Usage-based language acquisition: Implicit and explicit learning and their interface

Nick C. Ellis, Unviersity of Michigan


We learn language through our experiences of using language. Usage-based approaches to language investigate how this happens. Various disciplines collaborate in these inquiries. Corpus Linguistics explores the latent structure of the problem-space – the usage evidence from which we learn. Cognitive Linguistics details our language representations – the inventory of linguistic constructions as pairings of form and meaning or communicative function. Constructions range from simple morphemes like –ing, through lexis, to complex and abstract syntactic frames such as the Subject–Verb–Object–Object verb-argument construction. Psycholinguistics is the experimental study of language processing. Psycholinguistic demonstrations of effects of frequency upon language processing provide evidence of the implicit learning over usage of this variety of symbolic associations. Cognitive Psychology explores our complementary learning systems. Implicit learning occurs without conscious awareness; it involves simple learning mechanisms in the distributional analyses of the exemplars of a given form–meaning pair that take various characteristics of the exemplar into consideration, including how frequent it is and what kind of words and phrases and larger contexts it occurs with.  Explicit learning involves more conscious, attentionally-focussed, processing. It allows our learning of novel representations. Emergentism concerns how language learning is a gradual process in which the language system emerges as a complex and adaptive (continuously fine–tuned) system from the interaction of these cognitive learning mechanisms during language interactions with other speakers in various social settings and media. Applied Linguistics and cognitive psychology share a concern with the ways in which explicit learning impacts upon implicit learning. Answers to this issue of “interface” affect the ways we approach language acquisition, the ways we interact with learners, and whether and how we plan instruction. This talk will illustrate the contributions of these approaches to our understanding of first and second language learning of morphology, lexis, and verb-argument constructions.


Nick Ellis is Professor of Psychology, Professor of Linguistics, and Research Scientist in the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan. His research interests include first and second language acquisition, cognition, emergentism, corpus linguistics, cognitive linguistics, applied linguistics, reading and spelling acquisition, and psycholinguistics. Relevant books include: Usage-based Approaches to Language Acquisition and Processing: Cognitive and Corpus Investigations of Construction Grammar (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016, with Römer and O’Donnell), Agendas for Language Learning Research (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, with Ortega and Cumming), Language as a Complex Adaptive System (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, with Larsen-Freeman), Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition (Routledge, 2008, with Robinson), and Implicit and Explicit Learning of Languages (Academic Press, 1994). He serves as  General Editor of Language Learning.