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Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic Relations in TEFL

How to avoid perfunctory teaching

Reza Arab

Note: To cite this article, please note that it was first published in:

Arab, R. (2012). Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic Relation in TEFL: How to avoid perfunctory teaching. Teachers’ Response, 2 (1): 8-10.

“The “sign” is thus the combined association of signifier and signified. Signs can be defined only in a state of contrast with other signs, in a manner that is either syntagmatic (i.e., syntax) or paradigmatic (i.e., as part of a related group).” +

The process of learning a second language is dividable into three major levels regardless of various theoretical or practical assumptions of ours: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Given this division, I would like to propose the consideration of some potentialities of language which we are not fully aware of as we live within. Now we know any leaner of a language needs linguistic competence of that language; i.e. being fully aware of or in better words unconscious knowledge of deep structure and syntax of that language. I suppose it will not be obtainable only if we establish an inductive presentation of syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations in the language teaching classes. To reach this, we need to have a brief acquaintance with some related notions in the field of linguistics. The list of notions contains syntagmatic and paradigmatic axis/relations, linguistic competence, linguistic performance, deep structure, syntax, morpheme, and morphology.

Definitions

Language has indeed a linear feature called speech chain or more technically linearity. Language is used in a sequence and an order of elements of rules; otherwise the message/utterance would be senseless. In the midst of any utterances, there are two axises visible. First it is syntagmatic axis and the second is paradigmatic axis.

The above schema illustrates a remarkable representation of these axises. In the sentence “The ridiculous girl fell into the pond” we have some parts: the, ridiculous, girl, fell into, the, pond. Each has a special function; a subject, a verb, an object (SUB-V-OBJ). They all are necessary to sit next together to make a sentence meaningful. The relationship among these components is contrastive. (Najafi, 1997) Thus according to linguists, syntagmatic relations are the links and dependencies between linguistic elements (units of any complexity) that coexist simultaneously in a linear series (a text or speech). Syntagmatic relations may exist between neighboring sounds, resulting in vowel harmony and assimilation, and between morphs, resulting in superposition or truncation of adjacent morphemes, or as in our example among words to construct a meaningful unit of language.

On the other axis, paradigmatic relationships are nonlinear and nonsimultaneous, and we can infer an opposing relationship of several elements of language involving a choice of one of a number of mutually exclusive elements.+ For instance, the word ridiculous is an adjective, so it can be replaced by a variety of other adjectives. Either any other words of this sentence could be replaced by any particles of which the value is to be determined.

Syntax is a traditional term for the study of the rules governing the way words are combined to form sentences in a language. In this use, syntax is opposed to morphology, the study of word structure.” (Crystal, 2003) Moreover, morpheme is the minimal unit of grammar and is seen primarily as the smallest functioning unit in the composition of words. For example, it is known that “unselfish Sally is” is incorrect based on English syntax, and “Sally is unselfish” is correct. From a morphological perspective we can also ponder on each word. Unselfish consists of three morphemes: un-, self, -ish, of which self is a free form, un- and –ish are bound forms.

Since our knowledge of language is rarely conscious, Julia Falk writes “linguistic competence is the unconscious knowledge about sounds, meanings, and syntax possessed by the speaker of a language.” On the other hand, “linguistic performance is actual language behavior- the use of language in daily life.”(Falk, 1987) Every speaker of English, for example, knows intuitively that “read book she” is not correct and meaningful. This unconscious knowledge is called competence. Performance, in contrast, is any utterances produced by native-speakers (in Saussurean term: parole). Furthermore, it is unique to each speaker and each produced text.

“The description of linguistic competence of speakers of the language is grammar … and syntax is the foundation of deep structure and the reason of its productivity.” (Bagheri, 1999) Consequently, in transformational/generative grammar, deep structure refers to “the abstract syntactic representation of a sentence- an underlying level of structural organization which specifies all factors governing the way the sentence should be interpreted.” (Crystal, 2003) For example, the sentences “Pat loves Chris” and “Chris is loved by Pat” mean roughly the same thing and use similar words. Some linguists, in particular Noam Chomsky, have tried to account for this similarity by positing that these two sentences are distinct surface forms that derive from a common deep structure. (Chomsky retold by Wikipedia, 2011)

How to apply

I previously mentioned that every speaker of a language can intuitively distinguish a wrong utterance from a correct one. Now, the main question could be posed; in which ways are we able to have learners acquire this intuitiveness and perceptiveness? Let us get back to the division we took for granted – just for the sake of simplicity: we have grouped learners into beginners, intermediate, advanced. We ought to move forward in a phasic manner.

Beginners: Beginner students lack the linguistic competence. Therefore, they are not capable of identifying syntactically wrong sentences and neither can they produce acceptable performances. Hence mentioned axises in any sentences need to be elicited in the class. Prior to this, we have to take “sentence” as the shortest meaningful unit which is worth teaching. It is necessary that teachers have beginner learners be aware of syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations inductively1. You do not teach them by rules and formulas, but rather by having them take in axises and the competence. We have got couple of ways to accomplish so.

First, it is important that the teacher take sentence as the basic unit of language which is supposed to be taught. Never should a teacher try to transfer the language by any other units. Sentences must be written on the board or displayed on OHP. Learners of this level need to be bombarded by as many relevant sample sentences in order that learners could take in the deep structure and acquire the essential linguistic competence.

Second, teachers have to use drills2. Especially a range of drills such as expansion drill and substitution drill are strongly recommended. Teachers might write a sentence on the board like; “I like banana very much”. You don not need to focus on each part or particle, repeat the sentence. It has been heard from beginner learners repeatedly, saying “I very like banana” or “I very banana like”. These kinds of utterances are produced by a mind of who has lived in Farsi syntax. By repetition, you can carve the syntagmatic axis in their minds. Subsequently, start drilling; expansion drill is an extra bitstock to highlight syntagmatic axis and facilitate linguistic competence3. Perfect your presentation by substitution drill4. Ask learners to replace different words. This undoubtedly could elicit the paradigmatic potentiality of the learning language – another consistent forward step to crystallize learners’ linguistic competence. This quality could be seen in Basic books of Standout series.

Intermediate: After making sure your students’ awareness of linguistic competence on syntactical level, start second phase. Concentrate on phrases of the language: mainly verb phrases. Teachers should provide a good deal of phrases mostly relevant to the course and class ambiance. Draw students’ attention on linearity and substitutability of each particle of a phrase so that s/he can internalize the competence and deep structure. Two kinds of presentations could be performed. When we explain how different parts of a phrase combine to form larger stretches of text, our teaching is syntagmatic. Syntagmatic presentation deals with relations among particular elements in a text. Look at the example:

It needs considerable imagination to catch on to the fact of how difficult it is for scientists first to lead off experiments on AIDS and then follow them up when the state is constantly short of money.5

To be able to construct such a text, students must be acquainted with the use of phrases of the following type:

1. it needs considerable imagination + full infinitive
2. how difficult it is + for somebody + full infinitive
3. an experiment + on + noun
4. to be short of + noun
5. lead off – begin
6. follow up – develop
7. catch on to – understand

Paradigmatic presentation usually is being supported by textbook. To show learners how it would be possible to replace different particles of a phrase and convey a different meaning/function. Such as these two examples:

A.

1. A beggar knocked …… my door.
2. I knocked the vase …… the table and broke it.
3. He always knocks …… at six o’clock.

(L.G. Alexander: Practice and Progress retold by Andrzej Cirocki)

B.

1. Can you …… up this poster for me?
2. Why are you so miserable? …… up! Things can’t be that bad.
3. When the headmaster comes in, all the pupils …… up.
4. The party was really boring so I suggested some games to …… it up.
5. After a long illness, it takes some time to …… up your strength.

(J. Flower: Phrasal Verbs Organizer with Mini-Dictionary retold by Andrzej Cirocki)

Advanced: During the last phase, teacher forms her learners’ competence in the level of morphemes. We have to demonstrate syntagmatic and paradigmatic relation in morphological level.6 I made an example above which I would like to recall. The word “unselfish” should be first taught and presented in a syntagmatic manner:

Un- , self , -ish

Provide more samples:

Un- , comfort, -able , -ly

Second step is paradigmatic presentations of morphemes; apply substitutions on morphological level:

Un- , change , -able, -ly

— , change , -able, -ly

Conclusion

By repetition of these phases, you will have learners form linguistic competence inductively. As they are aware of deep structure and possess competence, not only can they produce correct utterances but also, as Chomsky believes, they will be able to initiate utterances which have not been heard by them. If teachers do not heed on shaping the linguistic competence of learners and do not pay special attention to presenting syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations inductively, their efforts as a teacher, I presume, will indeed be perfunctory.

NOTES:

1. According to Brown (2007) recalling a number of specific instances in order to induce a general law or rule or conclusion that governs or subsumes the specific instances. As opposed to deductive presentation of grammar.

2. For a better grasp of the techniques accompanying pertinent examples in use, look at: Larsen-Freeman (2000), Techniques and principles in language teaching, Oxford University press, chapter 4: The Audio-Lingual Method.

3. In this part you start from the last part of the sentence and ask students to repeat. For example:

Teacher: “very much”

Class: “very much”

Teacher: “banana very much”

Class: “banana very much”

Teacher: “like banana very much”

Class: “like banana very much”

Teacher: “I like banana vey much”

Class: “I like banana vey much”.

4. “Students repeat a sentence … and replace a word or phrase in the sentence with the word or phrase the teacher gives them.” (Larsen-Freeman, 2000)

5. Andrzej Cirocki has provided great range of examples on Syntagmatic vs. Paradigmatic Presentation of Phrasal Verbs. I used his examples here. Look at: ELT Newsletter, January 2003 +  

6. Since I am concerned about Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic relations in teaching language in this article, I forgo the semantic aspect of teaching language in advanced level. To cut a long story short, the most important point after what was mentioned is to get students been aware of different interpretations of a same text in different conversations or situations.

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