Corpas Pastor, formulaic sequences are unidades fraseológicas formadas por dos unidades léxicas en relación sintáctica, que no constituyen, por sí mismas, actos de habla ni enunciados; y que, debido a su fijación en la norma, presentan restricciones de combinación establecidas por el uso, generalmente de base semántica: el colocado autónomo semánticamente (la base) no sólo determina la elección del colocativo, sino que, además, selecciona en este una acepción especial, frecuentemente de carácter abstracto o figurativo. (Corpas Pastor 1996: 66)

In general, formulaic language has the same definition in both languages. Considering the learning process it is important to keep in mind that formulaic sequences appear to be stored in mind as holistic units, but they may not be acquired in an all-or-nothing manner (see Schmitt & Carter 2004: 4).

Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) named four important categories of functions of lexical units, namely social interactions (pardon me, what’s up), topic markers (my name is…, I’m from…), discourse devices (as a result of, nevertheless) as well as fluency devices (you know, so to speak) (see also Wood 2002: 3). Beside the sociointeractional function such as greeting, thanking, apologizing and so on, there is another essential function: the use of formulaic language saves effort in processing:

[They] give us ready-made frameworks on which to hang the expression of our ideas, so that we do not have to go through the labor of generating an utterance all the way out from S every time we want to say anything. (Becker 1975: 17)2

Formulaicity is considered to be a basic property of language which makes it unnecessary to exploit fully the productivity of grammar for every utterance and, at the same time, curtails it. Formulaic speech is believed to be a universal phenomenon found in every speech community both in Spanish as well as in English.

2.2. Reasons for teaching formulaic language

The last decades have seen a noticeable increase in pedagogical interest in formulaic language. Motivated by Pawley & Syder (1983), formulaic language in general has been pushed towards the center of language teaching. The recent literature suggests two main reasons why teachers should teach formulas. First, formulaic language is held to promote natural, native-like language use; secondly, it increases fluency;

Communicative competence is not just the knowledge of what is possible to say, but rather what is more likely to be said.

Gaining full command of a new language requires the learner to become sensitive to the native speakers’ preferences for certain sequences of words over others that might appear just as possible. From the bizarre idiom, through the customary collocation, to the turns of phrase that have no other apparent linguistic merit than that ‘we just say it that way’. (Wray 2000: 463)

One capacity a foreign language learner has to achieve, according to Pawley and Syder (1983), is the native-like selection. Thus, the second language learner needs to achieve the ability to convey his opinion by an expression that is not only grammatical-correct but also native-like (see Pawley & Syder 1983: 191). So far, the focus in teaching a second language, as English or Spanish for German pupils, was always on grammar. But Pawley & Syder have found out that native speakers only use a small amount of grammar rules and if they used all of them, they would be considered as non-natives (see Pawley & Syder 1983: 193):

The fact is that only a small proportion of the total set of grammatical sentences are nativelike in form - in the sense of being readily acceptable to native informants as ordinary, natural forms of expression, in contrast to expressions that are grammatical but are judged to be ‘unidiomatic’, ‘odd’ or ‘foreignisms’. (Pawley & Syder 1983: 193)


1The terms ‘second language teaching’ and ‘foreign language teaching’ will be used interchangeably throughout the term paper.

2See also Wray & Perkins (2000). They give an excellent overview of the different functions of formulaic language.

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Teaching Formulaic Language. Analysis of Two Schoolbooks
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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teaching, formulaic, language, analysis, schoolbooks
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Laura Weyand (Author), 2011, Teaching Formulaic Language. Analysis of Two Schoolbooks, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/267009


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