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Review of  Applying Language Science to Language Pedagogy

Reviewer: Melissa Whatley
Book Title: Applying Language Science to Language Pedagogy
Book Author: Montserrat Sanz José Manuel Igoa
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 24.488

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The book under review, “Applying Language Science to Language Pedagogy,” is an edited volume whose purpose is providing a much-needed link between language science and language pedagogy. Main ideas discussed in the introduction are the non-linear path of language learning, the importance of learner errors and their implications for language teaching, the need for language pedagogy to understand the mental processes that occur during language learning, and the conception of language as a mental computational system. The main goal of the book is to provide language pedagogues with a resource that facilitates accessibility to language acquisition research. The book is divided into three main parts: syntax and syntactic processing, the lexicon, and classroom learning. Each part consists of an introductory chapter written by the editors followed by three additional chapters written by other researchers.

Part I:
Chapter 2 serves as an introduction to Part I and relates syntax and syntactic processing to language teaching. The authors establish the approach adopted as being one that very much falls into the realm of cognitive linguistics, which focuses on the representation of language in the mind. It is important to note that not all researchers in language acquisition agree with this model (see Atkinson 2011). They present the idea that differences between languages are due to specific traits of grammar that are often invisible, and argue that a firm understanding of how these traits differentiate a learner’s native language from the target language is essential to language teaching. In this particular model, the learner’s task is to discover the locus of variation between his or her native language and the language to be learned, and then alter his or her mental representations to match those of the target language.

In Chapter 3, Luis Eguren, outlines the basic ideas surrounding Parametric Syntax, as proposed by Chomskyan linguistics. The author presents arguments both for and against these central components, such as Principles and Parameters Theory, the existence of micro- and macro- parameters, and parametric hierarchies.

The last two chapters in Part I deal directly with second language acquisition. Chapter 4, by Thomas G. Bever, is centered around the idea that language learning, in addition to innate ability, appeals to human beings’ natural desire to solve problems. In this view, learning is conceptualized as hypothesis testing. The author presents evidence of hypothesis formation in L1 acquisition and relates these results to late bilingual reading skills. The remainder of the chapter deals with studies of how texts may be manipulated physically in order to facilitate access by L2 learners.

In chapter 5, Noriko Hoshino, Judith F. Kroll, and Paola E. Dussias address L2 processing skills in speech production, dealing specifically with grammatical encoding and lexical access. The authors point out that speech production in an L2 is a cognitively demanding task that involves not only activation of L2 structures and lexical items, but also suppression of these same components from the L1. The chapter asserts that the L2 should always be used in the L2 classroom, as input is the most important component of language learning, and that teachers should focus on only one grammatical point at a time while teaching.

Part II:
The second section of the book deals specifically with the lexicon. This part, like the first, consists of four chapters with the first serving as an introduction. In the introductory chapter, the authors develop the idea that variation between languages is due to syntactic properties of different lexical items whose features vary systematically. The second section of this chapter uses argument structure of verbs in order to illustrate this idea, making it clear in the final paragraph that it is not necessary that language learners should be asked to learn linguistic theory, but rather the input with which they are provided should consist of enough key examples for them to figure out the features of various types of lexical items. The next few sections of the chapter specifically address how verbs function within the lexicon. Additionally, this chapter also explores the psycholinguistics of lexical processing. In direct relation to language teaching, the authors discuss interference from learners’ L1, various layers of representation of lexical items and the role of grammatical gender, concluding that it is not simply a matter of whether or not a word is introduced to the learner, but also both when and how.

Chapter 7, by Elena de Miguel, offers an application of this model to Spanish. This chapter advocates a projectionist approach, which holds that information from the lexicon is projected to the syntax. The properties of words determine which combinations are possible via feature agreement. The Generative Lexicon Theory presented here seeks to explain why words can have multiple meanings by exploiting their combinatorial properties; that is, meaning must exist in syntactic context. Using this theoretical approach, the author presents a discussion of five ways in which words can combine to create meaning: selection, accommodation, type coercion, introduction, and exploitation. The chapter ends with a brief discussion of how this theory could be applied to language teaching, suggesting that the teaching and learning of the structure of words would prevent learner errors. The author advocates that language teachers discontinue use of “([…] rule discouraging) lists” (p. 196).

Chapters 8 and 9 take a more pedagogical approach to the lexicon. In chapter 8, written by Noriko Iwasaki, outlines five of what the author calls myths about L2 vocabulary learning: that using lists to learn vocabulary is unproductive, presenting vocabulary in semantic sets facilitates learning, using translations to learn vocabulary should be discouraged, guessing words from context is a good strategy for learning them, and that the best dictionary for the L2 classroom is a monolingual one. The author presents a variety of empirical studies that aid in the “debunking” of these “myths”, with several important points for vocabulary teaching emerging from her discussion.

Chapter 9, by Georgy Nuzhdin, explores the development of emotion words in bilingual speech, signaling that since emotions are not objects in the real world, acquiring them along with their semantic scripts may be difficult, if not impossible, for the L2 learner. The author presents the methodology and results from four experiments regarding the use of emotion words by L1 Russian/L2 Spanish learners living in Spain, finding that when emotion scripts are the same in both Russian and Spanish, learners are able to express emotion in a native-like way, whereas when scripts are different, learners do not express emotion in the same way as native speakers. In the conclusion, the author suggests that, while emotion scripts may be difficult to acquire, experience abroad in the target culture, as well as focusing students’ attention on emotion scripts, may aid in the acquisition of these concepts.

Part III:
The final section of this book focuses specifically on classroom learning. In chapter 10, the editors introduce the idea that language learning is not simply an activity that happens within the learner’s brain, but rather is mediated by social activity. In the classroom, this social activity is often standardized by a particular institution, such as a ministry of education. The main ideas presented in this chapter are those of sociocultural theory and communicative language teaching. Sociocultural theory views language learning as the internalization of semiotic tools initially used in social contexts, thus placing great importance on the L2 classroom as a social space. Communicative language teaching, currently a popular teaching methodology, emphasizes that language development depends on the relation of the communicative and relational functions of language. The authors conclude by asserting that the generative power of grammar, as outlined in the previous two sections, must be included in language pedagogy. The goal of this particular section, then, is to attempt to build bridges between formal linguistics, sociocultural theories of language acquisition, and language pedagogy.

The three chapters in Part III deal with specific aspects of language learning within a sociocultural framework. Chapter 11, by Arturo Escandón, explores learner orientation and its relationship to learning trajectories. In addition to utilizing ideas from the sociocultural model outlined in the previous chapter, the author makes use of Bernstein’s code theory, which hypothesizes that codes are culturally determined; that is, that forms of communication are regulated by social constructions. The development of higher mental functions is mediated by social rules, specifically the idea of what social order should be. The study presented in this chapter focuses on determining students’ position via examination of their learning trajectories, coding orientation, and, finally, realization, as judged by their instructors. Results indicate that students with only a passive realization of communication and grammar, often characteristic of spontaneous and naturalistic language learning, may not be as successful in the L2 classroom as other learners. The author concludes that instructors should create activities so that they direct learner attention to instructional context, guiding them to the correct orientation towards classroom social norms.

Chapter 12, by Lori Zenuk-Nishide and Donna Tatsuki, compares and critiques two different methodological approaches to the use of a literary text in L2 English classrooms in Japan. The authors indicate that in recent years, the use of authentic literature in the L2 classroom has dwindled. The authors examine physical (external) features and internal features of two types of materials used to teach an English novel: externally published materials and internally created materials (by language instructors). While the externally published materials do not appear to favor use of the L2 in the classroom, and do not include materials that provide an area for true communication in the L2, the internally created materials are firmly based in a communicative language teaching approach that encourages the use of the L2 in the classroom. The authors advocate a revision of materials that do not aid students in the acquisition process as well as a perspective that literature instructors do not simply teach literature, but rather, language as well.

In chapter 13, Olga Bever discusses the impact of the linguistic landscape, that is, the texts visible in a learner’s environment, on the development of language and literacy in a multilingual context. This particular study examines the linguistic landscape in the Ukraine, where many people are bilingual in Ukrainian and Russian. The author presents evidence for both naturalistic and strategic bivalency in public texts, such as advertisements, and discusses their impact on literacy development in a bilingual environment.


The authors state at the beginning of this book that their main purpose is to make language science accessible to language teachers with the goal of improving language pedagogy. They partially achieve their goal. Many of the chapters in this book, especially chapters 4, 5, 8, 11, and 12, have very specific implications for language pedagogy. For example, chapter 4 links the innate human desire to solve problems to language learning via hypothesis testing when learners are presented with L2 input. The introductory chapters in each part, written by the book’s editors, also provide a link between linguistic theory and practical application. Several chapters of this book, though, do not have a clear link to language pedagogy and may not be particularly accessible to the book’s intended audience.

In general, the second chapters in parts I and II, while providing a sound theoretical base for the linguist, are quite possibly inaccessible to the average language teacher due to the level of technical concepts and vocabulary that are incorporated. The authors of these sections appear to have trouble striking a balance between theoretical linguistics and language pedagogy, precisely what the editors claim is the goal of this book. Chapter 3 is an example of this missing link between language science and language pedagogy. While this particular chapter summarizes the general concepts of Parametric Syntax and presents debates centered around these ideas very nicely, the application of this chapter’s main points to language pedagogy remains unclear. From the perspective of a language teacher, for example, who is reading this book with the idea of improving what he/she does both in and out of the classroom in order to facilitate students’ learning, this chapter has very little to offer. While it may be that parameter resetting and access to the properties of Universal Grammar are central to the acquisition of a second language, these concepts, as well as their connection to what the language teacher does in the classroom, are left undeveloped. Chapter 13, as well, does not appear to be well connected to the stated goal of the book. The pedagogical implications of the existence of bivalent texts remain unclear, although the author does advocate for the inclusion of community resources such as linguistic landscape artifacts, in the classroom.

Additionally, chapters 6, 7, and 8, all of which deal with vocabulary teaching and learning, are another source of weakness in this book. For example, one important critique offered in chapter 6 is that current language teaching textbooks do not provide students with lexical items grouped according to their features, something the authors assume would aid in acquisition. While this is certainly a question open to empirical analysis, the authors fail to provide any evidence for their claim. Chapter 7 claims that lists do not aid in vocabulary learning; however, this assertion is directly contradicted in the following chapter, which advocates the use of lists at the initial stages of vocabulary learning. Chapter 8 offers empirical evidence that supports the claim that semantic groups are possibly not the best way to teach vocabulary; however, it is difficult to see how one might teach a foreign language using a communicative approach while avoiding the presentation of words in semantic classes and opting for word lists with L1 translation equivalents instead.

A final methodological critique applies to chapter 11. This study bases much of its results on instructors’ evaluations of students – but poor evaluations of performance do not necessarily indicate that one is a poor language learner. An analysis of individual instructor differences, and their impact on how instructors rate different learners, is lacking here.

Finally, it is also important to note that the cognitivist linguistic theory advocated by this book is often viewed as in conflict with and even incompatible with models of SLA that incorporate social factors, such as the sociocultural approach adopted in the third section (Firth & Wagner 1997, Zuengler & Miller 2006, Tarone 2007). The conflict in SLA theory between the conception of language as a mental construction, presented in the first two parts of this book, and language as a social phenomenon, the third part, certainly merits a discussion that is lacking here.


Atkinson, Dwight (ed.). 2011. Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition. New York: Routledge.

Firth, Alan & Johannes Wagner. 1997. On Discourse, Communication, and (Some) Fundamental Concepts in SLA Research. The Modern Language Journal 81(iii). 285-300.

Tarone, Elaine. 2007. Sociolinguistic Approaches to Second Language Acquisition Research-- 1997 - 2007. The Modern Language Journal 91. 837-848.

Zuengler, Jane & Elizabeth R. Miller. 2006. Cognitive and Sociocultural Perspectives: Two Parallel SLA Worlds? TESOL Quarterly 40(1). 35-58.
Melissa Whatley is currently a Ph.D. student at Indiana University. Her research interests include second language acquisition, sociolinguistics, and syntax.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781443835725
Pages: 360
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