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Review of  Input Matters in SLA

Reviewer: Monica Cabrera
Book Title: Input Matters in SLA
Book Author: Thorsten Piske Martha Young-Scholten
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 20.4070

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From its title ambiguity, “Input Matters in SLA” not only offers a review of
current issues about the role of input in second language acquisition (SLA), but
also makes the statement that input does matter in L2 acquisition. The volume
contains an introduction and 13 chapters by experts in the field and by new
researchers. The introduction and Part 1 deal with general models of L2 input.
Part 2 focuses on input in L2 phonology.

In the introductory chapter, the editors aim to investigate the place of input
in current SLA research, and to provide a general overview of the state of the
art of this field of study, in particular its pedagogical relevance. Starting
from a consideration of the variation in success in second language acquisition
after childhood, the authors set out to explore how variation in external
factors such as input may influence rate, route, and end state of acquisition. A
brief review of the history of the field of SLA is provided, while addressing
the interaction between formal linguistics, acquisition research, and language
pedagogy. Input in L2 pedagogy is also considered, comparing two main approaches
to language instruction: the Comprehension Approach (emphasis on input), and
Communicative Language Teaching (emphasis on output).

Part 1: Matters of Input
The first part of the volume presents general models of input in SLA, as well as
language teaching methodologies. Chapter 1 studies input in naturalistic L2
acquisition. The subsequent chapters address comprehension approaches in
instruction. Chapters 2 through 4 and the final chapter argue in favor of
comprehension-based models, whereas chapters 5 and 6 evaluate these approaches
critically and consider the role of output as well.

Chapter 1 (“Input Frequency and the Acquisition of the Progressive” by Andreas
Rohde) reports a study on the naturalistic L2 acquisition of the English
progressive marker -ING by 4 L1 German children during a 6 month stay in
California. A sample of the L2 input was the production of 9 U.S. children with
which the German children interacted. Based on a functional non-generative
approach, the first part of the chapter sets to explore the acquisition of
different functions of the progressive: as a marker of grammatical aspect or as
a means to express future tense. It is concluded that different functions of the
progressive are acquired in a piecemeal manner, first as an expression of
ongoing events, then as a future tense marker, and finally as an expression of
past tense. The second part of the chapter explores the relationship between the
acquisition of the progressive and the Distributional Bias Hypothesis (Andersen
& Shirai, 1996), or the tendency of certain inflections to appear with specific
lexical aspect verb classes, in this case, the tendency of the progressive
marker -ING to appear first with activity verbs, and only later with
achievements. It is concluded that the lexical aspect functions found in the L2
input are reflected in the L2 learners’ production, but not in their
developmental sequence. At the end of the chapter some implications for teaching
the progressive are discussed.

Chapter 2 (“Processing Matters in Input Enhancement” by Bill VanPatten) explores
instructed SLA, more specifically, how input manipulation can influence the
processing of L2 formal properties. The focus of the chapter is the author’s
Processing Instruction (PI) model, based on the assumption that acquisition is
conditioned by input parsing. The premises of the model are that (1) input is
necessary for acquisition, (2) learners may have problems processing L2 input,
and (3) understanding L2 learners’ input processing mechanisms can help design
effective input enhancement techniques. The L2 acquisition of Spanish word order
by L1 English speakers is used as an example to show how PI activities are
designed, so that L2 learners focus on L2 input and not output, make
form-meaning connections when comprehending L2 input, and challenge their
current processing mechanisms, which would reinforce parser adjustment, and
therefore acquisition (Carroll 2001).

Chapter 3 (“Input and Second Language Development from a Dynamic Perspective” by
Marjolin Verspoor, Wander Lowie, and Kees de Bot) investigates the possibility
of acquiring an L2 only through exposure to meaningful input without output
opportunities. The discussion is based on the Dynamic Systems Theory. According
to this theory, L1 and L2 development is a non-linear, adaptive, interactive,
iterative, and self-organizing process, where there is a dynamic interaction
between the linguistic system and input. The authors then evaluate the findings
from an empirical study (Verspoor and Winitz, 1997), which reported the results
from a comprehension-based approach to lexical development without explicit
instruction. It is found that the input- only approach is as good and effective
at beginning and intermediate levels as the communicative approach. At the
advanced level, however, the comprehension-based group performed less accurately
in writing.

In Chapter 4 (“The Comprehension Hypothesis Extended” by Stephen Krashen), the
author reviews evidence for his Comprehension Hypothesis in language and
literacy development. According to this hypothesis, language acquisition happens
through exposure to comprehensible input. Opposite approaches are Direct
Teaching (of grammar), and the Comprehensible Output Hypothesis. The evidence
from different studies presented supports the Comprehension Hypothesis at all
levels of proficiency in language and literacy development. The direct
instruction method seems to help develop short-live skills that are used mostly
when the learner is consciously focusing on form; on the other hand, the amount
of comprehensible output produced by learners is lesser than expected, and it
does not seem to trigger the expected adjustments. The author presents evidence
in favor of the Comprehension Hypothesis in the acquisition of non-human animal
communication systems, and animal acquisition of human sign language.

Chapter 5 (“Second Language Learning of Grammar: Output Matters Too” by Nel de
Jong) explores the relationship between comprehension and production in learning
L2 grammar. An experimental study investigates whether comprehension practice
alone is sufficient to increase accuracy in production, and whether early
production results in persistent grammatical errors in speaking. 59 L1 Dutch L2
English/German/French non-language program students were divided in 3 groups,
and each received a different type of instruction on Spanish gender agreement:
comprehension only, comprehension and production, and explicit rule explanation.
It was found that the comprehension only group performed better than the other
groups; however, in the production task those learners had the lowest accuracy.
It is concluded that the comprehension only method has a good effect on
acquisition, but it does not necessarily extend to performance. It seems that
input matters, but output matters too.

Chapter 6 (“Learner Attitudes Towards Comprehension-based Language Learning” by
John Stephenson) discusses L2 learners’ attitudes towards a comprehension-based
method (The Learnables by Harris Winitz). The chapter starts with a comparison
between the comprehension and the communicative approaches. 10 undergraduate
students in an SLA course followed 10 self-study lessons in Japanese or Spanish.
These lessons included understanding pictures by listening to language, and did
not include reading, speaking, or grammatical explanations. Participants kept
track of their progress in a diary. Negative attitudes towards a comprehension
method were found mainly based on prior learning experience with the
communicative approach. The absence of opportunities for production was
frustrating for some learners, since they consider they could not measure their
L2 progress. However, learners also reported that, despite being skeptical about
the method, they were able to recognize words, and that they felt they learned
something. These findings suggest that, if learners commit to the initial
uncertainty of the comprehension method, they can benefit from it later on.

Chapter 7 (“The Hidden Paradox of Foreign Language Instruction or: Which are the
Real Foreign Language Learning Processes?” by Werner Bleyhl) critically reviews
the central tenets of traditional foreign language instruction, in favor of
comprehension and content-based methods. Based on findings from developmental
psychology, it is claimed that L2 speech perception should precede production,
as it does in L1 acquisition. Activities included in language instruction should
focus on meaning rather than on form. The author suggests initial instruction
should not rely on production and language form, since these tend to be
intimidating and counterproductive for L2 learners. Focus on form is more useful
when learners have already internalized a critical mass of lexical items.
Language curricula should not be based on a linear arrangement of grammatical
structures, but on content-based tasks.

Part 2: Input Matters in Phonology
The second part of the volume reports research on input in the L2 phonology. The
scarcity of studies in this area of acquisition seems to be caused by the
assumption of an early critical period for phonology. Traditional and new
measures of input are discussed in chapters 8 and 9. Chapters 10 and 12
investigate the effects of written L2 input. Chapter 11 discusses the effects of
diverse L2 input, while the final chapter takes onto connecting different
issues, such as the phonology critical period, L1 transfer, and literacy effects
in immersion settings.

Chapter 8 (“Input as a Critical Means to an End: Quantity and Quality of
Experience in L2 Phonological Attainment” by Alene Moyer) investigates the
quantity and quality of input needed for phonological long-term attainment. Data
from adult L2 German learners in an immersion context are used to discuss
traditional input measures, such as age of onset and length of residence, which
do not tell about input, but mostly about exposure. Other measures considered
are sources of input, opportunities for L2 use, time of L2 instruction, and
learner’s intention towards the L2. Language fluency also is proposed to develop
as a function of language affiliation and identity.

In Chapter 9 (“Give Input a Chance!” by James E. Flege), the Critical Period
Hypothesis (DeKeyser, 2000) is evaluated through a literature review. A central
tenet of Flege’s Speech Learning Model is that L2 learners, irrespectively of
age, can detect cross-linguistic phonetic differences because they retain their
original abilities used during L1 speech learning. However, the difference
between L1 and L2 speech learning would reside in the input: L2 input is
generally less adequate than in L1 acquisition. Various data show the positive
effects of input received from native speakers in L2 speech performance. It is
rather difficult to measure L2 input directly, and the author proposes
methodological solutions to better estimate input in future research.

Chapter 10 (“Orthographic Input and Second Language Phonology” by Benedetta
Bassetti) investigates how L2 orthography affects L2 phonology and
pronunciation, by reviewing data from different L1 / L2 combinations. Exposure
to L2 orthography can help with the perception of phonemic contrasts, but it
also has negative effects. The literature shows that L2 orthography affects L2
phonology not only when L2 learners have access to L2 orthographic input but
through the connections between their L1 orthography and L2 phonology. In
general, literacy L1 / L2 development is suggested to be one of many factors
affecting L2 phonological development since it results in a reanalysis of the
spoken language in terms of the orthographic representation.

Chapter 11 (“Second Language Speech learning with Diverse Inputs” by Ocke-Schwen
Bohn and Rikke Louise Bundgaard-Nielsen) presents a study on the acquisition of
vowels by 10 adult L1 Danish / L2 English learners in Denmark. Participants’
oral production was recorded, and later evaluated by a panel of 10 L1 Canadian
English speakers. Effects of heterogeneous L2 input, typical in foreign language
instruction, were found. The results suggest that variable input and L1 transfer
are sources of the difficulties in learning English vowel sounds. The study
underlines the difference in L2 input consistency in foreign language
instruction versus a second language setting.

Chapter 12 (“Phonetic Input in Second Language Acquisition: Contrastive Analysis
of Native and Non-native Sounds” by Anja K. Steinlen) focuses on the acquisition
of vowels in an instructional context, and more specifically on the fact that
phonetic descriptions in pronunciation textbooks do not accurately match the
actual sounds as measured by acoustic phonetic analysis. Using data from Danish
and German, the author shows that, for example, acoustic analyses revealed no
difference between vowels that are transcribed with different symbols. It is
suggested to learners and instructors not to rely on phonetic transcriptions
exclusively, and to use acoustic data as well.

Chapter 13 (“Developing Non-native Pronunciation in Immersion Settings” by
Henning Wode) reports on a long-term research project set to investigate the
development of L2 pronunciation in English immersion settings in Germany (ages
3-18), and its pedagogical implications. Data from other learning contexts are
also included, such as naturalistic L2 acquisition, and traditional foreign
language teaching. Major issues discussed are the nature of L1 transfer and the
existence of a critical period for phonology in a biological sense. It is found
that immersion students develop good L2 pronunciation without any remedial
instruction; however, they tend to keep a slight non-native accent,
irrespectively of their starting age in the immersion program. The data show no
age effect in the development of L2 pronunciation, and early effects of L1
phonological transfer, reinforced by literacy development. It seems that
phonological acquisition mechanisms, the perceptual control of production, and
transfer are available by the age of 3 and continue to be available in post-puberty.

The present volume constitutes a major contribution to the understanding of the
role of input in L2 acquisition, and especially in L2 phonology, an area where
input has not been investigated systematically. It also provides suggestions
for methodological developments for future studies in this area. I think that L2
researchers and graduate students will find this volume quite appealing and
would consider it a required reading for anyone planning to undertake research
projects on L2 input.
This book would be beneficial reading for language educators, language program
directors, and textbook creators at all levels of instruction. Given the
predominance of certain types of instruction, such as form-focused (grammar
instruction) methods, and the communicative approach (focus on output), this
volume could provide the background for a discussion about other possible
methods of instruction, and about how they measure up to research in the field.
The volume can also be used in undergraduate and graduate courses on SLA. The
glossary is exhaustive and clear, and it can be really helpful in the context of
undergraduate education or for students new to the field of SLA. The
introductory chapter and most of the papers in Part 1 could be used to provide a
general understanding of the role of input in teacher education programs and
introductory SLA courses.
In general, the volume is well organized, except for the inclusion of chapter 1,
which presents more general models and theories of L2 input in Part 1. The
relationship between the introduction and the subsequent chapters is less clear
since the former provides a large discussion on the role of input in property
theories in the generative tradition, but most of the studies reported in the
chapters do not follow that framework.
Finally, it should be mentioned that only chapters 1, 5, and 11 present direct
measures of L2 input. As mentioned in several parts of the volume, L2 input is
difficult to measure, and it has not received the attention it deserves as a
trigger of L2 acquisition. Perhaps this book will be a starting point to
generate more studies with the purpose of quantifying input, following Flege’s
recommendation to “give input a chance.”

Andersen, R. W. & Shirai, Y. (1996) Primacy of aspect in first and second
language acquisition: The pidgin / creole connection. In W.C. Ritchie and T.K.
Bhatia (eds.) Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (pp. 527-570). San Diego:
Academic Press.

Carroll, S. (2001) Input and Evidence. The Raw Material of Second Language
Acquisition. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

DeKeyser, R. (2000) The robustness of critical period effects in second language
acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 22, 499-534.

Verspoor, M. and Winitz, H. (1997) Assessment of the lexical-input approach for
intermediate language learners. International Review of Applied Linguistics 35
(1), 61-75.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Mónica Cabrera is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Linguistics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She has published “The L2 Acquisition of English and Spanish Causative Structures” (Saarbrücken: Verlag Dr. Müller, 2008). Her research interests include transfer in L2 acquisition of argument structure, aspect, and word order in English, Chinese, and Spanish, and, more recently, the role of bilingual phonological acquisition in literacy development.

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