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Review of  Beliefs About SLA

Reviewer: Elke Stracke
Book Title: Beliefs About SLA
Book Author: Paula Kalaja Ana-Maria Ferreira Barcelos
Publisher: Kluwer
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Book Announcement: 15.1486

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Date: Sun, 9 May 2004 17:59:39 +1200
From: Elke Stracke <>
Subject: Beliefs about SLA: New Research Approaches

Kalaja, Paula, and Ana Maria Ferreira Barcelos, ed. (2003)
Beliefs about SLA: New Research Approaches. Kluwer Academic
Publishers, Educational Linguistics 2.

Elke Stracke, University of Otago, New Zealand


Beliefs about SLA: New Research Approaches offers a fascinating
collection of reports on recent research into the work on beliefs about
SLA (Second Language Acquisition). Over the last twenty years beliefs
from second/foreign language learners and teachers have become an
important field of research. This book offers an insight into this
growing research area by providing the reader with a useful summary of
the state-of-the-art in the field on the one hand, and in-depth
individual research studies on beliefs about SLA on the other hand. The
collection is a result of a colloquium held at the annual meeting of
the British Association of Applied Linguists in Cambridge in September
2000. In addition to (four) papers from this conference, the editors
included (five) reports on other recent research on beliefs about SLA.
It should be noted that the individual contributions can be read
independently, depending on the reader's interest, even though I think
that only the whole collection gives justice to the complexity of the
research area.

In addition to the preface (by Leo van Lier), the introductory chapter,
and the conclusion by the two editors, the volume contains nine
articles on research on beliefs about SLA. There is both a useful
Subject and Author Index. The book is divided into three sections.
Section 1 discusses key issues in the research area. Section 2 focuses
on research into students' beliefs about SLA, whereas Section 3 deals
with students' as well as teachers' beliefs about SLA.


The book opens with a helpful introduction written by the editors,
Paula Kalaja and Ana Maria Ferreira Barcelos, in which they sketch the
background to research on beliefs about SLA. They report that, since
the comparatively late arrival of beliefs as a research topic in
Applied Linguistics in the mid 1980s, there has been growing interest
in this research area. During these years, 'beliefs' has not been the
only term used for "opinions and ideas that learners (and teachers)
have about the task of learning a second/foreign language" (p.1), but
it is the one which the editors, as well as the contributors to this
publication, agreed upon. The increase in research into beliefs about
SLA went hand in hand with the shift in focus from the teaching to the
learning perspective, and thus to the learners. Earlier research on
beliefs has been influenced by Cognitive Psychology and can be
described by three main characteristics: its adherence to a positivist
research paradigm, its understanding of beliefs as "stable mental
representations that are fixed a-priori constructs" (p. 2), and an etic

However, this collection of articles reports on more recent research on
beliefs, which takes a different stance. These studies offer new
theoretical and/or methodological insights into doing research on
beliefs, thus addressing some of the criticism raised against the
research written in the positivist research paradigm. The studies in
this volume differ from the earlier research by seeing beliefs as
"socially constructed and variable rather than stable in nature"
(p. 2). Thus, the rationale for this publication is the importance
"to understand what beliefs students (and teachers) hold and what they
make of them in their specific contexts of learning (or teaching) a
second/foreign language" (p. 2).

In Chapter 1, "Researching Beliefs about SLA: A Critical Review", Ana
Maria Ferreira Barcelos offers a review of earlier research on beliefs
about SLA. The novice as well as the expert in beliefs about SLA will
find her critical overview of research on beliefs as well as on the
different labels and definitions for the concept very useful. Barcelos
then groups these studies according to the researcher's respective
definition of beliefs, methodology, the relationship between beliefs
and actions, and their advantages and limitations, into three
categories: the normative, metacognitive and contextual approach.
Barcelos concludes that the more grounded studies are more suitable in
trying to understand how students and teachers use belief to interpret
situations and make decisions in the language learning/teaching
process. Grounded studies allow meaning to emerge from the data
compared to studies which apply a priori categories as a framework for
analysis. It follows that it is, in particular, the contextual approach
that forms the uniting framework to the studies collected in the
present volume. Typical features of the contextual approach are its
understanding of beliefs as contextual, dynamic and social. Studies
within the contextual approach use a variety of different
methodologies. With regard to the relationship between beliefs and
actions, these studies investigate beliefs within the context of their
actions. The main advantage of the contextual approach lies in its emic
perspective, thus taking into account students' own words as well as
the context of their actions. Its greatest drawback is that this type
of research is very time-consuming and, consequently, can be conducted
with small samples only.

Section 2 contains four contributions that focus on beliefs about SLA
held by language learners, from children to adults, from Finland and
the United States (L2 English or Spanish).

In Chapter 2, "Evidence of Emergent Beliefs of a Second Language
Learner: A Diary Study", Carol Hosenfeld adopts Bakhtinian thinking and
focuses on his concept of Voice. Her contribution underlines the
emergent nature of beliefs, which she contrasts with the earlier
understanding of beliefs as stable. Hosenfeld's self-study, based on
her own Spanish learning journals, provides clear evidence of the
emergent nature of beliefs and the relationship between beliefs and
learning behaviours/actions.

Chapter 3, "A Sociocultural Approach to Young Language Learners'
Beliefs about Language Learning", by Riikka Alanen views the study of
learner beliefs from a neo-Vygotskian sociocultural perspective to
mind. Her goal is the construction of a theoretical and analytical
framework suitable of how learners' beliefs come about. She defines
learner beliefs as types of psychological and cultural tools used by
the language learners to mediate their learning. Above all, it is
through dialogic speech that beliefs are being constructed. Alanen
gives evidence of this by reporting on her study on the development of
learner beliefs in young children, in which she studied the dialogues
between the interviewers and the children.

In Chapter 4, "Research on Students' Beliefs about SLA within a
Discursive Approach", Paula Kalaja puts forward a discursive approach,
which has its origin in the work of discursive social psychology (on
attributions). Kalaja sees beliefs as "a property of discourse, or as
views held on aspects of SLA given by a student on specific occasions
of talk (or writing) and used for specific (rhetorical) purposes"
(p. 87). She illustrates her research with a high-school absolvent
drawing on oral diary and discussion data. Her study also underlines
the emergent nature of beliefs as well as their variability. Variability
in beliefs can show over time as well as on a single occasion, as her
data illustrates.

Chapter 5, "Metaphor and the Subjective Construction of Beliefs", by
Claire Kramsch ends Section 2 with yet another approach into beliefs
about SLA held by learners. Following recent research in cognitive
linguistics and the understanding of metaphor as a cognitive construct,
Kramsch also moves away from looking at beliefs as stable. She argues
that learners (and teachers) construct representations of themselves,
their experience etc. through metaphor, seen as mental spaces. Kramsch
illustrates convincingly her approach by drawing first on an analysis
of college students' explicit metaphors for language learning, and,
secondly, on a metaphoric analysis of students' essays. Kramsch
observes a high degree of individual paradoxes in her data.

Whereas Section 2 focused on students' beliefs, the contributions in
Section 3 deal with students' as well as teachers' beliefs. The
teachers are foreign language teachers, in particular EFL/ESL teachers
in Canada, Finland, Japan, and the United States of America.

In Chapter 6, "Beliefs in Dialogue: A Bakhtinian View", Hannele Dufva
adopts Bakhtinian thinking and a dialogical approach. The reader will
recognize the parallels between Dufva's and Hosenfeld's and Alanen's
approach (cf. Chapters 2 and 3). Dufva stresses the dynamicity of
beliefs. Like Kalaja's study, her theoretical reflections as well as
her data analysis point to the changeable nature of beliefs over time
as well as in specific situations (cf. Chapter 4).

In Chapter 7, "A Case Study: Beliefs and Metaphors of a Japanese
Teacher of English", Keiko Sakui and Stephen J. Gaies report on a self-
study by a Japanese EFL teacher (one of the authors of this
contribution) and her beliefs about writing and teaching writing, as
revealed in diary entries and interviews. The findings point out the
importance of teachers' beliefs on action as well as the close
relationship between beliefs and identity. These issues are being
explored by an analysis of the metaphors used by the teacher under

Chapter 8, "Teachers' and Students' Beliefs within a Deweyan Framework:
Conflict and Influence", by Ana Maria Ferreira Barcelos, reports on
another ethnographic study. Adopting a Deweyan framework she emphasizes
the role of context in studies about students' and teachers' beliefs
about SLA. Her case study on the beliefs of one ESL teacher and her
student shows that students' and teachers' beliefs about SLA and
actions both shape and are shaped by context. Like Sakui and Gaies, she
also emphasizes the interrelationship between beliefs and identity (cf.
Chapter 7). An interesting new aspect in this contribution is the
mutual influence of students' and teachers' beliefs.

In Chapter 9, "The Social Construction of Beliefs in the Language
Classroom", Devon Woods is faced with the goal of outlining a
constructivist and process-based decision- making model of the
'management of language learning'. This model is based on the notion of
event structuring. Woods applies this model by drawing on data from an
ongoing project in a Canadian ESL college classroom, in which the data
was collected by a variety of means (case studies, interviews, etc.).
His study reveals the types of decisions that students and teachers
make and how their beliefs influence this process.

In their concluding remarks the editors underline the unity and
diversity which characterize the contributions in this volume. There is
unity with regard to terminology, namely the use of the term 'belief',
and the fundamental understanding of beliefs as socially constructed.
Every article can be grouped within the contextual approach (cf.
Chapter 1). All researchers opted for an emic perspective and
investigated beliefs in their specific context. Last, but not least,
the editors call attention to the qualitative or interpretative nature
of their work. The unity among the contributions is complemented by
their diversity regarding the theoretical framework, definitions of
beliefs, research questions, and methodology.

The editors stress that the acknowledgement of the emergent, contextual
and dynamic nature of beliefs, as convincingly demonstrated in this
volume, has important implications for future research. Understanding
beliefs as related to students' and teachers' contexts and goals
instead of seeing them as internal traits emphasizes the social nature
of beliefs. Furthermore, a variety of research methods is needed and can
yield valuable results, as seen in the individual research studies,
which this volume brings together. The editors conclude by raising a
number of varied questions for further research.


This book presents a broad collection of more recent research on
beliefs about SLA in a variety of settings and countries. This variety
is complemented by a good sense of cohesiveness thanks to the editors'
well-written and clear introduction, Barcelos' critical review (Chapter
1), and the concluding remarks. These parts of the book are extremely
valuable to the reader, as they make the publication as a whole very
readable. Thus, the novice reader in the research area does not run the
risk of being overwhelmed by the diversity encountered, but might wish
instead to read more studies which deal with students' and teachers'
beliefs about SLA. The individual chapters are likewise clearly written
and provide precise information regarding the theoretical framework and
the methodology used by the researchers. The detailed description of
the data analysis process is exemplary in most contributions, which
adds to the high standard of this work written in the qualitative
research paradigm. In fact, for novice researchers in the field, or any
other field in SLA which requires innovative research methods, this
book is a true gold-mine of how to collect data and analyse it.

This book is also of particular use to expert researchers in the field.
They will welcome the publication of a book which pulls together some
of the growing research dealing with beliefs, opinions, views,
folkloristic theories, subjective theories, etc. Possibly, in the next
step, maybe in another volume, the editors could aim to cover research
from other countries and settings. In this volume the focus is on
English as L2. It would be interesting to add to and compare these
studies with research focusing on other L2s. This would also be in line
with the call for giving more importance to the social nature of

In his preface, Leo van Lier draws our attention to the somewhat late
arrival of research on beliefs about SLA in educational linguistics. In
psychology and anthropology the notion of beliefs has been studied long
before. This publication is definitely a big step towards reducing this
'delay' in research on beliefs in Applied Linguistics. At the same
time, this book adds to the growing body of research literature written
in the qualitative paradigm and illustrates the fascinating
possibilities of interpretative research.

Elke Stracke is a lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of
Otago, New Zealand. Her research interests focus on learner autonomy,
students' and teachers' views/beliefs, computer-assisted language
learning, and language teacher education.

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