LINGUIST List 15.1864

Sat Jun 19 2004

Review: Psycholing/Ling Theories: Jordan (2004)

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  1. Karen Roehr, Theory Construction in Second Language Acquisition

Message 1: Theory Construction in Second Language Acquisition

Date: Sat, 19 Jun 2004 14:32:27 -0400 (EDT)
From: Karen Roehr <>
Subject: Theory Construction in Second Language Acquisition

AUTHOR: Jordan, Geoff
TITLE: Theory Construction in Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2004
Announced at

Karen Roehr, Lancaster University.


Jordan's book is a defence of a rationalist approach to the
construction of theories in the field of second language acquisition
(SLA). The first part of the book takes a historical perspective and
gives a general outline of the philosophy of science; examples are
drawn from theory building in the natural and social sciences. Based
on an evaluation of the merits and shortcomings of various
epistemological approaches, Jordan formulates his own guidelines for
theory construction in the area of second language research. The
second part of the book provides a comprehensive overview of
influential theories in the field of SLA, which are summarised and
then assessed against the author's criteria. Jordan draws on his
critical rationalist guidelines not only to identify the strengths and
weaknesses of existing theoretical approaches, but also to sketch the
way forward for researchers concerned with constructing explanatory
models of SLA.


Overall, Jordan offers a very knowledgeable and well- written account
of theory construction in general and theorising in the field of
second language research in particular, which should be of interest to
virtually everyone in the diverse SLA community, from postgraduate
students to senior scholars. The broad scope of the book makes it a
valuable source of information not only for researchers interested in
the epistemology of their subject area, but also for students new to
the field of SLA who seek an up-to-date outline of second language
theories past and present. Unlike the volumes specifically devoted to
providing such an overview (e.g. R. Ellis, 1994; Mitchell & Myles,
1998), Jordan's book is -- intentionally -- less exhaustive; however,
it offers the added bonus of a critical appraisal against a
fascinating historical backdrop. The epistemological chapters do not
require any prior knowledge in the area of philosophy. Whether Darwin
or Derrida, Pavlov or Popper -- Jordan's treatment of what might
appear to be daunting subject matter is always accessible and often
highly entertaining. Jordan's lucid writing gives us a very useful
insight into an essentially complex topic, allowing the reader to see
the field of second language research within the bigger picture of
philosophy and science, and to locate his/her own position, views, and
beliefs in relation to the history of theory construction.


The first part of the book is concerned with questions of
epistemology, that is, the nature of knowledge and how knowledge is
attained. The issue of scientific methodology is addressed from a
general historical angle and is then linked in with second language

Jordan notes that there is no true consensus among academics on the
fundamental questions SLA research should explain, nor on what counts
as an adequate explanation. In order to tackle this problem from the
root, Jordan sets out to define key terms such as 'phenomena', 'data',
and 'explanation'. The discussion of what exactly we might mean by the
L ('language') and the A ('acquisition') in SLA is particularly
enlightening and serves to remind us of how important it is to be
clear about and make explicit our basic assumptions before engaging in
any research, applied or theoretical. This point may be obvious, but
it is certainly not trivial. Jordan's terminological review leads to
the conclusion that, whilst a proliferation of (complementary)
theories is not a problem in itself, researchers need to agree on the
objectives of and domain to be covered by a satisfactory theory of
SLA. To this end, Jordan aims to formulate a minimal set of guidelines
that can provide the SLA community with a common basis for theory

The following historical overview of research methods used in the
natural and social sciences effectively illustrates how Jordan arrives
at the premises underlying his guidelines. The author traces the
methodology of and challenges levelled against rationalist, empiricist
and positivist approaches to scientific discovery. Jordan's lively
exposition spans several centuries and makes for an altogether
enjoyable read; examples cover a lot of ground and range from
astronomy to classical conditioning. The critique of the scientific
method brought forward by various philosophers is outlined in a clear
and concise manner. Within fifty-odd pages, the reader is not only
made familiar with the main arguments of the moderate critics of
rationalism such as Kuhn and Feyerabend, but also with the more
radical relativism of postmodernists such as Foucault. It is probably
fair to say that this kind of epistemological background knowledge is
not necessarily at the fingertips of every SLA researcher. Yet,
Jordan's argument is not only informative in its own right, but also
highly relevant. Once again, we are reminded of the origin of
assumptions we may take for granted, and of the need to be aware of
our most basic beliefs about what constitutes knowledge and how it can
be arrived at.

Jordan then launches his defence of an essentially rationalist
approach to research methodology and theory construction. Jordan's own
brand of 'critical rationalism' can be described as moderate and
inclusive in that both scepticist and positivist extremes are
carefully avoided. Jordan argues against the necessity of a common
paradigm that informs all avenues of research. While there is no
single correct scientific method, the radically relativist maxim that
'anything goes' is likewise seen as inappropriate. Jordan acknowledges
the importance of relativist criticism with respect to political
analysis and educational policy; he further concedes that science is a
social institution and that our perceptions of the world and thus
scientific inquiries involve an element of subjectivity. However,
Jordan rejects a solipsistic view which rules out the possibility of
data collection, empirical tests, and explanatory theorising. The
author adopts a realist rationale when he posits, first, that there is
an objective external world about which discoveries can be made;
second, that it is the business of science to solve problems by
proposing explanatory theories; and third, that informed judgements
can be made to decide between opposing theories.

Jordan proceeds to link his epistemological overview to theory
construction in SLA. He outlines and evaluates the theoretical debate
among second language researchers as to whether the application of a
scientific methodology is justified in a field concerned with human
behaviour. Jordan arrives at the constructive conclusion that SLA is a
viable scientific discipline as long as its practitioners insist on
the use of rational argument and empirical testing. According to the
author, it is the purpose of theories to explain phenomena, while
observational data are used to support and test those theories. In the
spirit of these premises, Jordan then offers a set of guidelines that
critically rationalist theories of SLA should satisfy.

In accordance with Jordan's views as outlined above, the guidelines
seem eminently reasonable and are ostensibly aimed at establishing a
broad consensual basis. Jordan's guidelines consist of six fundamental
epistemological assumptions as well as five criteria against which SLA
theories can be evaluated. I would imagine that the vast majority of
academics working in the field of SLA would agree quite readily with
Jordan's forward-looking, inclusive, but certainly not uncritical


In the second part of the book, Jordan assesses various hypotheses,
models and theories of SLA against his critical rationalist
guidelines. He examines whether approaches violate his epistemological
assumptions and to what extent they provide satisfactory explanations
of the phenomena they seek to unravel. Not surprisingly perhaps, this
undertaking leads to a somewhat more controversial argument than the
general treatment of theory construction in part 1. Even though part 2
is not billed as an exhaustive overview of SLA theories, it can almost
be regarded as such. Jordan provides a wealth of information,
presented by means of an interesting and overall convincingly argued

Perhaps inevitably, part 2 of the book starts out with a critical
evaluation of generative grammar. Jordan acknowledges the immense
impact Chomsky's theories have had on the discipline of linguistics as
well as the sub-field of SLA, which mostly draws on the notion of
universal grammar. The arguments brought forward by Chomsky's main
critics are considered and, more often than not, Jordan effectively
defends Chomsky's corner. This does not prevent him, however, from
concluding that the applicability of universal grammar to SLA is
severely limited. Jordan's main concern is Chomsky's narrow definition
of linguistic competence, which clashes with the explanatory aim of
second language research. In other words, a description of core
grammar is quite different not only from a broader theory of language
that extends beyond syntax, but also, and more crucially, from a
theory of learning.

The subsequent chapters are devoted to a critical appraisal of a large
variety of SLA methods, hypotheses, models, and theories. Jordan
provides an insightful discussion of, among others, early approaches
such as contrastive analysis and error analysis, classic cognitive
theories broadly falling within an information-processing account, and
more recent developments such as the competition model and the
emergentist approach. The author assesses each account against the
guidelines he has set forth for SLA theory construction. Depending on
how well a theory matches the criteria, it is either considered as
offending the guidelines or as a promising sign of progress.

While the critical review of Chomskian linguistics and its relevance
to SLA theorising is very even-handed, Jordan's treatment of
approaches that are viewed as offending his guidelines might spark
some debate. Although the author points out that he does not wish to
argue that ''sociolinguistics is 'bad' and psycholinguistics is
'good''' (p.168), I could not help getting the impression that, on
occasion, Jordan seems to have little patience with certain
sociologically-oriented approaches, whilst being more inclined to
tolerate shortcomings in other, usually cognitively-oriented models.

Jordan's discussion of ethnography may serve as an illustration. The
author duly acknowledges that the selection and critique of a single
ethnographic study, no matter how representative it may be, is clearly
a limitation. He further emphasises that ''there is no necessary
reason why ethnographic, longitudinal studies should not be carried
out'' within his critical rationalist framework (p.172). Yet, the
reader is only presented with an instance of ethnography that falls
hopelessly short of the guidelines. By the same token, Jordan's
critique of Krashen's hypotheses sometimes seems quite harsh if
compared with the more generous discussion of various other flawed
theories. For instance, like Krashen's monitor model, the morpheme
order studies score poorly on several of Jordan's criteria. Yet,
unlike Krashen's account, the morpheme order studies are recognised as
having made a valuable contribution to the discipline and thus earn a
place in the 'signs of progress' chapter.

I believe that the occasional hint of bias, whether intended or not,
can be explained by the fact that it is not immediately apparent to
the reader exactly which or how many guidelines need to be satisfied
for a theory to be seen as promising rather than to be
dismissed. Clearly, theories which violate Jordan's epistemological
assumptions are not accepted. Yet, the remaining five evaluation
criteria appear to be applied much more loosely. This approach may
have been necessitated by Jordan's decision to include a wide range of
SLA accounts. Elaborate theories such as Pienemann's processability
theory, individual constructs such as Carroll's language learning
aptitude, and more specific models such as Schmidt's noticing
hypothesis are all judged by the same criteria. However, one might
argue that not all of the accounts Jordan evaluates purport to be
complete theories in the first place. This appears to be particularly
true of research concerned with individual learner differences. To my
knowledge, SLA researchers do not typically claim independent theory
status for supplementary notions such as motivation or aptitude;
instead, they aim for the incorporation of their constructs into a
fully-fledged theoretical framework, as recognised by Jordan himself

Given this all-inclusive approach, Jordan's decision to strictly
subdivide accounts of SLA into 'losing' theories (chapter 8) and
'winning' theories (chapter 9) without exactly specifying the number
of criteria a theory needs to meet in order to be categorised as a
sign of progress seems a little unfortunate to me, especially as none
of the approaches reviewed satisfies all the guidelines. However, this
somewhat forced classification should not distract from the fact that
the author's evaluation in terms of individual guidelines is
meticulous and differentiated; what is more, his praise and his
criticisms are certainly justified in themselves. In this sense,
Jordan's book exemplifies the stance of critical rationalism he is
advocating throughout, whilst the value judgement attached to specific
theoretical approaches may well serve as the starting point for a more
fruitful debate in the SLA community.


Ellis, R. (1994). The study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.

Mitchell, R., & Myles, F. (1998). Second Language Learning
Theories. London: Arnold.


Karen Roehr is studying for her PhD in second language acquisition in
the Department of Linguistics and Modern English Language at Lancaster
University. Her areas of interest are language acquisition,
psycholinguistics generally, and language education.
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