Language-Like Behavior – 2

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8 thoughts on “Language-Like Behavior – 2”

  1. I really like this phrase as well. Now, for my tired Monday brain…can you define/explain “mental representation” for me? I’m afraid for too many teachers, “mental representation” means “I know all of the rules and I can mentally picture the right one to use.” I want the better description in my back pocket.
    I have been very behind on all of this reading, so where does the term “mental representation” originate?
    Thank you so much in advance for keeping me in the loop!
    with love,

    1. Hey Laurie – I’m sure Eric will define it but for me it’s really what you have been talking about for years and years – the importance of the creation of images in this work. And as I understand it, an image doesn’t have to be a picture, but can be something in the will of a person that needs to be expressed. I don’t quite know what that means, but I’m sure that, between reading all the research, teaching his classes, applying to graduate school at MSU to work with VP, he’ll find the time to share what his definition of “mental representation” is.

    2. Eric has done more research on this than anyone else, but my understanding of the term is this:
      As we receive the data (the target language in a form that we understand), our brain creates its own image of how the language is structured and works.
      This image is implicit, i.e. it exists outside our conscious awareness, much as the concept of “round” (to use VanPatten’s analogy) is implicit knowledge, but we have to struggle with conscious, logical reasoning from what we know implicitly in order to frame a definition. We know this concept is there, but we cannot articulate it. (Just ask any non-linguistically trained native speaker to describe the rules of his language to see what VanPatten is saying here.)
      This image is also complex and abstract, i.e. it is not simply a set of rules or paradigms like those found in traditional grammar books. When we start trying to define our language, we discover that the terms we are trying to use also need definition in order to be “precise”. Furthermore, our mental representation – if accurate – incorporates all of traditional grammar textbooks’ “exceptions and irregularities” with ease and without having to spell out what those exceptions and irregularities are. In fact, the native speaker’s mental representation of his own language is far too complex and abstract to be reducible to the rules and paradigms found in a textbook.
      This is what I understand VanPatten to be saying about mental representation.

  2. Here is one way to think of it. The question is how language is represented in the brain. It is depicted on the page with a series of symbols. It is represented in the air with a series of vibrations. It is represented in a textbook with a series of rules. It is represented in the brain in way which is different from the textbook and which includes its own “rules” and connections.
    As VP repeatedly says, the rules in the textbook cannot become the rules in the the head. The “rules” in the head come from language data that we hear/read and understand. So the brain creates its own grammar, its own representation of the sound/symbol system in the process of extracting meaning from communication through that system.
    The key is that this grammar in the brain does not come through consciously learned language summaries. It is a subconsciously acquired representation of the language which is of the brain’s own making.

    1. In Principles and Practice, Dr. Krashen uses the phrase ‘mental representation’ three times. in all three instances it is referred to as a ‘conscious mental representation.’
      1. In distinguishing acquisition from learning, Dr. Krashen states, “If, for example, a student of English as a second language says “I goes to school every day”, and the teacher corrects him or her by repeating the utterance correctly, the learner is supposed to realize that the /s/ ending goes with the third person and not the first person, and alter his or her conscious mental representation of the rule. This appears reasonable, but it is not clear whether error correction has this impact in actual practice…”
      2. In his discussion of output and conscious learning he says, “Output aids learning because it provides a domain for error correction. When a second language user speaks or writes, he or she may make an error. When this error is corrected, this supposedly helps the learner change his or her conscious mental representation of the rule or alter the environment of rule application.”
      3. While comparing deductive and inductive learning, he says, “An inductively-learned rule is a conscious mental representation of a linguistic generalization–an acquired rule is not conscious (we can, however, certainly learn later what we have acquired; see below), but is manifested by a “feel” for correctness. (p 114)
      When VP uses the term “mental representation” he does not clarify with “subconscious mental representation.” I am not sure that he would make matters clearer by doing so, although it seems he might. But in case, I am sure that that is what he means.

  3. This concept and terminology is not original to BVP. This is terminology from Chomskyan/generative linguistics.
    competence (Chomsky) = mental representation (BVP) = acquired competence (Krashen)
    The concept is that we have this internalized system of language knowledge. Laurie, do you remember the “Wug Test” I shared in Maine? E.g. “This is a wug. Now there is another one. There are two of them. There are two ___.” You can spontaneously apply your unconscious language knowledge to nonsense words – this is taken as evidence of a mental representation.
    BVP works within a generative linguistics perspective, i.e. UG theory. He theorizes that there is access to UG in second language acquisition. That means acquiring syntax means starting with innate principles (universal constraints) and setting parameters (binary choices, like a switchbox). As such, BVP uses UG terminology.
    I believe the first encounters of many TPRS teachers with this term came from BVP’s paper “The Two Faces of SLA: Mental Representation and Skill.”
    “I take mental representation to mean the abstract, implicit, and underlying linguistic system in a speaker’s mind/brain.”
    “By abstract I mean that the linguistic system is not something akin to a set of textbook or prescriptive rules, but instead is a collection of abstract properties from which rule-like behavior is derived.” [ever seen the linguistics tree diagrams that label noun phrases, complements, etc. ?]
    “By implicit I mean that the content of the mental representation exists outside of awareness: speakers may know they have mental representation for language but they generally do not know the content of that representation.”
    “Finally, by underlying, I mean that the linguistic system underlies all surface manifestations of language.” [these underlying structures are what account for actual sentences]
    “The contents of the mental representation include all formal features of language (e.g., syntax, phonology, lexicon-morphology) as well as the semantics that relate to structure.”
    “The development of a mental representation is deceptively simple to describe. It is the result of three different factors working together: (1) input, (2) Universal Grammar, and (3) the parsing/processing mechanisms that mediate between the other two.”
    If you think people have such internalized systems of language in their heads then they refer to you as a “mentalist.” There are SLA theorists/researchers who reject this concept (e.g. sociocultural theorists) and there are SLA theorists/researchers who propose different types of internalized systems (e.g. connectionists theorize these complex systems of connections with word associations cuing other words).
    UG theory is a dominant paradigm in linguistics and SLA. Connectionism is now also trending.
    Then there are SLA theories that lack a theory of the nature of language (called a “property theory”) – that lack a theory of how language is represented. In my opinion, and probably in the opinion of BVP, that means these are incomplete SLA theories.
    One common critique of Krashen’s Theory is that he did not include a property theory. He name-drops Chomsky and the language acquisition device. It is comprehensible input of a specific parameter that would trigger acquisition or comprehensible input that would build these connectionist networks of words and forms. You see, the “cause” of acquisition is the setting of a parameter or the probability setting of a connection. “Comprehensible input” is NOT the “cause.” Comprehension is a prerequisite in order for those things to happen which cause acquisition.
    Acquisition = the developing of mental representation
    And while we’re defining terms, “comprehensible input” is usually intended to mean “semantic comprehension” (understanding the message), whereas “processing” means “syntactic comprehension” aka precise linking of a form to a meaning.
    Since Krashen did not tie his theory of how language is acquired (a “transition theory”) to a property theory, he did not explain how “comprehensible input” becomes/causes acquisition. But researchers have since tried to do so. This critique of Krashen’s theory is also its strength. For instance, by not tying Krashen theory to UG theory, you don’t have to worry about Krashen theory falling if UG theory were to be someday invalidated.

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