LINGUIST List 24.488

Mon Jan 28 2013

Review: Applied Linguistics; Language Acquisition; Psycholinguistics: Sanz & Igoa (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 26-Nov-2012
From: Melissa Whatley <>
Subject: Applying Language Science to Language Pedagogy
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Montserrat SanzEDITOR: José Manuel IgoaTITLE: Applying Language Science to Language PedagogySUBTITLE: Contributions of Linguistics and Psycholinguistics to Second Language TeachingPUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars PublishingYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Melissa Whatley, Indiana University Bloomington


Introduction:The book under review, “Applying Language Science to Language Pedagogy,” is anedited volume whose purpose is providing a much-needed link between languagescience and language pedagogy. Main ideas discussed in the introduction arethe non-linear path of language learning, the importance of learner errors andtheir implications for language teaching, the need for language pedagogy tounderstand the mental processes that occur during language learning, and theconception of language as a mental computational system. The main goal of thebook is to provide language pedagogues with a resource that facilitatesaccessibility to language acquisition research. The book is divided intothree main parts: syntax and syntactic processing, the lexicon, and classroomlearning. Each part consists of an introductory chapter written by theeditors followed by three additional chapters written by other researchers.

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

In Chapter 3, Luis Eguren, outlines the basic ideas surrounding ParametricSyntax, as proposed by Chomskyan linguistics. The author presents argumentsboth for and against these central components, such as Principles andParameters Theory, the existence of micro- and macro- parameters, andparametric hierarchies.

The last two chapters in Part I deal directly with second languageacquisition. Chapter 4, by Thomas G. Bever, is centered around the idea thatlanguage learning, in addition to innate ability, appeals to human beings’natural desire to solve problems. In this view, learning is conceptualized ashypothesis testing. The author presents evidence of hypothesis formation inL1 acquisition and relates these results to late bilingual reading skills.The remainder of the chapter deals with studies of how texts may bemanipulated physically in order to facilitate access by L2 learners.

In chapter 5, Noriko Hoshino, Judith F. Kroll, and Paola E. Dussias address L2processing skills in speech production, dealing specifically with grammaticalencoding and lexical access. The authors point out that speech production inan L2 is a cognitively demanding task that involves not only activation of L2structures and lexical items, but also suppression of these same componentsfrom the L1. The chapter asserts that the L2 should always be used in the L2classroom, as input is the most important component of language learning, andthat teachers should focus on only one grammatical point at a time whileteaching.

Part II:The second section of the book deals specifically with the lexicon. Thispart, like the first, consists of four chapters with the first serving as anintroduction. In the introductory chapter, the authors develop the idea thatvariation between languages is due to syntactic properties of differentlexical items whose features vary systematically. The second section of thischapter uses argument structure of verbs in order to illustrate this idea,making it clear in the final paragraph that it is not necessary that languagelearners should be asked to learn linguistic theory, but rather the input withwhich they are provided should consist of enough key examples for them tofigure out the features of various types of lexical items. The next fewsections of the chapter specifically address how verbs function within thelexicon. Additionally, this chapter also explores the psycholinguistics oflexical processing. In direct relation to language teaching, the authorsdiscuss interference from learners’ L1, various layers of representation oflexical items and the role of grammatical gender, concluding that it is notsimply a matter of whether or not a word is introduced to the learner, butalso 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 informationfrom the lexicon is projected to the syntax. The properties of wordsdetermine which combinations are possible via feature agreement. TheGenerative Lexicon Theory presented here seeks to explain why words can havemultiple meanings by exploiting their combinatorial properties; that is,meaning must exist in syntactic context. Using this theoretical approach, theauthor presents a discussion of five ways in which words can combine to createmeaning: selection, accommodation, type coercion, introduction, andexploitation. The chapter ends with a brief discussion of how this theorycould be applied to language teaching, suggesting that the teaching andlearning of the structure of words would prevent learner errors. The authoradvocates that language teachers discontinue use of “([…] rule discouraging)lists” (p. 196).

Chapters 8 and 9 take a more pedagogical approach to the lexicon. In chapter8, written by Noriko Iwasaki, outlines five of what the author calls mythsabout L2 vocabulary learning: that using lists to learn vocabulary isunproductive, presenting vocabulary in semantic sets facilitates learning,using translations to learn vocabulary should be discouraged, guessing wordsfrom context is a good strategy for learning them, and that the bestdictionary for the L2 classroom is a monolingual one. The author presents avariety of empirical studies that aid in the “debunking” of these “myths”,with several important points for vocabulary teaching emerging from herdiscussion.

Chapter 9, by Georgy Nuzhdin, explores the development of emotion words inbilingual speech, signaling that since emotions are not objects in the realworld, acquiring them along with their semantic scripts may be difficult, ifnot impossible, for the L2 learner. The author presents the methodology andresults from four experiments regarding the use of emotion words by L1Russian/L2 Spanish learners living in Spain, finding that when emotion scriptsare the same in both Russian and Spanish, learners are able to express emotionin a native-like way, whereas when scripts are different, learners do notexpress emotion in the same way as native speakers. In the conclusion, theauthor 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. Inchapter 10, the editors introduce the idea that language learning is notsimply an activity that happens within the learner’s brain, but rather ismediated by social activity. In the classroom, this social activity is oftenstandardized by a particular institution, such as a ministry of education.The main ideas presented in this chapter are those of sociocultural theory andcommunicative language teaching. Sociocultural theory views language learningas 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 thecommunicative and relational functions of language. The authors conclude byasserting that the generative power of grammar, as outlined in the previoustwo sections, must be included in language pedagogy. The goal of thisparticular section, then, is to attempt to build bridges between formallinguistics, sociocultural theories of language acquisition, and languagepedagogy.

The three chapters in Part III deal with specific aspects of language learningwithin a sociocultural framework. Chapter 11, by Arturo Escandón, exploreslearner orientation and its relationship to learning trajectories. Inaddition to utilizing ideas from the sociocultural model outlined in theprevious chapter, the author makes use of Bernstein’s code theory, whichhypothesizes that codes are culturally determined; that is, that forms ofcommunication are regulated by social constructions. The development ofhigher mental functions is mediated by social rules, specifically the idea ofwhat social order should be. The study presented in this chapter focuses ondetermining 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 ofcommunication and grammar, often characteristic of spontaneous andnaturalistic language learning, may not be as successful in the L2 classroomas other learners. The author concludes that instructors should createactivities 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 critiquestwo different methodological approaches to the use of a literary text in L2English classrooms in Japan. The authors indicate that in recent years, theuse of authentic literature in the L2 classroom has dwindled. The authorsexamine physical (external) features and internal features of two types ofmaterials used to teach an English novel: externally published materials andinternally created materials (by language instructors). While the externallypublished materials do not appear to favor use of the L2 in the classroom, anddo not include materials that provide an area for true communication in theL2, the internally created materials are firmly based in a communicativelanguage 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 theacquisition process as well as a perspective that literature instructors donot 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 oflanguage and literacy in a multilingual context. This particular studyexamines the linguistic landscape in the Ukraine, where many people arebilingual in Ukrainian and Russian. The author presents evidence for bothnaturalistic 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 tomake language science accessible to language teachers with the goal ofimproving language pedagogy. They partially achieve their goal. Many of thechapters in this book, especially chapters 4, 5, 8, 11, and 12, have veryspecific implications for language pedagogy. For example, chapter 4 links theinnate human desire to solve problems to language learning via hypothesistesting when learners are presented with L2 input. The introductory chaptersin each part, written by the book’s editors, also provide a link betweenlinguistic theory and practical application. Several chapters of this book,though, do not have a clear link to language pedagogy and may not beparticularly accessible to the book’s intended audience.

In general, the second chapters in parts I and II, while providing a soundtheoretical base for the linguist, are quite possibly inaccessible to theaverage language teacher due to the level of technical concepts and vocabularythat are incorporated. The authors of these sections appear to have troublestriking a balance between theoretical linguistics and language pedagogy,precisely what the editors claim is the goal of this book. Chapter 3 is anexample of this missing link between language science and language pedagogy.While this particular chapter summarizes the general concepts of ParametricSyntax and presents debates centered around these ideas very nicely, theapplication of this chapter’s main points to language pedagogy remainsunclear. From the perspective of a language teacher, for example, who isreading this book with the idea of improving what he/she does both in and outof the classroom in order to facilitate students’ learning, this chapter hasvery little to offer. While it may be that parameter resetting and access tothe properties of Universal Grammar are central to the acquisition of a secondlanguage, these concepts, as well as their connection to what the languageteacher 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. Thepedagogical implications of the existence of bivalent texts remain unclear,although the author does advocate for the inclusion of community resourcessuch as linguistic landscape artifacts, in the classroom.

Additionally, chapters 6, 7, and 8, all of which deal with vocabulary teachingand learning, are another source of weakness in this book. For example, oneimportant critique offered in chapter 6 is that current language teachingtextbooks do not provide students with lexical items grouped according totheir features, something the authors assume would aid in acquisition. Whilethis is certainly a question open to empirical analysis, the authors fail toprovide any evidence for their claim. Chapter 7 claims that lists do not aidin vocabulary learning; however, this assertion is directly contradicted inthe following chapter, which advocates the use of lists at the initial stagesof vocabulary learning. Chapter 8 offers empirical evidence that supports theclaim 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 acommunicative approach while avoiding the presentation of words in semanticclasses and opting for word lists with L1 translation equivalents instead.

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

Finally, it is also important to note that the cognitivist linguistic theoryadvocated by this book is often viewed as in conflict with and evenincompatible with models of SLA that incorporate social factors, such as thesociocultural approach adopted in the third section (Firth & Wagner 1997,Zuengler & Miller 2006, Tarone 2007). The conflict in SLA theory between theconception of language as a mental construction, presented in the first twoparts 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 LanguageAcquisition. 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 LanguageAcquisition Research-- 1997 - 2007. The Modern Language Journal 91. 837-848.

Zuengler, Jane & Elizabeth R. Miller. 2006. Cognitive and SocioculturalPerspectives: Two Parallel SLA Worlds? TESOL Quarterly 40(1). 35-58.


Melissa Whatley is currently a Ph.D. student at Indiana University. Herresearch interests include second language acquisition, sociolinguistics, andsyntax.

Page Updated: 28-Jan-2013