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Review of  Second Language Learning Theories

Reviewer: Caroline Payant
Book Title: Second Language Learning Theories
Book Author: Rosamond Mitchell Florence Myles Emma Marsden
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 25.3395

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Second language acquisition (SLA) is a relatively new field of linguistic inquiry. Despite this, we have witnessed the emergence of numerous theories to account for the complex processes underlying the acquisition of a language beyond the first language (L1). Currently, we do not have a single, unified understanding of how adults learn a second language (L2). To introduce readers to the wealth of current theories and schools of thought, Rosamond Mitchell, Florence Myles, and Emma Marsden, three SLA researchers with different views about how L2s develop, constructed a comprehensive introductory textbook to L2 theories. The next section provides a brief summary of the ten chapters from “Second Language Learning Theories” (3rd ed), London: Routledge.

Chapter 1 sets the stage for the entire textbook, introducing a number of key concepts and issues. These concepts are critical for the development of theories of SLA, regardless of the researchers’ epistemologies. Following a brief discussion of features of “good” theories, the authors discuss current debates regarding the nature of language and the language learning process. The chapter concludes with a discussion of individual learner differences (e.g. motivation, aptitude, anxiety).

Chapter 2 is a historical overview of L2 theory, serving to situate current proposals and L2 theories. As in other SLA textbooks, (see, e.g., Gass, Behney, & Plonsky, 2013; Lightbown & Spada, 2013), readers are presented with seminal moments in the history of theory building. The chapter begins with major developments that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s. After outlining Skinner’s behaviorist views as an explanatory framework for L1 and L2 development, the authors review Chomsky’s criticisms of behaviorism. Rather than delving into the Chomskyan Revolution (i.e., Universal Grammar (UG)), Mitchell, Myles, and Marsden focus on L1 acquisition studies that paved the way for systematic investigations of L2 development (e.g., error analysis and morpheme studies). They present Krashen’s Monitor Model ­­ an influential model that sought to bring some unity to the ideas pertaining to L2 development. The number of major theories and schools of thought that emerged in the 1980s are introduced and revisited in detail in the subsequent chapters. To summarize the trends in SLA research since the 1950s, Myles’ (2010) second language learning timeline is provided in the concluding section of Chapter 2.

An in­-depth discussion of UG, a theory inspired by Noam Chomsky, constitutes Chapter 3. The authors begin by reviewing the aims of the Chomskyan tradition (i.e., what constitutes knowledge and the process of acquisition). After considering arguments in favor of UG, they include a detailed discussion of what characterizes the innate language faculty (i.e., principles and parameters), and provide support for UG using evidence from L1 acquisition studies. Drawing on L1 empirical studies, they consider the applicability of UG to L2 acquisition. Finally, current debates about the initial state and the ultimate attainment are explored. With this clear discussion of current research endeavors and a thorough assessment of the contributions of UG-­based approaches to SLA, readers have equal access to both UG’s strengths and limitations.

Cognitive orientations to L2 learning are explored in Chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 examines frameworks that fall within emergentism, a framework that rejects the existence of a specific language faculty. The authors focus first on input­-based emergentist perspectives. Researchers who investigate such perspectives are chiefly concerned with input, which arguably enables learners to extract linguistic structures and patterns to create a complex linguistic system. This line of work examines how particular characteristics of input correlate with L2 development (for example, frequency, saliency, and redundancy). In the latter section, theories relating to processing constraints and L2 development are presented. The authors begin with Pienemann’s Processability Theory and illustrate how his work has informed the Teachability Hypothesis. The discussion then turns to O’Grady’s Efficiency-­Driven Processor framework.

Chapter 5 explores learning mechanisms available to L2 learners, such as memory, explicit knowledge about language, skill acquisition, and conscious attention to language. In order to discuss the role of memory systems for L2 development, Mitchell, Myles, and Marsden describe two forms of knowledge: declarative and procedural. Following is a review of memory systems and their role in L2 learning, and a clear definition of explicit knowledge. One prominent theory that draws on the notion of explicit knowledge is Skill Acquisition Theory, which accounts for several L2 learning phenomena (e.g., incremental learning, individual learner differences, fossilization). The role of awareness, explicitly addressing the relationship between noticing and L2 development, is then explored. The chapter concludes with a discussion of underlying mechanisms (specifically, working memory) that enable learners to allocate and focus attention while using language.

Building on cognitive and processing theories, Chapter 6 focuses on interaction and L2 development. After briefly introducing the revised Interaction Hypothesis, the authors present research relating to the role of interaction in L2 development as well as the role of feedback. This section is supported by a number of empirical studies illustrating the benefits of various types of feedback on language development. Based on the observation that input alone fails to account for L2 development, the authors examine the predictions of the Output Hypothesis and discuss the importance of noticing for L2 development.

Chapter 7 addresses functionalism. Concerned with the meaning-­making processes, researchers from this paradigm claim that in order to understand L2 development, we must consider speech acts that learners are striving to realize while also accounting for the social, physical, and discourse contexts. After reviewing functionalist case study research, Mitchell, Myles, and Marsden discuss the European Science Foundation project which sought to describe adult, naturalistic interlanguage development. Following this, the authors introduce research focusing on specific areas of linguistic development, such as temporality, spatial location, coherence, and modality. A detailed example related to temporality is provided. This discussion segues into a formal introduction of the Aspect Hypothesis. The chapter concludes with a brief introduction of L2 pragmatic research.

Chapters 8 and 9 focus on socially informed theories of L2 development. First, key concepts of Sociocultural Theory as conceived by Lev Vygotsky are introduced, including mediation, regulation, zone of proximal development, microgenesis, private speech, and activity theory. The applications of a sociocultural perspective to L2 development are illustrated by drawing on a survey of empirical research for each of these concepts. The authors show how one of the key contributions of Sociocultural Theory in this paradigm is its ability to clarify the interconnectedness and interplay between social and cognitive factors in L2 development.

Chapter 9 includes an examination of sociolinguistic research and L2 development. First, a quantitative approach to the study of lexical and morphological variation is introduced. The authors’ discussion of empirical studies indicates how sociolinguistic and linguistic factors mediate interlanguage L2 variation. Next, readers are introduced to qualitative and interpretative approaches to L2 development, including: (1) Language socialization; (2) Communities of practice and situated learning; (3) Identity and agency; and (4) Investment and affect. These final perspectives both examine the interdependence and consider the broader social context of linguistic and sociocultural development.

Following their survey of multiple perspectives on the acquisition of an L2, Mitchell, Myles, and Marsden conclude their book by discussing the greatest achievements within L2 acquisition theories, as well as the increasingly more sophisticated research methods employed by L2 acquisition researchers. They also consider the relationship between theory building and L2 pedagogy. While L2 acquisition research does not prescribe teaching methodologies, the authors propose that research can guide and inform classroom experiences.


Since the 1980s, we have witnessed a proliferation of SLA theories that reflect differing epistemologies. The book “Second Language Learning Theories”, introduces readers to these theories and is the result of a collaborative project among three authors from three different orientations to SLA: linguistic (Myles), cognitive (Marsden), and social/educational (Mitchell). Their collaborative efforts led to this comprehensive survey of L2 theories.

This publication covers a breadth of theoretical positions, research topics, research methods, and data analysis techniques. In discussing cognitive theories of SLA, the authors begin with implicit mechanisms and then focus on explicit mechanisms (Chapters 4 and 5, respectively). This organization is effective in showing how some theorists argue that learning a language taps into general, cognitive mechanisms (implicit learning) whereas other theories highlight key mechanisms that are central for language learning alone (explicit learning). Reflecting the social turn in SLA, the authors also include two chapters addressing social factors that should comprise L2 theories (i.e., Chapter 8 “Sociocultural Perspectives on Second Language Learning” and Chapter 9 “Sociolinguistic Perspectives”). Although comparatively shorter than the discussions of linguistic and cognitive orientations, these chapters on social dimensions reflect recent advances and discussions that permeate the field of SLA (Block, 2003; Ortega, 2014).

With this comprehensive textbook, students may feel overwhelmed by the various epistemologies underlying SLA research. Nevertheless, it is important to have inclusive textbooks, which illustrate the current state of the field of SLA. Researchers are actively engaged in discussions and debates about L2 development, and we have not yet agreed on how a theory (or multiple theories) of SLA should look. After reading this book, students of SLA will not have a skewed understanding of the field; rather, this survey may fuel their interest in particular areas and encourage them to read further about topics introduced in the book.

While there are some advantages to survey texts, they should come with an important caveat. If such texts are used for a semester­-long course, novice readers may have limited time to assimilate substantial amounts of information. Moreover, students can easily become confused with the array of new terms (some with complex definitions). Students may thus confuse key concepts from different perspectives. Thus, when this book is used as a course text, professors must truly highlight the epistemological differences that inform these theories and remind students not to judge prematurely the individual contributions or potential of each approach.

To facilitate the reading process, the authors provide a consistent format to the presentation of the information. Following a brief introduction of each of the chapter’s contents, the authors discuss key concepts. They then provide an evaluation of the theories/perspectives by considering the scope and achievements of the proposed theories. This evaluative component is useful for readers as it prompts them to think about the benefits and limitations of the theories. Also, readers will appreciate the glossary of key terms for the whole book that are introduced throughout the readings.

Despite the clear format, some issues need to be acknowledged. The strictly factual presentation of the complex information does not actively engage the reader. For example, the authors include reviews of current empirical studies; however, what appears to be lacking is more data to support the discussions and findings. Additional data from empirical studies can help novice readers better understand the aims of the research, the methods, and the findings. Also, discussion, data analysis problems, and reflection questions for each chapter would be an asset. They could push readers and novice SLA researchers to reflect on, process, and assimilate the wealth of information that might be otherwise inaccessible. Moreover, readers could benefit from greater textual interconnectedness throughout the book. Each chapter, focusing on one orientation (e.g., Chapter 3: UG; Chapter 4: Implicit cognitive mechanisms; Chapter 6: Interaction), could be compared and contrasted more explicitly with the others, to help readers better appreciate the similarities and differences underlying these different approaches/theories. Highlighting how they differ (perhaps in interactive reflective prompts) could engage the reader and increase the accessibility of these materials. Finally, despite having a plethora of recommended readings directly embedded in the text, each chapter could have concluded with suggested readings for follow-­up study with some questions for guided reading.

The specified intended readership for this publication raises some concern. The audience, as conceived by the authors, includes undergraduate and graduate students from language-­related fields, as well as teachers and researchers interested in issues related to L2 development. Given its theoretical orientation, this book may not be suitable for undergraduate students, who might be excessively challenged by its theoretical discussions and the breadth of its theoretical models. Another concern is the lack of explicit connections to teaching pedagogy. Thus, in-­service teachers interested in identifying applications of L2 theories to pedagogy should consider another text. In sum, this book may be of interest to advanced students and faculty from programs which focus primarily on introducing theory at the expense of making connections to pedagogy.

In recent years, a number of researchers are questioning who L2 learners are. Researchers reporting on multilingual learners are critiquing how SLA researchers conceptualize L2 learners. One ongoing debate relates to the term ‘L2’ (Block, 2003). In their first chapter, L2 learning is operationalized as “the learning of any language, to any level, provided only that the learning of the ‘second’ language takes place sometimes later than the acquisition of the first language” (p. 1). Immediately, one recognizes that the contents of this book reflect the pervasive belief that learning an L2 entails similar cognitive and social processes as learning an additional language. Recent advances in the field of multilingualism suggests that we need to be more critical of how we treat and investigate ‘L2 learners’ and that we should increasingly treat learners of true L2s differently from learners of additional languages (language beyond the L2) (De Angelis, 2007).

Currently, educators can choose from a wide array of SLA textbooks. Although it has some shortcomings, “Second Language Learning Theories” is a welcome addition. Three authors whose cooperative work provides us with a comprehensive view of current advances is an asset to this field. In sum, this book is a good option for theoretical, graduate-­level SLA courses.


Block, D. (2003). “The social turn in second language acquisition”. Washington: Georgetown University Press.
De Angelis, G. (2007). “Third or additional language acquisition”. Clevedon.
Gass, S. M., Behney, J., & Plonsky, L. (2013). “Second language acquisition: An introductory course (4th ed.)”. New York: Routledge.
Lightbown, P. & Spada, N. (2013). “How languages are learned” (4th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Myles, F. (2010). The development of theories of second language acquisition. “Language Teaching”, 43, 320­332.
Ortega, L. (2014). Ways forward for a bi/multilingual turn in SLA. In S. May (Ed.), “The multilingual turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and bilingual education” (pp. 32­53). New York: Routledge.
Dr. Caroline Payant is an assistant professor in the MA TESL program at the University of Idaho. Her areas of interests include cognitive and sociocultural aspects of language acquisition as well as L2 teacher education. Her recent work has examined the impact of pedagogical tasks on learner-learner interaction and language development. At the University of Idaho, Caroline teaches SLA, ESL Method, ESL Teaching Practicum, and Sociolinguistics. Her work can be found in TESL Canada Journal and International Review of Applied Linguistics. Caroline received her Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from Georgia State University (2012) and her M.A. from the Universidad de las Américas Puebla (2006).

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781444163100
Pages: 372
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Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780415825832
Pages: 372
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Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781444163100
Pages: 372
Prices: U.K. £ 24.99

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780415825832
Pages: 372
Prices: U.K. £ 85.00