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Review of  Theory Construction in Second Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Karen Roehr
Book Title: Theory Construction in Second Language Acquisition
Book Author: Geoff Jordan
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Issue Number: 15.1864

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Date: Thu, 17 Jun 2004 14:54:19 +0100
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

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

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 research.

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 construction.

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 views.

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

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.