LINGUIST List 23.3660

Mon Sep 03 2012

Review: Applied Linguistics; Language Acquisition: Mansouri (2007)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 03-Sep-2012
From: Edward Wen <>
Subject: Second Language Acquisition Research: Theory-Construction and Testing
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EDITOR: Fethi MansouriTITLE: Second Language Acquisition ResearchSUBTITLE: Theory-Construction and TestingPUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars PublishingYEAR: 2007

Zhisheng Wen (Edward), Hong Kong Shue Yan University


This edited volume contains major papers delivered at the ''5th InternationalSymposium on Processability, Bilingualism and Second Language Acquisition'' thatwas held at Deakin University’s Melbourne Campus, 26-28 September 2005. Despiteits ambitious title, it mainly focuses on promoting and testing ManfredPienemann’s Processing Theory (PT) as applied to a number of typologicallydifferent languages (e.g. English, Japanese, Swedish and Chinese).

Chapter 1 is the conventional introductory chapter written by the editor.Mansouri begins with a brief account of historical trends and developments ofSLA research with respect to developments in morpheme order studies, thussetting the scene for bringing Pienemann’s PT within the broader context of SLAresearch. The second section further articulates how various chapters of thebook contribute to the two key themes running through the book, i.e. theoryconstruction and testing of PT, and empirical studies in bilingualism and speechprocessing that are intended to provide further evidence for the major claimsstipulated by PT.

Chapter 2 provides an overview of PT written by its key proponent ManfredPienemann himself. Pienemann begins by acknowledging the sources of inspirationfor PT (i.e. Levelt’s speech production model and Bresnan’s lexical functionalgrammar) and reiterating its four basic premises pertaining to languageprocessing or the grammatical processor (p. 13): being (1) largely automatic andnot consciously controlled; (2) incremental and cumulative; (3) linear in itsoutput; (4) subserved by a short-term memory store. The unique feature of PT, asclaimed by Pienemann, is that it possesses the capacity to predict developmentaltrajectories for any second language, which are in turn indexed by keydevelopmental stages (p. 14). In other words, there is a hierarchy in theprocess ability of various grammatical structures. Between these hierarchies,there is also a certain degree of flexibility for the shape of L2 grammar thatleaves space for finer-grained hypotheses to be formulated by researchers (theHypothesis Space and Development Dynamics). In the second section of thechapter, Pienemann summarizes the major empirical evidence in PT-based research,which culminates in the ultimate goal of accommodating typologically differentlanguages.

Following the two introductory chapters, Chapter 3 by Kawaguchi presents thefirst empirical study in this book, which aims to provide evidence (collectedfrom a longitudinal case study of an 18-year-old Australian girl learningJapanese as a second language) to support the Unmarked Alignment Hypothesis andthe Lexical Mapping Hypothesis recently postulated within the tenets ofPienemann’s PT. Despite some minor exceptions that need to be further explored,the overall patterns of data converge to corroborate predictions made by thethese two specific hypotheses of PT in that canonical mapping indeed precedednon-canonical structures and that the variety of non-canonical structuresincreased in time.

In Chapter 4, Håkansson and Norrby focus on the “Steadiness Hypothesis” of PTwhich claims that “the level of grammatical process ability is assumed to besteady across different tasks as long as these tasks are based on the same skilltype in language production” (p. 81). To test this hypothesis, the authors drewon written (composition and translation tasks) and oral (elicited communicativetasks) data from 20 students learning Swedish either as a foreign language (withnine from the Melbourne Group) or as an L2 (11 from the Malmo Group). Resultsfrom both data sets supported the PT hierarchy despite their differences inmodality (written vs. oral), thus confirming the “Steady Hypothesis”. In otherwords, there is an implicational order of structures and no gaps in thehierarchy of process ability.

With a view to complementing previous PT studies in their emphasis on thepredictive power of the theory for language-specific acquisition stages,Mansouri and Håkansson’s study described in Chapter 5 builds up a strong caseand provides preliminary evidence for incorporating intra-stage developmentalsequences as an additional explanatory tool for the Hypothesis Space. Citingdata from Arabic as a second language (ASL), with a focus on definitenessmarkers, the authors argue that zero (null) and reduced marking in ASL can beaccounted for in terms of processing requirements and typological features(form-function mappings). This study provides an additional perspective to theHypothesis Space as an explanatory module.

In a slightly different manner, Chapter 6, by Keßler, reports on a feasibilitystudy of the computer-assisted procedure of “Rapid Profile” as a tool forconducting online assessment of EFL learner’s language development. The studyseeks justification for that claim that Rapid Profile offers PT researchers areliable and valid means of diagnosing EFL-development in formal L2 classroomsettings. Indeed, Keßler’s study reveals an inter-rater reliability of 85.7 percent, thus rendering the Rapid Profile a feasible diagnostic tool foronline-assessment. In addition, this data collection procedure has significantimplications for EFL teachers in that these language learning profiles capturedby the procedure can facilitate a smooth transition from the early start to amore target language like final state of acquisition in classroom settings.

Chapter 7 by Zhang tests the Topic Hypothesis in the case of acquiring Chineseas a second language. The Topic Hypothesis predicts that learners go throughthree stages in their acquisition of L2 syntax, “beginning with a canonicalorder and progressing toward a non-linear order of sentence structure” (p. 147).The key thrust of the Topic Hypothesis lies in its assumption that the latterorder deviates from the linearity principle of mapping between argument,functional and constituent structures. The language data collected by Zhang fromthree English native speakers at an Australian university largely support theprinciple of the Topic Hypothesis, showing the successive disassociation betweentopic and subject elements, and between grammatical functions and sequentialpositions in a sentence.

Chapters 8 to 11 are organized around the second theme of the book, i.e.bilingualism and speech processing within the PT paradigm. In Chapter 8,Itani-Adams looks into the lexical and grammatical development patterns of aJapanese-English bilingual child (age 1;11 to 4;10) who was raised in a “oneparent one language” home environment since birth. Data analysis focuses on twoaspects of the relationship between lexicon and grammar as found in bothlanguages: on the one hand, verb stems and verbal morphemes; on the other, verbsand the semantic function of arguments. Overall, the data suggest that,regardless of different input languages, nouns are bootstrapped by the bilingualchild into each language while verbs showed different patterns of developmentthat were similar to monolingual children, thus indicating that lexical learningis a language-specific operation. That is to say, Japanese and English eachdeveloped in a separate but a parallel manner in this bilingual child, thusproviding evidence in support of the Separate Development Hypothesis for firstlanguage acquisition.

By adding the underlying cognitive mechanism of short-term memory (STM) storeinto the picture, Suarez and Goh’s study in Chapter 9 investigates thecodification process among bilinguals with different levels of English/Chinesedominance. In line with the modality model of STM, the authors conducted twoexperiments and manipulated the phonological and visual features of words andexamined their influence on the degree of semantic proactive interference (PI)in a short-term cued recall task. The results of both experiments suggest thatthe codification process of these bilinguals depends largely on their dominantlanguage. Chinese dominants seem not to use phonological nor visual strategiesto memorize in a cued recall task, while mixed dominants recode phonologicallyand store the information in a phonological code. Equally interesting is thefinding that English dominants who were less proficient in Chinese also seemedto experience more severe visual and phonological interference, while Chinesedominant bilinguals did not show any evidence of this influence on PI,indicating that they have a very integrated phonological, visual and semanticmemory system.

Turning away from bilingual to multilingual processing, Van den Noort, Bosch andHugdahl’s study in Chapter 10 explores the processing of relative clauses among20 multilingual learners who were all native Dutch speakers (L1), are fluent inGerman (L2), and started learning Norwegian (L3). Previously, L1 research hasshown that subject relatives are easier to comprehend than object relatives. Theauthors test the hypothesis that object relatives cause a greater working memoryload. Ten participants started their free acquisition of Norwegian (L3) in the 6months prior to the study (early stage L3 learners), whereas the other tenstarted their acquisition of Norwegian more than 3 years before (more advancedL3 learners). Participants were administered a relative clause task in all threelanguages, a reading span task (verbal working memory) in Norwegian (L3) and anumber ordering task. The results show that differences in subject and objectrelatives can only be found among participants who are in an advanced stage ofthird language acquisition. In addition, both verbal and non-verbal workingmemory task scores were not correlated with the total comprehension score on therelative clause task in all three languages, which is in line with the SeparateSentence Interpretation Resource theory of working memory.

The final chapter of the book, Chapter 11 by Kim and Kwon, proposes a ParallelDevelopmental Sequences (PDS) model for SLA that integrates three separate L2developmental modules: procedural developmental sequence, syntacticdevelopmental sequence, and morphological developmental sequence. Emulating thelogic of the connectionist Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP) model incognitive psychology, the PDS model proposes that L2 development follows aseries of parallel developmental stages sequentially: with one of the threemechanisms (i.e. the procedural, the syntactic, and the unificationalmechanism) being activated first, and then interconnected, and finallysynchronized with each other before moving to the next state of the PDS (p.249). The PDS model is put to the test by empirical research on sentenceconstruction tests through a real-time experimental method. Responses from 136Korean college students were collected and analyzed, culminating in animplicational scale vis-à-vis their developmental stages in terms of PDS. Theresults showed that the implicational scale reached a satisfactory level of .83,thus rendering the PDS model a viable framework for gauging interlanguagedevelopment of L2 learners.


To sum up, this edited volume has significantly broadened the theoretical basesand the application areas of Pienemann’s Processability Theory (PT) within theSLA research arena. First, on the theoretical front, the book does not justfurther recapitulate the major tenets of PT (Chapter 2) -- which is importantand necessary for readers who are new to the theory -- but also successfullyextends the existing PT paradigm to include a conceptual framework that servesto account for intra-stage developmental sequences (Chapter 5) and also a moreambitious PDS model (Chapter 11) that integrates multiple parallel procedures inL2 interlanguage development. On the applied side, the book also adds furtherdynamics to the PT paradigm by reinforcing the computer-assisted data collectionprocedure of Rapid Profile (Chapter 6), which will have significant implicationsfor L2 classroom research and practice.

The most important contribution of this edited volume, as I see it, is itsinitial efforts to incorporate the construct of short-term memory (Chapter 9)and working memory (Chapter 10) as a postulated cognitive mechanism subservingthe processing of grammatical structures by L2 learners. Despite theunimpressive findings as reported in both studies with the working memory tasks(verbal and non-verbal) in language processing, there are ample reasons tobelieve that if working memory had been operationalized differently and testedby different measures, the results could be quite different (cf. Wen, 2012). Inother words, it is still quite likely that the limited capacity of workingmemory should have significant impact on the processing of L2 grammaticalstructures. Further PT-based studies can follow on this line of development todemystify the role of working memory in L2 processing.

Pienemann clearly indicates in his introduction to PT in Chapter 2 that PT as atheory draws heavily on Levelt’s speech production model. However, it should benoted that Levelt’s (1989) model is mainly based on L1 speech production, whichtends to be largely automatic (though see Hartsuiker & Barkhuysen, 2006 for adifferent view). When it comes to L2 learning then, it is quite likely that L2learners need to draw on more working memory resources in processing L2grammatical structures as opposed to L1 processing (McLaughlin, 1995). That isto say, the basic premises of PT as stated by Pienemann (p. 13) may need to bere-evaluated and augmented in light of such limited capacity of working memoryand the consequences they may in turn bring to bear on the processing ofgrammatical structures in L2 (Payne & Ross, 2005). More empirical studiesfollowing this line will prove to be critical for PT to make its foray into amore viable framework accounting for cross-linguistic influences among L2learners in processing typologically different languages.


Hartsuiker, R.J., & P. N. Barkhuysen (2006). Language production and workingmemory: The case of subject-verb agreement. Language and Cognitive Processes,21, 181-204.

Levelt, W. J. M. (1989). Speaking: From intention to articulation. Cambridge,MA: MIT Press.

McLaughlin, B. 1995. Aptitude from an information processing perspective.Language Testing, 11: 364-381.

Payne, J. S. and Ross, B. (2005). Working memory, synchronous CMC, L2 oralproficiency development. Language Learning and Technology, 9(3), 35-54.

Wen, Z. (2012). Working memory and second language learning. InternationalJournal of Applied Linguistics, 22: 1–22. doi: 10.1111/j.1473-4192.2011.00290.x


Zhisheng Wen (Edward) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Hong Kong Shue Yan University. His current research foci are theoretical and methodological issues surrounding “Working memory as foreign language aptitude” in SLA. Dr. Wen’s papers have appeared in many academic journals and his monograph “Working memory and second language learning” will be published by Multilingual Matters. He is the recipient of several international research awards and grants, including the recent 2012 'Language Learning' Roundtable Conference Grant which enabled him to convene an International Roundtable on “Memory and SLA” in Hong Kong (June 2012). Following the Roundtable, he is now working on an edited volume and a special journal issue on working memory and SLA.

Page Updated: 03-Sep-2012