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On the Offensive

By Karen Stollznow

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Review of  Contemporary Approaches to Second Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Achilleas I. Kostoulas
Book Title: Contemporary Approaches to Second Language Acquisition
Book Author: María del Pilar García Mayo María Junkal Gutierrez Mangado María Martínez Adrián
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 24.4125

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This edited collection comprises eleven chapters outlining different approaches to Second Language Acquisition (SLA). The chapters are flanked by a foreword by Florence Myles, introductory comments by the editors and an afterword by Jason Rothman and Bill VanPatten, where the multiple perspectives presented in the volume are brought together.

Chapter 1: What is easy and what is hard to acquire in a second language: a generative perspective (Roumyana Slabakova)

In the first chapter, readers are presented with the Bottleneck Hypothesis: Drawing on Generative Theory, Slabakova argues that some linguistic properties are universal across languages and therefore transferable from the mother language to the second language, whereas others are subject to parametric variation, and thus harder to acquire. The Bottleneck Hypothesis posits that the most problematic features are those relating to the functional lexicon, where most syntactic and semantic variation is morphologically encoded. By contrast, acquisition of other linguistic features (e.g. syntax, semantics or pragmatics) proceeds unproblematically once functional morphology is acquired. The chapter reports on several experimental studies, which offer empirical support for the Bottleneck Hypothesis. Although the chapter’s main aim is “to explain the cognitive processes of language acquisition” (p. 6), Slabakova also proposes that the Bottleneck Hypothesis appears to challenge the pedagogical value of communicative language teaching. She further suggests that teaching approaches which bring grammatical morphology to the forefront and emphasise practice may be pedagogically beneficial.

Chapter 2: Systemic functional approaches to second language acquisition (Ana Llinares)

Chapter 2 provides an account of SLA emphasising contextual influences on language use. The chapter begins with an overview of Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL): this approach brings into focus the circumstances in which language is used, with a view to accounting for both what language is and what it is used for (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004). In the next three sections, Llinares presents empirical studies that illustrate how SFL can usefully inform SLA research. For instance, SFL has been used to investigate language use by very young learners who were being taught English as a Foreign Language. Other studies have investigated the generic features of texts produced in a foreign language by secondary school students. SFL has also been productively applied to the investigation of content-based foreign language instruction. The point is made that SFL can be fruitfully combined with other approaches to SLA in ways that mutually complement their interpretative strengths. In terms of pedagogical potential, Llinares argues that SFL can be used to guide needs analysis, and as a framework that informs the teaching of genre and register conventions in communication.

Chapter 3: From input, output and comprehension to negotiation, evidence and attention: an overview of theory and research in learner interaction and SLA (Teresa Pica)

In Chapter 3, Teresa Pica outlines the contributions of interaction theory and research to understanding SLA processes. In a state-of-the-art review that is impressive in scope, the author discusses theoretical constructs and presents empirical research that goes back to the earliest formulations of interaction theory in the 1960s and 1970s. After discussing foundational constructs, such as input, intake, comprehensible input and output, Pica goes on to discuss empirical work on learner interaction. Studies on negotiation of meaning, negotiation of form, recasts, form-focused interventions and form-focused instruction and output production and modification are presented in the following sections. Next, readers are presented with research on learner readiness and teachability, and -- after that -- with a discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of Task-Based interaction and classroom research that focuses on Task-Based work. The chapter concludes by pointing out the synergistic links that naturally develop between teaching practice and interaction research, and with a call for broadening the scope of interaction research.

Chapter 4: Skill Acquisition Theory and the role of practice in L2 development (Roy Lyster & Masatoshi Sato)

Lyster and Sato’s contribution to this edited collection discusses how Skills Acquisition Theory can inform SLA. In brief, Skills Acquisition Theory postulates that a combination of practice and feedback in meaningful contexts can gradually lead to faster and more accurate processing of the target language. Key to this theory is the distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge (knowing factual information, and having the ability to do things respectively). The interplay between these two types of knowledge is described as bi-directional: most obviously, repeated practice can lead to the transformation of declarative knowledge into procedural knowledge, although the reverse process is also possible in instructional settings. The authors argue that practice (both guided and communicative) and appropriate feedback can lead to the more efficient transformation of declarative into procedural knowledge. In terms of pedagogical implications, Lyster and Sato argue that practice activities constitute a necessary complement to input-driven teaching approaches.

Chapter 5: The Input Processing theory in second language acquisition (Alessandro Benati)

In the fifth chapter, Benati discusses how input is processed by second language learners. The chapter is broadly divided in three sections: First, the main principles of VanPatten’s Input Processing Theory are presented (VanPatten, 1996). It is suggested that learners tend to process input for meaning before processing its formal features, and that the order in which information is presented influences the way input is processed e.g., nouns that are presented early tend to be perceived as agents. In the second section, empirical data are used to support the main principles of the Input Processing theory, and the various sub-principles which derive from them. The last section discusses the implications of Input Processing Theory: readers are presented with a succinct discussion of Processing Instruction, a pedagogical model derived from the Input Processing Theory (), and its effectiveness is demonstrated with reference to several target languages, grammatical forms and structures. The chapter concludes with suggestions for further empirical and theoretical work.

Chapter 6: Processability Theory: Explaining developmental sequences (Gisela Håkansson)

Chapter 6 examines the developmental sequences observed in second language acquisition. The discussion begins by outlining Processability Theory (Pienemann, 1998). That theory posits that morphosyntactic phenomena will emerge in learners’ production according to an invariable order, which is common across languages: e.g., tense suffixes will emerge before subject-verb inversion. The validity of Processability Theory is established with reference to empirical work carried out in several languages. Building on the premises of Processability Theory, Håkansson then discusses the role of transfer, and uses empirical data to show that developmental sequences are influenced by learners’ stage in the developmental process, rather than by transfer from their mother languages. The chapter includes a discussion of profiling, an assessment procedure that measures language development in terms of language-universal developmental stages, which is claimed to be particularly useful for studying bilingual development.

Chapter 7: Sociocultural Theory and second language development: theoretical foundations and insights from research (Gabriela Adela Gánem-Gutiérrez)

The seventh chapter treats SLA from the perspective of sociocultural theory (SCT). The three main sections each discuss key theoretical insights, alternating with an overview of related research. First, SCT is explicitly positioned with reference to linguistic theory, and linkages are drawn to cognitive linguistics and linguistic relativism. In the following section, Gánem-Gutiérrez discusses SCT constructs pertaining to second language acquisition, such as the Zone of Proximal Development (the gap between what agents can independently achieve and what they can achieve with assistance), collaborative activity and verbalization, gesture, internalization and assessment. Next, readers are provided with a succinct overview of Activity Theory, seen from the perspective of second language acquisition. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of implications, particularly for empirical work in SLA.

Chapter 8: Investigating L2 spoken syntax: A usage based perspective (Regina Weinert, María Basterrechea, & María del Pilar Garcia Mayo)

Taking a more focused view than preceding chapters, Chapter 8 looks into spoken language, in an attempt to counter what is described as a pervasive ‘written language bias’ in linguistics (p. 153). In the first of the two sections that make up the chapter, the authors discuss spoken language in general: after listing some properties that differentiate it from the written modality, they argue for a usage-based grammar that acknowledges the innate and symbolic nature of language. Such a grammar, they argue, should fuse morphology and the lexicon while preserving a psychological reality. This section also discusses methods of researching spoken language. The second section illustrates the issues raised by examining authentic examples of informal conversation produced by native speakers and learners of English as a Second Language. By focusing on the syntactic structures of the participants’ output, the authors illustrate how subordination is given form in actual discourse. On the basis of the data, the claim is put forward that developmental processes can be best understood when the idiosyncrasies of spoken language are explicitly addressed in the research design.

Chapter 9: Connectionist models of second language acquisition (Ping Li & Xiaowei Zhao)
In Chapter 9, Li and Zhao approach SLA from a connectionist perspective. In brief, connectionist theory argues that cognitive processes, including learning, involve parallel operations of large cognitive networks, which give rise to emergent phenomena. The chapter begins with a broad overview of connectionism, concluding with its applications to bilingual learning and language attrition. Following that, the authors present a psycholinguistically realistic connectionist model (Developmental Lexicon II – DevLex II), that can be used to simulate learning in multiple languages, including various bilingual pairs. As the model is sensitive to Age of Acquisition effects, it is argued that it can provide insights into the Critical Period Hypothesis. Using data generated by the model, the authors claim that “bilingual representation is the result of a highly dynamic and competitive process in which early learning significantly constrains later development” (p. 194).

Chapter 10: Dynamic Systems Theory as a comprehensive theory or second language development (Kees de Bot, Wander Lowie, Steven L. Thorne, & Marjolijn Verspoor)

In the penultimate chapter, de Bot, Lowie, Thorne and Verspoor make a compelling case for viewing Dynamical Systems Theory (DST) as a unifying theory that brings together many different perspectives that inform Second Language Acquisition (or Development, as is their preferred term). DST attempts to explain how the components of complex adaptive systems interact with each other and with their context to affect to change over time. Crucially, the theory accounts for recurrent patterns, which appear at different temporal and spatial scales. As such, it lends itself to bridging the gaps between theoretical perspectives that focus on the social level (ecological, cultural-historical, sociocultural) and those that focus on the psychological level (UG, cognitive linguistic theory, connectionism). The authors suggest that these ‘middle-level theories’ focus on different time-scales and different levels of granularity, but can be fruitfully brought together under DST, since their foundational assumptions are compatible.

Chapter 11: Electrophysiology of second language processing: the past, present and future. (Laura Sabourin, Christie Brien, & Marie-Claude Tremblay)

The final chapter reports on the use of Event-Related brain Potential (ERP), a neuroimaging technique, as a way to understand the electrophysiological processes of Second Language Acquisition. ERP is used to record the activity of neurons as language is processed in real time, and therefore lends itself to comparing how native languages and second languages are processed. The authors review studies on a variety of linguistic phenomena, such as speech perception, lexical processing and sentence processing, on monolingual, bilingual and multilingual participants, with a view to generating insights into the effects of linguistic proficiency, age of acquisition and cross-linguistic similarity. Although our understanding of neurological processing of language is still emerging, and conflicting data do not yet allow firm conclusions, the authors suggest that by carefully controlling factors, broadening the scope of research and looking at the relationships between factors, research might enhance our understanding of SLA processes.

Afterword: On multiplicity and mutual exclusivity: the case for different SLA theories (Jason Rothman & Bill VanPatten)

Rothman and VanPatten conclude with remarks aiming to situate the various approaches presented in relation to each other. First, the multiplicity of SLA theories is said to be legitimate, since each theory attempts to explain different aspects of SLA. Next, the authors discuss differences in the ways that the theories conceptualise the foundational constructs of SLA (i.e., non-primary languages, language and the acquisition process). The differentiated role of context, as seen from various theoretical perspectives, is also examined. The authors persuasively argue that the different theories need not be seen as being in competition. Rather, a call is made for “the necessity of the different theories working out the details of their particular domains before there is assembly of these smaller theories into a larger account of SLA” (p. 255).

This collection sets out to provide a broad overview of selected strands of SLA research. The eleven main chapters present state-of-the-art reviews of several different approaches, which range from established paradigms such as Generative Linguistics, Interactionism and Processability Theory to emerging perspectives, including Connectionism, Dynamical Systems Theory and neurolinguistics. One should note, as the editors do, that a comprehensive review of all the theoretical and empirical work which informs SLA is not feasible, but the multiple contributions here showcase many of the most salient approaches to SLA, and celebrate the diversity of the field. In addition, the concluding chapter by Rothman and VanPatten, as well as the one by de Bot, Lowie, Thorne and Verspoor (Chapter 10), hint at the ways in which these multiple perspectives complement each other.

Despite the variety across the chapters, the volume coheres well, mostly thanks to the consistent structure of its chapters. All the chapters provide comprehensive overviews of the theoretical and empirical work carried out in the paradigm they describe. This is often illustrated with reference to specific contributions of the research strand to the field of SLA. Implications for research and pedagogy (where appropriate) are also discussed by all authors.

In summary, this intellectually stimulating volume showcases the epistemological and methodological diversity of SLA in a rich, informative way. At the same time, it hints at the emergent features around which the field coheres. Such a collection would be especially valuable to two audiences. For newcomers to SLA, the volume could offer a helpful starting point for approaching the multiple perspectives that make up the field. Although some chapters are perhaps less accessible than others, the collection is a useful resource for relevant courses in SLA or related fields. More experienced researchers might find the volume helpful for keeping abreast of developments in approaches parallel to their own. The potential of such a collection for stimulating interdisciplinary insights is also commendable.

Halliday, M.A.K., & Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. (2004). ''An introduction to functional grammar'' (3rd ed. / rev. by Christian M.I.M. Matthiessen. ed.). London: Arnold.

Pienemann, M. (1998). ''Language processing and second language development : processability theory''. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: Benjamins.

VanPatten, B. (1996). ''Input processing and grammar instruction in second language acquisition.'' Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.
Achilleas Kostoulas, MA TESOL (Manchester), BA English Studies (Athens), is a postgraduate doctoral researcher at The University of Manchester (UK). His doctoral research focuses on the way English Language Teaching is practiced in Greece, and draws on complexity theory to describe how it is eclectically shaped by the interplay of global and local influences. Previous employment included designing and delivering courses in English as a Foreign Language and Language Teacher Education at the Epirus Institute of Technology in Greece.