Cognitive linguistics aids in second language acquisition

By ZHANG YIXIN and BAN XIAOYUE / 10-20-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Students learn English at a primary school in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, on Sept. 1. Photo: CFP

Cognitive linguistics is an emerging discipline that studies language based on new philosophical and cognitive views, using people’s experience of the world and their perception and conceptualization of the world. It has grown into a mainstream paradigm of linguistics research at home and abroad. How to lift the efficiency of foreign language acquisition from the perspective of cognitive linguistics is a trending research topic. 

Mutual integration 

For cognitive linguists, researching multilingual learning is of great value to better understand the relationship between language and cognition and cultivate multilingual talent. Although multilingual learning and second language learning share some similarities, such as the transfer of mother tongue knowledge and learning strategies, and the promotion of meta-linguistic awareness, they have great differences in many aspects. 

At the 7th Seminar on Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition in China held recently, Shu Dingfang, director of the Professional Committee on Cognitive Linguistics at the China Association for Comparative Studies of English and Chinese, noted that in the process of second foreign language learning, the transfer efficiency from the first to second foreign language is higher than the direct transfer from mother tongue, especially in the case that the first and second foreign language have a genealogical relationship. At the same time, the experience from learning the first foreign language, including learning strategies, especially meta-cognitive strategies, has a great impact on learning the second foreign language, which leads to a much higher learning efficiency for the latter than the former. In addition, the cognitive benefits of learning a second foreign language are also higher than learning only one foreign language. It can improve the level of language cognition in terms of metalinguistic awareness, non-linguistic cognitive ability, social and emotional cognition, meta-cognitive ability, the reorganization of the conceptual system, etc. 

Second language acquisition not only stays on a language level, but on thinking modes. In the process of second language acquisition, people are used to considering learners’ acquisition of the second language on a linguistic level. Wang Wenbin, director of the National Research Center of Foreign Language Education at Beijing Foreign Studies University, believes that although the acquisition of such linguistic levels as phonetics, phonology, vocabulary, syntax, semantics, and discourse means much, deeper second language acquisition lies in the real acquisition of its thinking mode. In particular, the cultivation of adult second language acquisition ability needs to highlight the commonality and individuality of the thinking mode of the second language and mother tongue, strengthening the transformation of thinking mode. 

The phenomenon of alignment in second language communication seems to be based on the cognitive mechanism of linguistic repetition, but psychologists believe that it is the key and universal psychological phenomenon for the smooth flow of human dialogue. According to Wang Min, a professor from the School of International Studies at Zhejiang University, empirical research has shown that alignment is a psychological process in which the brain’s representations of the two sides of the dialogue dynamically adjust and converge in the interaction, so as to understand each other and achieve the purpose of communication. Alignment is a long-term adjustment of the brain representation to the input people receive. It is also a kind of social adhesive, which helps interlocutors build a positive social relationship, shorten the emotional distance between the two sides, and promote harmonious and smooth communication. 

Over the past decade, cognitive linguistics and second language acquisition have shown the trend of deep integration. Since cognitive linguistics is usage-based, various usage-based constructs of second language acquisition have been formed. According to Zhang Hui, a professor from the School of Foreign Languages and Cultures at Nanjing Normal University, cognitive linguistics and second language acquisition all follow two working hypotheses: first, language learning is based on the learners’ contact with the second language, namely language input; second, second language learners summarize the rules of the second language from language input using domain-general cognitive ability and acquire the language. 

Second language teaching 

Usage-inspired second language instruction is a new teaching method based on the usage views of second language acquisition. It is also a new direction in the field of second language acquisition in the classroom. At present, there is still a lack of empirical research on second language teaching based on language usage views. Xu Jinfen, a professor from the School of Foreign Languages at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, suggested enriching research perspectives and research objectives, and investigating the teaching effects of language usage views in the writing, reading, listening, and other aspects of the foreign language. It is necessary to fully tap the great potential of corpus from the usage-inspired perspective, use resources to determine the target structure of students’ development stages and corresponding teaching content, and carry out diachronic teaching research. 

In Wang Min’s view, research on foreign language teaching classes based on alignment is centered on how to maximize the alignment effect in teaching. First of all, serious consideration should be put in the role and position of teachers in classroom teaching based on alignment. In addition, researchers should be concerned with the ways to provide teaching feedback from the perspective of alignment, strengthen students’ willingness and motivation for alignment, and train alignment strategies. 

In the acquisition of various skills of a second language, writing is a high-level complex and dynamic learning form. It requires learners to comprehensively invoke all kinds of knowledge of the second language system to produce written works that reflect ideas and the level of the second language. It has features different from other second language skills. Lu Zhi, a professor from the Center for Translation Studies at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, said that composition writing is a process of conceptual application and connection. The operation mechanism of conceptual integration is reflected in the process of second language composition writing, such as conception, layout, phrase-making, textual echoing, and work generation.