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Review of  Analysing Learner Language

Reviewer: Yasemin Kirkgoz
Book Title: Analysing Learner Language
Book Author: Rod Ellis Gary Barkhuizen
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 16.3072

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Date: Fri, 21 Oct 2005 10:09:22 -0700 (PDT)
From: Yasemin Kirkgoz
Subject: Analysing Learner Language

AUTHORS: Ellis, Rod; Barkhuizen, Gary
TITLE: Analysing Learner Language
SERIES: Oxford Applied Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2005

Yasemin Kirkgoz, Department of ELT, Lecturer in English Language Teaching
at the University of Çukurova


This comprehensive book written by well-known academician Rod Ellis and
researcher Gary Barkhuizen "Analyzing Learner Language" makes a
significant contribution to the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA)
by exploring the multidimensional nature of SLA. The book is introduced
by a preface, which lays out the background and the aim of the book, and
consists of fifteen chapters. Chapter One is an introduction. Chapter Two
provides a general description of different methods employed for
collecting data from L2 learners. Chapters three through thirteen, focus
on one particular method of data collection and analysis organized neatly
into four sections, following the same format. While the first section of
each chapter introduces the historical and theoretical background of the
method, the second section illustrates application of the method to actual
data. This is followed by an example of a study that has employed the
method. The last section sets up a task to give readers hands-on
experience in analysing a sample of learner language. Each chapter
concludes with a final comment highlighting the main points discussed.
Chapter fourteen, written by Michael Barlow, examines computer-based
analyses of learner language, a relatively new development in SLA, and
finally chapter fifteen summarizes the entire book.


In the introductory chapter, "Introduction" Rod Ellis and Gary Barkhuizen
start with providing an overview of published works on SLA and research
methodology. Given an abundance of literature on this field of enquiry,
they explain the motivation for writing this book as to offer a new
dimension to analyzing learner language, reiterating the main aim of the
book, already stated in the preface, as to overview theoretical and
research contexts for the different methods of data collection and
analysis, introduce a variety of methods for analyzing learner language,
and to provide the readers with opportunities of data-based tasks so that
they can experience of applying different methods of analysis,
themselves. Learner data employed throughout the book is the empirical
data based on the authors' experiences of teaching SLA to postgraduate
students in different teaching contexts. Then, the chapter gives an
explanation of two key terms, extensively used throughout the book: 'SLA'
and 'learner language', distinguishing two senses of SLA. 'SLA' is used
here to refer to the study of how people learn a second language while 'L2
acquisition' refers to the learning of another language after acquisition
of one's mother tongue is complete (p.3). Learner language comprises the
oral or written language produced by learners serving as the primary data
for the study of L2 acquisition (p4). The chapter concludes by outlining
the main differences in the research paradigms widely recognized in the
social sciences as 'normative' and 'interpretative' chosen from Cohen and
Manion (1994) and the 'critical researcher' from Norman (1994), pointing
out that much of the SLA research is of the mixed form, for example a
researcher adopting a normative design but employing a qualitative method
of data collection. Reference is made to subsequent chapters illustrating
these three research paradigms and employing the type of data analysis
method, qualitative or quantitative.

Chapter Two "Collecting Samples of Learner Language" focuses on different
methods of data collection from L2 learners. The three sets of data
identified include non-linguistic performance data, such as non-verbal
measures of learners' comprehension of linguistic input so that inferences
can be made about learners' linguistic knowledge, samples of learner
language (oral and written), which the authors contend as constituting the
primary data for investigating L2 acquisition, and reports from learners
about their own learning. Three principal methods of data collection are
distinguished: obtaining samples of 'naturally occurring' language use,
i.e., language produced in a real-life situation (a conversation around
the dinner table), eliciting data, either clinically or experimentally
elicited data, which can be obtained through the use of specially designed
instruments, and verbal reports for example 'self-report' and 'self-
observation'. 'Construct validity' is the key theme emphasized throughout
the chapter. The authors encourage us to employ multiple types of data to
attain construct validity given that no single method will provide a
completely valid picture of what a learner knows. The chapter ends by
stressing the necessity of obtaining the permission of the participants
while collecting the data.

Chapter Three, "Error Analysis" deals with procedures used for identifying
and describing learners' errors. The authors begin with highlighting the
significance of learner errors, and move on to surveying the history of
Error analysis (EA) from the prescriptive grammarians of the 18th century
to Contrastive analysis of 1960's. The behaviorism view of considering
language learning as a process of habit formation is contrasted with
nativist theories, emphasising the mental processes of the mind during the
process of learning a language. The reader is introduced to the
term 'interlanguage' coined by Selinker (1972), referring to mental
grammar constructed by a learner at a specific stage in the learning
process (p.54). The central premises of this theory are explained,
admitting that though these premises continue to be disputed, many of the
arguments receive support by the findings of EA. In the next section, the
authors outline a five-step procedure of conducting an error analysis,
noting that errors can be explained either as 'interlingual' errors,
resulting from mother tongue influences or 'intralingual' errors,
resulting from the operation of learning strategies. At the end of the
chapter, the reader is given an error analysis task based on a letter
written by a Japanese student. In the final comment, while the authors
acknowledge that studying learner error has practical significance to
language pedagogy, they remind us of the limitations of EA as not offering
complete information on learner language.

Chapter Four "Obligatory Occasion Analysis" deals with analyzing samples
of learner language in order to examine the order of acquisition, and
determine how accurately learners use specific linguistic forms. The
chapter starts with an overview of the development of this analysis, which
is initially used to investigate first language (L1) acquisition in
longitudinal studies, and cross-sectional studies with reference to some
research studies. This procedure was then adopted by SLA researchers in
both longitudinal and cross-sectional "morpheme studies" to see whether
there was a universal 'order of acquisition'. This is followed by
introducing the procedure for conducting an Obligatory Occasion Analysis,
together with how this procedure can be applied in cross-sectional studies
to determine the order of acquisition. Having given an example of a study
using this procedure, the reader is assigned a task based on
transcriptions of oral narratives produced by five learners. As in the
previous chapter, authors point out the benefits of using this analysis at
the same time indicating its limitation: by explaining whether or not
learners have acquired L2 forms, it does not contribute much to the actual
processes involved in L2 acquisition.

Chapter Five "Frequency Analysis" begins with a definition of frequency
analysis, discussing its advantages: 1) it avoids 'comparative fallacy' by
examining learner language in its own not in terms of whether they
correspond to target language forms; 2) it captures the gradual and
dynamic nature of interlanguage development (p.93). In the historical and
theoretical background of frequency analysis, also referred to as
interlanguage analysis, an overview of the need for frequency analysis is
given, mainly due to investigating variability in learner language since
the nature of learner errors varies from occasion to occasion, and for
describing the sequence of language acquisition. The authors then mention
problems associated with it, such as being a longitudinal study, it is
time-consuming and the necessity to know how to operationalise 'stage of
acquisition'. Having offered a detailed description of how to conduct a
frequency analysis, an example of a study using this methodological tool
is given. The chapter ends with a task to the reader, based on negative
utterances produced by a Portuguese learner of English as L2. A final
comment by the authors rightly shows the need that frequency analysis be
seen not as an alternative to but rather as complementary to obligatory
occasion analysis.

Unlike chapters three to five which dealt mainly with the grammatical
aspects of learner language, Chapter Six entitled "Functional Analysis"
examines functional analyses of learner language to investigate how
learners meet their communicative needs by using their linguistic
knowledge. The authors first distinguish two types of functional analysis
as a 'form-function analysis' in which the starting point of analysis is a
specific linguistic form such as plural -s or verb -ing, from which
follows investigating the specific meanings, and 'function-form analysis'
where the starting point is a language function, i.e., referring to future
events then identifying the linguistic form in a sample of learner
language, both types of analyses being complementary. The history of the
study of learner language is considered as a progression from formal
analysis (as investigated in Chapters three through five) to form-function
analyses, and then to function-form analysis. In the account of form-
function analysis, the authors, referring to earlier morpheme and
longitudinal studies, show why these approaches failed to take into
account the functional properties, and introduce studies that viewed
learners' language 'as dynamic' consisting of a system of form-function
mappings showing learners' interlanguage development, and that who
provided evidence of form-function mapping in learner language. In the
second half of this section, function-form analysis is examined drawing on
the work in pragmatics. This section concludes with an evaluation of
functional approach pointing out some of its limitations. Steps to be
followed in a form-function and function-form analysis are given, followed
by an example of a study using a functional analysis. The chapter
concludes with a task, based on a role-play task between an American
native-speaker of English and a Taiwanese non-speaker speaker.

Chapter Seven "Analysing Accuracy, Complexity and Fluency" deals with
measuring these three aspects of language based on studies of tasks. The
chapter starts with defining these concepts explaining briefly the methods
developed to measure them. Then, a review of the studies based on the
analysis of learner language in terms of these three constructs within an
information-processing model is given, with a focus on investigating how
learners' performance is affected by the nature of the tasks. The next
section examines the various measures used to study accuracy, complexity
and fluency by conducting analyses of two oral texts based on a study of
the effects of pre-task and on-line planning of oral narratives produced
by Chinese university students. Having illustrated an example of a study
involving these aspects of language, the reader is given a task based on
two samples of oral learner language to compare in terms of these
measures. The authors make final comment by pointing out two problems
involved; reliability and multiplicity of the measures used, offering
useful suggestions as to how to address them.

Chapter Eight "Interactional Analysis" starts with defining discourse and
interactional analysis. In a brief review of the history of the
interactional analysis in SLA, 3 aspects of interaction are discussed: the
negotiation of meaning, communication strategies and error treatment.
Then, an outline of conducting an interactional analysis is given,
offering a general guideline for analysing problem-solving interactions of
interlocutors when confronted with a particular problem using the data
from a communicative task performed by two Korean undergraduate students.
An example of a study of interactional analysis is followed by an
interactional analysis task based on several short interactions taking
place in various communicative tasks. In the final comment, the authors
try to demonstrate the value of interactional analysis as
providing 'internal view of language pedagogy' (194).

Chapter Nine "Conversation Analysis" is concerned with analyzing all forms
of spoken interaction, such as in classroom or courtroom, in order to
provide a turn-by-turn description of what participants do in these
conversations (p. 197). The section on historical and theoretical
background gives an excellent review of conversation analysis,
illustrating the three types of organization comprising 'turn-
taking', 'sequence organization' and 'repair' based on short extracts. In
the next section, five criteria proposed by Markee (2000) illustrating a
conversation analyst oriented methodology for a social interactionist
approach to SLA studies is given reflecting the main theoretical and
methodological principles of conversation analysts. A set of guidelines of
conducting a conversation analysis is followed by a more analytic tool for
conducting conversation analysis, which is illustrated with extracts from
published sources. An appendix given at the end of the chapter illustrates
all symbols used in the extracts in the chapter.

Chapter Ten "Sociocultural Methods of Analysis" addresses sociocultural
theory in the study of L2 learning, that is, with particular emphasis on
collaborative learning in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Then,
some of the key constructs in sociocultural theory, particularly as they
relate to L2 development, many of which are associated with Russian
developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, with a focus on his research,
are outlined. A set of guidelines is provided for undertaking a
sociocultural analysis of learner language data, offering assisted
performance and the ZDP, from the perspective of Vygotsky. Then, the
procedure of conducting a qualitative microgenetic analysis of mediated
learning within ZPD is illustrated in three sections: selecting relevant
episodes for analysis, determining patterns of interaction, and
determining microgenetic growth. A task is set up involving an analysis
of scaffolded interactions based on episodes of a transcript of classroom
interactions, and the chapter ends with the authors' final comments.

Chapter Eleven "Coding Data Qualitatively" examines how to code
qualitative data within the paradigm of interpretative qualitative
research. The chapter begins with a definition of 'qualitative data' as
comprising the data collected through methods such as observation, open-
ended interviews, field notes, etc., and 'coding' as the technique used to
organize data into themes. In the theoretical overview, the authors first
introduce various labels being assigned to different qualitative research
traditions such as 'ethnographic', 'naturalistic' or 'case study', with
reference to studies undertaken in this research paradigm, giving advice
to researchers to choose the methods to analyse and interpret data that
will most appropriately answer the research question. Additionally, a
distinction is made between deductive and inductive orientations to
qualitative research. While in the former the researcher begins with a set
of hypotheses or research questions trying to prove them, in the latter
the researcher begins with the data, and through analysing it searches for
salient themes to arrive at an understanding of the phenomenon. Then, the
process used in coding qualitative data is illustrated, followed by an
example of an ethnographic academic listening to illustrate qualitative
data collection and analysis methods. Finally, a task is set up
illustrating open coding practices.

Chapter Twelve "Critical Approaches to Analyzing Learner Language" is
concerned with language, identity and power relations, introducing a
*critical* perspective to analysing learner language. Starting with a
discussion of the question "what makes a perspective critical?" (p. 278),
to which the authors admit that no easy answer is given due to the varying
and sometimes conflicting views offered by critical theory. An overview of
critical approaches in SLA first starts with highlighting the role
critical analysis plays in SLA by making the notion of power central,
raising questions such as who has or who does not have the power?, how do
power relations affect language learning?. The section continues with a
discussion on classroom interaction analysis, social identity theory and
identity and discourse, and ends by noting some of the criticisms raised
against critical approaches to text analysis. Useful suggestions are
offered to a critical analyst engaged in conducting an analysis of learner
language text. A longitudinal, ethnographic study of the English learning
of four Chinese-speaking immigrant students in California is given to
illustrate the interrelationship between discourse and power in the social
environment of each language learner. Based on an interview extract, the
reader is asked to consider questions of identity, textual features and
discourse in the analysis. In the final comment made by the authors, we
are reminded that critical analyses require a very demanding
interpretative and explanatory work, involving a lot of difficult
interpretation requiring a high level of responsibility.

Chapter Thirteen "Metaphor Analysis" explores the identification and
interpretation of the metaphors in learner self-report data to understand
learners' conceptualization of the language and the process of learning.
Starting with the traditional view to metaphor, the chapter draws on
several studies to illustrate how metaphor analysis has become an
acceptable tool in the applied linguistic enquiry and how it has gained
popularity in SLA, giving examples from the popular SLA metaphors
i.e., 'mind-as-computer', 'learner as problem solver'. In the next
section, a detailed analysis of conducting a metaphor is given,
distinguishing between a 'linguistic metaphor', and the 'conceptual
metaphor', and two types of data for performing a metaphor analysis is
introduced: experimentally elicited metaphors and clinically elicited
samples of learner language, detailing the strengths and weaknesses of
metaphor analysis. Later, the six-step procedure for analyzing the
metaphors in learner self-report is given, of which the first three steps
are illustrated. An important part of this chapter is an example of
metaphor analysis based on a study by Ellis (2002) reporting an analysis
of the diaries kept by an ab initio learner of L2 German. The reader's
task involves applying metaphor analysis to data from a Japanese learner's
autobiographical accounts of her English language learning experience, in
order to identify how this learner conceptualizes the problems she
experienced in learning L2 and the solutions to those problems. The
chapter concludes with a summary.

Chapter Fourteen: "Computer-based Analyses of Learner Language". This
chapter by Michael Barlow, looks at SLA from a different perspective, from
the analysis of learner corpora, "digital representations of the
performance or output, typically written language of learners" (p. 335).
Barlow states the underlying reason in compiling learner corpora as to
identify, describe and explain errors, making a link to error analysis
described in chapter 3. The chapter first examines the design criteria
and compilation of learner corpora, noting that all corpora must be well
designed and the data concerning learner variables need to be well
documented. Data collection for learner corpus involves the sampling of
language production, both spoken and written, and storing the data for
each learner in database with an ID number. An alternative way to encode
variables is suggested as tags or annotations within the corpus itself.
Then, Barlow gives examples of best-known collection of learner corpora,
illustrating error-tagging of a learner corpus, that is, an annotation
added to the corpus to explicitly mark an error, and then he discusses the
difficulty of this process. Barlow notes that research on learner corpora
to some extent follows some of the general aims associated with
contrastive analysis, such as, making NS/NNS comparison. He then
distinguishes two methodologies related to learner corpus investigation:
1) to use learner corpus data for hypotheses-testing (hypothesis-driven
approach) about the nature of interlanguage generated through SLA theories
or experimental data;
2) to investigate learner corpora data in a more exploratory manner and
initiate analyses that yield patterns of data, which can then be
investigated for unusual features (hypothesis-finding approach).

In the third section, a detailed illustration of the application of corpus
analysis software through a learner corpus is given, including the word
frequency list and searching for a particular word through concordance
analysis. Many variations on word counts are illustrated, such as
identifying the most common sentence-initial words in different learner
corpora. The reader's task based on analyzing a learner corpus is followed
by a final comment in which Barlow rightly contends that learner corpora
provides a rich source of data which may be used to eliminate the problems
experienced in errors analysis.

Chapter Fifteen "Conclusion" is the final chapter that discusses different
conceptions of what it means to acquire an L2 and how they are related to
the variety of methods of analysis, based on the major distinction made
throughout the book, which is: learner language is seen as evidence of L2
acquisition and learner language is seen as a source of information about
the factors influencing L2 learning. The chapter begins with the issue of
learner language as evidence of L2 acquisition. Ellis & Barkhuizen argue
that learner language constitutes the primary data for the study of L2
acquisition, referring to Chapter 2. They then identify two kinds of
norms: external and internal norms underlying the different methods of
analysis. In the case of conceptions based on external norms 'native-
speaker norms' serve as the point of comparison with learner language,
acquisition being measured in terms of the extent to which learners employ
target language forms. They discuss the problems associated with this
norm and point out that there is clearly a need to examine learners'
interlanguages in terms of their internal norms to properly understand the
dynamic aspects of interlanguage development. They offer clarification to
some of the terms discussed by SLA researchers, such as differences
between 'L2 competence' and 'L2 proficiency', 'L2 use' and 'L2
acquisition', highlighting the role of 'construct validity', 'learner
language' with reference to previous chapters. Final comment raises the
issue of demonstrating 'reliability' or 'dependability' no matter what the
matter of analysis is employed.


"Analysing Learner Language" is a notable book offering an up-to-date
introduction to the major key issues in SLA research and bringing together
a significant amount of research studies conducted in this field of
enquiry. Each chapter is clearly laid-out and well written, with excellent
end-of-chapter summaries. Perhaps, the most positive quality of this book
is that the authors first introduce the historical and theoretical
discussion of the methods investigated, second present the method
illustrating each method's application to actual empirical data, and
finally give readers a practical experience to try out each method for

Another welcome contribution of this book is that throughout the text, the
authors present sample of data of each method from different teaching
contexts based on their teaching experiences, giving the reader a much
wider perspective on L2 learners' acquisition. Since authors do not
preach one particular method, but attempt to provide an overview of the
strengths and weaknesses of various approaches, they encourage researchers
to critically choose the method(s) that would best suit the situation they
find themselves in and of research questions addressed.

Each chapter deals with a different method thus most chapters are well
worth the time it takes to read. The content is certainly not easy to
read, since it is presented in a very dense and factual manner. This is
certainly not criticism, as it is entirely appropriate for a book of this

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to those involved in SLA
research as well as postgraduate students. Teachers could certainly
benefit greatly from the data analysis section of different methods and
carry out the tasks given. The wealth of examples, the detail of
discussion makes this book an extremely useful reference for those
involved in SLA studies.


Cohen, L. & L. Manion. 1994. Research Methods in Education; Fourth
Edition. London: Routledge.

Ellis, R. 2002. 'A metaphorical analysis of learner beliefs' in P.
Burmeister, T. Piske and A. Rohde (eds.): An Integrated View of Langauge
Development: Papers in honor of Henning Wode. Trier, Germany:
Wissenschaftlicher Verlag.

Markee, N. 2000. Conversation Analysis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Selinker, L. 1972. 'Interlanguage.' International Review of Applied
Linguistics 10:209-31.


Yasemin Kirkgoz is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English
Language Teaching at the University of Çukurova, Turkey. Her research
interests include second language acquisition, corpus analysis of learner
language and classroom-based research.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0194316343
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Pages: 416
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