LINGUIST List 22.4013

Fri Oct 14 2011

Review: Applied Linguistics; Language Acquisition: Verspoor et al. (2011)

Editor for this issue: Anja Wanner <>

        1.     Julie Bruch , A Dynamic Approach to Second Language Development

Message 1: A Dynamic Approach to Second Language Development
Date: 14-Oct-2011
From: Julie Bruch <>
Subject: A Dynamic Approach to Second Language Development
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Announced at

EDITORS: Marjolijn H. Verspoor, Kees de Bot, and Wander LowieTITLE: A Dynamic Approach to Second Language DevelopmentSUBTITLE: Methods and TechniquesSERIES: Language Learning and Language Teaching 29PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2011

Julie Bruch, Department of Languages and Literature, Colorado Mesa University


This book suggests a new pragmatic approach to second language (L2) researchmethodology. The book's main purpose is twofold: (1) to present strategies froma dynamic systems approach for analyzing second language development, focusingboth on ''intra-individual and inter-individual variation over time'' (p. 2), and(2) to show how data from computational modeling and simulations can be combinedwith empirical linguistic data to more effectively discover processes involvedin language development. The book also sets out to convince readers thatmathematical modeling techniques are worth mastering and can help futureresearchers obtain valid and convincing data. The editors suggest that obtainingsuch data will continue to promote the dynamic system perspective of language,giving us new ways of understanding the complexities and high variability foundin language.

This volume consists of eight papers contributed by pioneers in the field ofdynamic systems theory (DST). Its audience is student and professionalresearchers in applied linguistics and especially in L2 development. The paperswill be of interest to those who are interested in learning and applying themethods/techniques of DST as well as to those still invested in more traditionalapproaches. The opening chapters explain some of the theoretical underpinningsof the DST perspective, and subsequent chapters present detailed descriptions ofhow the theory has been applied in actual studies. One overriding themeemphasized in these papers is the importance of moving forward from traditionalanalytical methodology (such as that based on Chomskyian theory) toward thegreater explanatory richness provided by the analyses possible in DST.

The first paper by Kees de Bot and Diane Larsen-Freeman is ''Researching SecondLanguage Development from a Dynamic Systems Theory Perspective.'' It begins byexplaining some of the ways in which DST is distinct from traditional L2acquisition theories (see earlier work such as Celce-Murcia, Doughty and Long,and Larsen-Freeman and Long). The paper goes on to outline the nature of dynamicsystems in general (following characterizations similar to those found in recentwork by Ellis and Larsen-Freeman), and it provides numerous examples of how thefeatures of dynamic systems are particular to second language use anddevelopment. The key point suggested here is that DST is especially powerful asa tool for studying phenomena that are comprised of a multiplicity of complexvariables and therefore un-amenable to prediction or traditional analyses. Forexample, in traditional approaches, it has been challenging or unnecessary tosimultaneously quantify the multiple interactions of various subsystems oflanguage or of the influence of internal and external factors on individuallanguage development. The authors claim that the DST approach is an effectiveway of measuring and describing the ways in which such multiple variablesinteract. Another important idea of DST discussed here is that of cognitionbeing ''embodied'' and socially situated (p. 17-18) rather than isolated in thebrain of the individual. This idea necessitates a shift in language developmentresearch methodology. The paper mentions theories (such as complex adaptivesystems theory (p. 8) and emergentist theories (p. 17)) which because of theirrejection of the nativist approach, including the innateness of languageperspective and universal grammar (UG), have stirred some controversy andcreated new paradigms of thinking in the field of linguistics, particularly inthe past decade. The paper closes by pointing out that there are greatchallenges inherent in researching dynamic systems, which by definition holdeverything to be related to everything else and which seem to have infinitevariables. Due to these challenges, an entirely new view is emerging in whichthe job of a good theory is not necessarily to predict and generalize, butrather, to identify patterns and relationships in a descriptive rather thanexplanatory manner. This paper introduces the succeeding chapters byconvincingly arguing for employment of the DST approach in language developmentresearch.

The second paper, ''Dynamic Systems Theory and a usage-based approach to SecondLanguage Development,'' by Marjolijn Verspoor and Heike Behrens, explains ingreater detail why language development should be treated as a complex dynamicsystem and then lays out some of the variables that can be usefully analyzedusing the DST approach. The authors show why the paradigms of UG and thesyntactic systems approach have become inadequate by overviewing some of thefeatures of more recent language learning theories. They explain how the newertheories are mutually compatible and tell why these theories provide a morecoherent picture of the processes involved in second language development. Thetheories they discuss include: cognitive linguistics (Langacker 2008),emergentism (Hopper 1998), grammaticalization (Bybee 2008), connectionism (Elman1995), activation theory (Rumelhart and McClelland 1987), and usage-basedtheories, such as the model suggested by MacWhinney (2008). Interactingvariables discussed here as areas easily handled by such approaches include:frequency of exposure and usage, the role of the first language (L1) in L2development, the role of social interaction, variability of input and output,and individual variables which create differences from predicted outcomes. Themain goal of this chapter is to convince the readers that in order to understandL2 development more clearly, we need to examine how such variables functionsimultaneously as a dynamic system.

Each of the remaining chapters of the book describes actual case studies carriedout using the DST approach. The first of these is ''Coding and extracting data,''by Monika S. Schmid, Brian MacWhinney, and Marjolijn Verspoor. This paperprovides a model of how linguistic software, including word processors, spreadsheets, and language coding and analysis programs can be used to answerquestions about L2 development from the DST perspective. The authors explainthat because the DST approach recognizes the inherent instability andvariability of language in language learners, data should be longitudinal andspontaneously produced under natural conditions. Compared to elicited data,collection and analysis is more challenging, and therefore, there must begreater reliance on efficient transcription, coding, and automatized computing.In the case study outlined here, the authors show the elegance and efficiency ofcomputer-generated statistical analyses. For their three-year longitudinalcollections of data, they were able to identify and quantify the details ofmutual interactions of syntactic structures and lexicon in an individual L2learner of English. The CLAN, CHILDES, and CHAT programs were recommended inthis paper as resources for achieving such analyses. By simultaneously measuringa multiplicity of variables (such as sentence length and type, clause types,lexical type/token ratio, number of new words used, rarity of lexical itemschosen, and length of the content words used), the researchers were able todescribe with great precision how the variables competed with each other duringlanguage development and also precisely when and how the ''trade-offs'' (p. 54)between different skills occurred. This study illustrates how the ability toobtain and quantify rich data feeds into increased richness in the researchquestions asked.

Chapter 4, ''Variability and DST,'' by Marijn van Dijk, Marjolijn Verspoor andWander Lowie, continues the discussion of effective ways to measure and describevariability in L2 development. The paper opens by discussing reasons whyvariability was largely ignored in earlier models of L2 acquisition research,and it goes on to describe in detail how studies of variability have flourishedas its importance was better recognized. The paper articulates clearly whyintra- and inter-individual variability among L2 learners should be considered acentral ''sound'' in the development of language rather than just a ''noise'' (p.60). The authors revisit a classic 1978 study of L2 negative verb constructionswhich concluded that it was impossible to write rules for the inter-languagepoints of development (Cancino, Rosansky, and Schumann). By re-organizing theoriginal raw data from that study into computer-generated visuals, re-plottingthe data using statistical ''sketches'' (p. 72), and carrying out resamplinganalyses, the authors are able to reach a number of significant conclusionsrelated to patterns of individual learner variability, including where, when,and how it occurs. The statistical techniques are explained without overlytechnical details; however, the explanations are adequate to provide confidenceto readers who want to follow suit with their own investigations.

Chapter 5, ''Visualizing interactions between variables,'' by Marjolijn Verspoorand Marijn van Dijk, examines more closely means of evaluating possiblerelationships between mutually interacting variables (called ''growers,'' p.85-86) to determine whether they are worthy of deeper inspection. This studyexamines the findings reported in Chapter 3 to see how additional informationabout the relationship between syntactic and lexical development can be gainedusing distinct coding and analytical techniques. Since this paper also serves asan introduction to the computer modeling techniques described in Chapter 6, itbecomes rather more technical than previous chapters. For example, it describesthe use of smoothing functions, the normalization of smoothed data, and ways todevelop moving correlation coefficients. While this terminology may be new andintimidating to some readers, the associated methodologies are explained inunderstandable terms, and helpful links to the ''How to'' sections are plentiful.The paper demonstrates that relationships between ''growers'' in languagedevelopment can be visibly represented and that the statistical techniquesoutlined can not only further clarify how the ''trade-offs'' mentioned in Chapter3 function but also help determine whether the relationships between variablesare worthy of further investigation by means of modeling and simulation in orderto make further generalizations and test resulting assumptions.

Chapter 6, by Wander Lowie, Tal Caspi, Paul van Geert, and Henderien Steenbeek,is entitled ''Modeling development and change.'' This last case study demonstratesthat computer simulations of variability in language development can provide afinal, more conclusive test of theoretical assumptions. The paper initiallypresents a helpful overview of types of mathematical modeling. For readers newto the techniques used in DST research, computer modeling may be intimidating,but this chapter shows how it can be an effective way to approach what may be anoverwhelming set of hypotheses. Again, the information becomes rather technical,but it is explained using readily understandable examples from L1 and L2development as well as references to previous work. The authors argue that theuse of modeling and simulations is essential in testing whether the assumptionsarising from analysis of actual language data hold true when it is simulated ona grander scale. They show how modeling allows a great number of interactingvariables to be tested simultaneously, and they report on their case study whichtests the interaction of internal and external factors on both passive andactive vocabulary growth over time. By entering empirical data into the computerand specifying certain parameters, the researchers show how computer-simulatediterations can statistically model some of the probable development patterns.The authors explain how to compare simulated results statistically to thoseobtained from actual data in order to test validity. They sum up by suggestingthat modeling techniques can be key in successfully describing dynamic featuresof language development and also help determine the validity of theories. Theyalso emphasize that modeling provides a powerful way of speculating aboutfurther language growth at later stages of development. Some critics may beconvinced to try out the DST perspective, and many readers will feel equipped tobegin using some of these techniques in their own research.

A short epilogue to the book re-emphasizes the focus of the dynamic approach tostudying language as one that attempts to describe a constantly moving andevolving target. Here, we are reminded once again that for such an evasiveobject of study, it may suffice for a theoretical model to simply describe andquantify the interacting variables of language development rather than todetermine causal factors. This final chapter ends by challenging others tomaster the basics of DST research methodology in order to extend the scope andweight of the dynamic systems movement.

Seventy pages at the end of the book provide detailed ''How to'' explanationsreplete with visuals. These sections contain step-by-step instructions forcarrying out the computer-assisted language analyses mentioned in the earlierchapters. Some examples are: how to format a CHAT file, using Macros inMicrosoft Word, how to do lexical frequency counts, and how to employ resamplingtechniques using Excel. Rather than being an appendix, these seventy pages arean integral piece in accomplishing the book's goal of actually enabling readersto engage in the new paradigms of DST research. For those who are already wellinto such research, these pages will likely help to expand their capabilities orserve as easy-reference reminders of some of the details.


This book achieves its goal of describing and illustrating in practical termssome of the DST research methods currently being developed. Chapters 1 and 2argue cogently for the value of DST in conceptualizing L2 development. The ideasand techniques outlined will be accessible to researchers who are new to thecomputer-generated analytical techniques described here. Chapters 3 and 4, inparticular, provide excellent examples of the richness of the DST approach.Readers may be left a bit dazzled by the possibilities suggested in Chapter 6,but they are certain to also be inspired. Small boxes at key points throughoutthe book direct readers to the linked ''How to'' sections at the end of the book,so that they can pause and find examples of actual data and detailedinstructions related to data collection, transcription, and coding. There arealso over 40 graphic figures in the chapters that allow the written explanationsto be more succinct by providing clear visuals.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is that it will be relevant to bothnovice and experienced researchers. The novice will find advice, examples, andencouragement. More experienced researchers will find a convenient reference tomuch of the field-breaking work being done within the DST perspective as well astips for extending their methodology. Another strength is that the book'sability to reduce extremely challenging and technical methodology to manageablebits will inspire readers to engage in such methodology themselves. The maingenius of this book is its ability to translate very complex ideas andmethodology into layman's terms. Those who dislike mathematical processing willbe enabled to integrate these new methodologies into their work.

Much of the information in the ''How to'' sections at the end of the book isreadily available elsewhere. For example, it is easy to find detailedinstructions for coding language in the CHAT or CHILDES programs on therespective websites for those programs. However, having a minimal outline ofsuch procedures at hand in this book allows the reader who is unfamiliar withsuch programs to refer to the ''How to'' sections without having to go directly tothe websites to understand what is being described in the chapters. Thetechnical writing in these sections is clear, succinct, and effective.

One small inconvenience in this book is that while there are many referenceswithin the book to specific chapter numbers, nowhere are the chapters listed bynumber.

The DST perspective has deep implications for the study of second languagedevelopment. This book, while relatively short in length, is long in innovation,and it will contribute in unique ways to our understanding of dynamic systemsand of the theory and its many applications.


Bybee, J. (2008) Usage-based grammar and second language acquisition. In P.Robinson and N. Ellis (Eds.), Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and SecondLanguage Acquisition (pp. 216-236). London: Routledge.

Cancino, H., Rosansky, El, and Schumann, J. (1978) The acquisition of Englishnegatives and interrogatives by native Spanish speakers. In E. M. Hatch (Ed.),Second Language Acquisition: A Book of Readings (pp. 207-230). Rowley, MA:Newbury House.

Celce-Murcia, Marianne (Ed.). (2001) Teaching English as a Second or ForeignLanguage, 3rd edition. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Doughty, Catherine J., and Long, Michael H. (Eds.). (2003) The Handbook ofSecond Language Acquisition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Ellis, Nick C. and Larsen-Freeman, Diane (Eds.). (2009) Language as a ComplexAdaptive System. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Elman, J. (1995) Language as a dynamical system. In R. Port and T. van Gelder(Eds.), Mind as Motion (pp. 195-225). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Hopper, P. (1998) Emergent grammar. In M. Tomasello (Ed.), The New Psychology ofLanguage: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure (pp.155-175). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Langacker, R. W. (2008) Cognitive grammar as a basis for language instruction.In P. Robinson and N. Ellis (Eds.), Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and SecondLanguage Acquisition (pp. 66-88). London: Routledge.

Larsen-Freeman, D. and Long, M. (1991) An Introduction to Second LanguageAcquisition Research. New York: Longman.

MacWhinney, B. (2008) A unified model. In P. Robinson and N. Ellis (Eds.),Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition (pp. 341-371).London: Routledge.

Rumelhart, D. and McClelland, J. (1987) Learning the past tense of Englishverbs: Implicit rules or parallel processing? In B. MacWhinney (Ed.), Mechanismsof Language Acquisition (pp. 195-248). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Julie Bruch hold a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Kansas. Shecurrently teaches Linguistic Diversity, History of English, Structure ofEnglish, and Beginning Japanese at Colorado Mesa University. Her principleresearch interests are culture and language and language change and diversity.

Page Updated: 14-Oct-2011