LINGUIST List 23.4614

Sun Nov 04 2012

Review: Applied Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Atkinson (2011)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 04-Nov-2012
From: Annamaria Cacchione <>
Subject: Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition
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EDITOR: Dwight AtkinsonTITLE: Alternative Approaches to Second Language AcquisitionPUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor & Francis)YEAR: 2011

Annamaria Cacchione, Departamento de Filología Italiana, Universidad Complutensede Madrid


This book starts from the consideration that, in the last 20 years, severalinteresting ''alternative'' approaches to SLA research have arisen --alternative in the sense that they do not belong to the dominant cognitiveperspective. All these approaches developed autonomously, without being able tointegrate and reducing, in this way, their heuristic potential. According to theeditor and author, Dwight Atkinson, ''it therefore becomes necessary for all thevaried perspectives, and this includes cognitivism, […] to ''talk'' to each other''to achieve at last a ''richer, more multidimensional understanding of SLA'' (p. xi).

The volume begins with a detailed and clear introduction that outlines the goalsof the book and summarizes each of the following six chapters, corresponding tosix different alternative approaches. The book ends with a discussion of thepresented approaches, thus summarizing some of the most relevant findings andproviding a comprehensive point of view.

The Introduction -- ''Cognitivism and Second Language Acquisition'' -- byAtkinson, is focused just on cognitivism, as the main reference point for thewhole book. After defining it by means of a set of ten main features -- thefirst three being ''mind as a computer'', ''representationalism'' and ''learning asabstract knowledge acquisition'' -- and tracing back its roots in the Cartesiandualism, he describes the Cognitive Revolution, born as a direct response toAmerican behaviourism and fully developed by Chomsky starting in 1959.

Atkinson then highlights what in his opinion are the cognitivist bases of SLA:Krashen’s emphasis on input, Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis (1990) and theediting of “The Handbook of SLA” (2003) by Catherine Doughty and Michael Long.

The last part of the Introduction presents the common plan Atkinson, as theeditor of the book, proposed to all the authors in order to ''to make thoseapproaches directly comparable'' (p. 16). The comparability lies in the commonorganization of each chapter, structured around the same six topics/questionsthat the editor put to all the contributors: Overview (distinctive features ofthe approach); Theoretical principles of the alternative approach; Researchmethods; Supporting findings; Differences vis-à-vis other alternative approachesdescribed; and Future directions of the proposed alternative approach.

The first chapter -- “The sociocultural approach to Second LanguageAcquisition: sociocultural theory, second language acquisition, and artificialL2 development” - is by James Lantolf. His contribution is built on the keyidea of mediation, defined as follows: ''If/how learners develop their ability touse the new language to mediate (i.e. regulate or control) their mental andcommunicative activity'' (p. 24). The sociocultural approach -- firstelaborated by Vygotsky (1978) - focuses on the development of the mediationalability. ''Translated'' into SLA research, ''this means studying how learnersdeploy the new language to regulate their behavior when confronted withcommunicatively or cognitively challenging tasks'' (p. 26). In the “Supportingfindings” section, Lantolf highlights issues that are particularly relevant indaily life at school (e.g. the connection with classroom interaction andteacher’s feedback uptake).

The second contribution is by Diane Larsen-Freeman, ''A complexity theoryapproach to second language development/acquisition''. It focuses on a growingresearch field emanating from the natural sciences -- complexity theory. Incontrast with her generative training, the author found that the image of a''complex, adaptive system, which emerges bottom-up from interactions of multipleagents in speech communities'' (p. 49) was much more consistent and correctThe third contribution is by Bonny Norton and Carolyn McKinney. It is entitled''An identity approach to Second Language Acquisition,'' and, as the title shows,focuses on identity perspectives on SLA -- a theoretical perspective rooted inthe post-structuralism theories of language. SLA is conceived as part of theidentity construction process. This means that every time a learner speaks,he/she negotiates his/her self in relation to the world, and speaking a secondlanguage is part of this continuous process. The implication for SLA comes inparticular from the construction of identity as multiple: ''learners who strugglefrom one identity position can reframe their relationship with theirinterlocutors and reclaim alternative, more powerful identities from which tospeak'' (p. 74). A second language can thus play a major part in thisrelationship complex and reframe it in a more positive shape.

Patricia Duff and Steven Talmy are the authors of the fourth chapter, ''LanguageSocialization Approaches to SLA''. This kind of approach has strong ethnographicand anthropological roots. The chapter addresses the way L2-relatedsocialization unfolds in different contexts and situations, where experts andnovices mutually construct their identity. The attention provided tosocialization in any kind of context provides a good starting point toinvestigate new, virtual contexts and the related forms of socialization, likethose of social media.

Gabriele Kasper and Johannes Wagner are the authors of ''AConversational-Analytic Approach to SLA'', chapter 5. CA investigates how peoplemake sense of conversational interactions. Hence CA-SLA focuses on socialaspects of language acquisition. CA methodology explores ''the resources that L2speakers, jointly with their interlocutors, draw upon to keep the interactiongoing'' (p. 129), and, as linguistic elements are among these resources, it cancatch the appearance of new linguistic elements and to trace their development-- this is ''development CA'' (Wootton 2006). Several CA extracts, treatedfollowing ''classical'' and CA transcription methodology by Sacks, Schegloff &Jefferson (1974), are presented and discussed.

The book’s editor, Dwight Atkinson, is also the author of the sixth chapter,focused on sociocognitive theory -- ''A sociocognitive approach to SLA''. Thisnew approach describes an ecological framework in which components of differentnatures, including cognition, function integratively, as the subtitle claims:''How mind, body, and world work together in learning additional languages'' (p.143). Humans are organisms continuously adapting themselves to the changesoccurring in the environment. Learning a new language can thus be seen both as achange occurring in an already structured environment and the creation of a newenvironment. Cognition, in this innovative perspective, is no longer rejectedbut is treated as one of the key factors -- to be precise, it promotesintelligent adaptive action-in-the-word (p. 143).

In the closing chapter, ''SLA after the social turn'', Lourdes Ortega tries toanswer two main questions: ''What can we make of differences between cognitivismand alternatives in SLA?'' and ''How can our knowledge help advance ourunderstanding?'' (p. 167). The key issue is the ''social turn'' of the title: thesocial dimension is in fact the leading thread of all the six approachesdescribed. These approaches brought about relevant insights (e.g. the rolesplayed by social practices, values and indexicality). Therefore, Ortegaconcludes by claiming that SLA is stronger and better after the social turn:epistemological diversity can lead to ''a fuller and ultimately betterunderstanding of the learning of additional languages'' (p. 178).


The book has an ambitious goal that is not easy to accomplish, given the deepdiversity among the approaches presented -- a diversity sometimes turning intoincommensurability.

Sometimes the differences between the proposed approaches are difficult tounderstand , and there seems to be large zones of overlap. Several sections arenot so easy to understand for those who do not share the same theoreticalbackground. In these cases, further explication and practical case studies wouldbe helpful. An example: in chapter 1 about the sociocultural approach, Lantolfsays that the over-usage of progressive aspect to describe actions means that''the speaker did not control the task and therefore could not create a coherentnarrative'' (p. 27): why could this simply not indicate that the speaker can useonly the progressive aspect at his L2 stage -- and why should a narrative beincoherent just because it includes only progressive aspect?

Another difficulty in understanding the proposed approaches is the fact thatsome chapters do not fully develop all the six steps of the scheduled commonplan, which results in problems in making a comparison.

Samples of data collected and analyzed -- like in the chapter on CA -- shouldhave been included more extensively, to show how the theory unfolds in practice.

These limitations do not prevent the book from being very useful in many ways.The book, in fact, can be read at different levels by different target-readers:undergraduate and/or junior researchers can benefit especially from the framingchapters and senior researchers can find the central chapters useful forconsultation, and can search for additional sources if needed.

But most of all it is a remarkable effort to provide a comprehensive overview ofcurrent trends in SLA by gathering together different approaches in a criticalway. This could be an example to follow also in other linguistic subfields.


Doughty, Catherine J. & Michael H. Long (eds.). 2003. Handbook of SecondLanguage Acquisition. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Maturana, Humberto & Francisco Varela. 1972. Autopoiesis and Cognition. BostonMA: Reidel.

Sacks, Harvey, Schegloff, Emanuel A. & Gail Jefferson. 1974. A SimplestSystematics for the Organisation of Turn-Taking for Conversation. Language 50.696-735.

Schmidt, Richard W. 1990. The role of consciousness in second language learning.Applied Linguistics 11. 129-157.

Vygotsky, Lev S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher PsychologicalProcesses. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Weaver, Warren. 1948. Science and Complexity. American Scientist 36. 536-544.

Wootton, Anthony J. 2006. Children's practices and their connections with'mind'. Discourse Studies 8. 191-198.


Annamaria Cacchione has a PhD in Linguistics and Didactics of Italian as L2. She teaches Italian L2, Textual Linguistics and Acquisitional Linguistics at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. She also teaches Italian L2 at the University of Molise, Italy. Her research interests include SLA, clinical linguistics and pragmatics. Her present research includes investigations on mobile language learning and ICT-based innovation in education in general.

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