Cognitive linguistics The meaning of grammar

The forms of grammar have meanings, too.
The forms of grammar have meanings, too. | Photo (detail): © Marco2811-

Cognitive linguistics and grammar have been developing for three decades and promise to offer great benefits to language teaching. It is no exaggeration to describe this process as a paradigm shift – moving away from a focus on form and structure and towards prioritizing the constructions in learners’ brains.

In cognitive linguistics, it is assumed that grammar and lexicon form a continuum consisting of symbolic structures, each having a phonological/orthographical pole (i.e. the form side) and a semantic pole (i.e. the meaning and function side). After all, it is not only words that have meanings; the forms of grammar have, too, though the transitions between form and meaning are blurred. For example, we have on the one hand idiomatic expressions such as “she is a German teacher with all her heart and soul” which, although symbolically complex, have a very specific meaning. On the other hand, the preposition to in infinitive clauses is symbolically simple yet has an extremely abstract meaning: as for example in “It is not at all difficult to imagine something of the kind”. However, most speakers notice only occasionally that the conceptual structure of language plays an equally important role in communication as conceptual content, because as a rule they are focusing on the content. This makes it seem all the more urgent for grammar to be taught as a comprehensible basic framework for language that cannot be distinguished in principle from lexicon.  

Cognitive language didactics

The model of cognitive didactics distinguishes between four levels in all: first, the level of cognitive linguistics; second, the level of transfer difference; third, the level of grammatical metaphor; and fourth, the level of presentation and teaching.

The model of cognitive didactics The model of cognitive didactics | Figure: © Jörg Roche/Ferran Suñer Muñoz 2014 In cognitive linguistics it is assumed (level 1) that real-world experiences are reproduced symbolically in language and grammar. Experiences are assigned to language in domains that constitute the conceptual framework that allows content to be structured: movement, space, gravitation, force, resistance and others. Body-based experiences, such as above, beside, below, hot and cold, can be found in all of the world’s languages. The way in which these schematic images is used differs from one language to another, however. The Germans for example say that one is “in the rain” (im Regen), whereas the Spanish and the French talk about one being “under the rain” (bajo la lluvia; sous la pluie). In these latter two languages, weather phenomena are seen as something that is above us, giving rise to a conceptual image of above and below, whereas German and English view them as containers.

Conceptualization of rain in Spanish, French and Russian Conceptualization of rain in Spanish, French and Russian | Figure (detail): © Jörg Roche 2017 Conceptualization of rain in German and English Conceptualization of rain in German and English | Figure (detail): © Jörg Roche 2017 In cognitive language didactics, conveying these different ways of conceptualizing the world to learners is seen as the real job of the teacher (transfer difference, level 2). This can be made transparent to learners in a variety of way, for instance by using images with which learners are already familiar, known as grammatical metaphors, such as those used to describe types of sports (level 3). Level 4 in the model deals with the use of media to teach language, using for example computer animations to explain modal verbs.  

Grammatical metaphors in computer animations

Animations are particularly helpful when it comes to visualization: they make understanding, explaining and learning grammar easier, and help learners develop their conceptual skills. Sports-based animations appear especially suitable because sports are widely known internationally, because they are highly regarded and have the potential to motivate, because they are easily transferable into practice, and because they are essentially based on the same principles of perceiving and shaping the world as language is.
What is more, grammar animations can be efficiently combined with the principles of activity-based didactics and theatre and dance pedagogy: because they are linked to bodily experiences, animations can be easily reproduced by movements, gestures etc. The image of an obstacle can be used for example to illustrate modal verbs – in this case a barrier that is moved by an external authority (e.g. police officer).
  • New presentation of a simple animation of a particular grammatical phenomenon with the aid of a grammatical metaphor Figure (detail): © Katsiaryna Kanaplianik (EL-Bouz) 2016
    New presentation of a simple animation of a particular grammatical phenomenon with the aid of a grammatical metaphor
  • Repetition, supported by graphical symbols such as arrows, reinforcements and enlargements, and individual simple terms Figure (detail): © Katsiaryna Kanaplianik (EL-Bouz) 2016
    Repetition, supported by graphical symbols such as arrows, reinforcements and enlargements, and individual simple terms
  • Second repetition in slow motion, underlaid with simple (meta-language) explanations Figure (detail): © Katsiaryna Kanaplianik (EL-Bouz) 2016
    Second repetition in slow motion, underlaid with simple (meta-language) explanations

Conceptual skills as learning goal

Against this backdrop, it is becoming increasingly accepted that successful language acquisition is not only limited to a knowledge of a language’s formal characteristics and its denotative meanings, but also encompasses the ability to deal in a culturally-sensitive manner with the way in which experiences are conceptually verbalized in a particular language. The acquisition of such conceptual skills can thus certainly be regarded as the higher-level goal of language teaching. However, this requires learners to actively engage with the conceptual differences – to bridge the transfer difference, that is – by establishing corresponding links between the first and the foreign language. To borrow a term from cognitive cultural sciences, the final state of successful integration of the conceptual differences can be described as transdifference. Thus cognitive language didactics forms a natural bridge to the study of a country and its culture: the basic principles of a language culture can be explained in a way that is vivid, understandable and lasting.

The initial transfer difference of languages thus poses no obstacle to language acquisition. On the contrary, it triggers important processes of conceptual language awareness that are of key importance when it comes to acquiring conceptual skills in both the foreign and the source language.


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Kanaplianik (EL-Bouz), Katsiaryna (2016): Kognitionslinguistisch basierte Animationen für die deutschen Modalverben. Zusammenspiel der kognitiven Linguistik und des multimedialen Lernens bei der Sprachvermittlung. Berlin/Münster: Lit. Verlag.

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Roche, Jörg/Scheller, Julia (2008): Grammar Animations and Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning. In: Zhang, Felicia/ Barber, Beth (Ed.): Handbook of research on computer-enhanced language acquisition and learning., Hershey/New York: Information Science Reference, p. 205-219.

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