LINGUIST List 25.5116

Mon Dec 15 2014

Review: Applied Ling; Lang Acquisition: Cook, Singleton (2014)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 02-Jul-2014
From: Robert Cote <>
Subject: Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

AUTHOR: Vivian James Cook
AUTHOR: David Singleton
TITLE: Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2014

REVIEWER: Robert Arthur Cote, University of Arizona

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


'Key Topics in Second Language Acquisition' is an easy-to-read introductory text divided into short chapters that separately focus on one of eight basic yet sometimes controversial topics in SLA including psycholinguistics, Critical Age Hypothesis, vocabulary acquisition, syntax, writing, motivation, research and pedagogy.

Cook begins Chapter 1, ''How do different languages connect in our minds'', by providing different definitions of what it means to be bilingual. This includes terms like “balanced” or “maximal bilingual”, “invisible bilingual” and “minimal bilingual”. He also uses introduces the terms “L2 learner” and “L2 user” and describes what he considers to be typical characteristics of each in terms of thoughts and behavior. Cook briefly but not always convincingly explains how L2 users think differently, have a better feel for language, and speak their first language differently compared to monolinguals. The end of the chapter focuses on the concept of two languages in one mind and shows simple diagrams that clearly explain the differences between coordinate, compound and subordinate bilinguals based on early definitions by Weinreich (1953).

In Chapter 2, ''Is there a best age for learning a second language?'' Singleton explores Lenneberg’s (1967) well-known Critical Period Hypothesis referring to some famous examples from history such as Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron, and Genie. Much of the chapter attempts to disprove CPH, stating ''... that such wide disagreement about this matter can be taken to cast severe doubt on the whole notion of a critical period for language'' (p. 30). While I agree with Singleton that there are many other factors that play important roles in language learning besides age, including language identity, who the learner has contact with, and schooling (p. 23), the chapter comes across as too opinionated. Another concern is that there is too much focus on formal language learning but little mention of natural language acquisition. On a positive note, there is a text box (2.13) that briefly introduces four different views on access to Universal Grammar (UG) in learners (p. 27) and refers the reader to several resources should s/he desire further explanation.

Singleton continues writing in Chapter 3, ''How do people acquire the words of a second language?'' which investigates vocabulary acquisition, specifically how knowledge of a vocabulary item involves more than just knowing its meaning, orthography and pronunciation. He disagrees with Chomsky’s claims about innateness, writing ''…different languages and cultures configure concepts in the words they use in radically divergent ways, so to think of lexical development in terms of assigning labels to pre-existent universal concepts is, at best, a simplification'' (p. 41). He also writes that ''young children’s engagement with words is not actually as fast or as straightforward as Chomsky implies'' (p. 41). Unfortunately, Singleton fails to provide evidence to support these claims. There are brief explanations of caregiver talk, associations between first and second language lexical development, features of foreigner talk, and mnemonic connections.

Nearly half of Chapter 3 examines the differences between learning vocabulary one word at a time via rote memorization of lists versus learning words in context, especially during reading. The memorization approach, which Singleton calls 'atomistic', relies on four main components:1) repetition, 2) associations between the forms and meanings of words already known to the learner and 3) ''newly encountered ones which share some kind of similarity'' (p. 45), and 4) Paul Nation’s 'Keyword Technique'. Contextual learning, on the other hand, is a result of ''mapping from context to form brought about by meaningful interaction in situations that the learner has already charted in conceptual terms'' (p. 47). Singleton presents the viewpoints on incidental vocabulary learning espoused by a number of researchers, including Krashen (1989), Schouten-van Parreren (1992) and Hulstijn (1992). He concludes the chapter by mentioning that people acquire vocabulary via both context-based and atomistic lexical learning.

In Chapter 4, ''How important is grammar in acquiring and using a second language?'' Cook begins by defining the differences between large-scale grammars, which ''describe the ideal version of the whole language'' (p. 56) and the grammar of an individual speaker's mental abilities ''to put sentences together to convey a meaning'' (p. 56). He continues with explanations of several important universal components of grammar, including word order, inflections, agreement and special grammatical systems like articles. The discussion then moves on to the issues that arise when people start to learn the grammar of a second language such as L1 interference, inter-language and typical errors produced by speakers of different L1s when learning a new, common language. Some examples comparing phrases and sentences in English, Italian, Arabic, Chinese and German are shown. Next, the chapter goes into a more in-depth analysis of English examples of grammatical morphemes, word order and processing, and articles to show how acquiring these aspects of English are parallel to similar structures in other languages. In other words, both L1 and L2 learners of any language acquire the ability to successfully use different features of a particular language in a specific order, implying that some language tasks are easier than others to master. The chapter ends with a brief discussion on articles and the fact that while most language have them, others do not. Article systems are described as complex, and mastering them is a lifelong challenge of many second language learners.

Cook focuses on ''How do people learn to write in a second language?'' in Chapter 5, initially stating that historically, both linguists and language teachers have been pre-occupied with studying spoken language at the expense of written, but this has changed rapidly in recent years with the proliferation of social media and internet communication (p. 74). The chapter is very clear in its content, presenting numerous topics in order to compare and contrast several of the world’s languages on characteristics like style, spelling rules, syllable structure, and the appearance and direction of written scripts. One of the main topics is how phonetic-based the letter versus sound correspondence is for a given language. 'Shallow' or 'transparent' systems, like Italian, Finnish, and Haitian-Creole, contain sounds that are almost always represented by the same letter. On the other hand, 'deep' or 'opaque' phonetic-based letter systems, like English and more so, Japanese kanji, the sound to letter correspondences are irregular and even non-existent sound-symbol relationships. Another major topic is spelling, whose rules can be both irregular and ever-changing. The authors use several text boxes to draw attention to some of the unique rules of English, including words that speakers of certain languages have particular difficulty with. They also provide a list of the most common mistakes made by native English speaking children and adults as well as L2 learners based on a study by the National Foundation for Educational Research. This list includes letter insertion, deletion, substitution and transposition. Interestingly, both native English speaking children and adult ESL/EFL learners make the majority of their spelling mistakes by omitting letters. The chapter concludes with a brief explanation of the history of English punctuation, which had its beginnings in the 8th century AD and ''according to some, enabled people to read silently for the first time, thus leading to the individualism of the Renaissance...'' (p. 85). Overall, the chapter seems to be written as a reminder of the flexibility of the written word.

There are many interesting and useful fact boxes throughout the chapter, which allow the reader to become quite involved in the material.

In Chapter 6 ''How do attitude and motivation help in learning a second language?'' Singleton divides the chapter into two primary sections, attitude and motivation, and briefly examines the effects they have on target language learning. The chapter is filled with numerous, useful terminological items essential to describing the development of a novice’s understanding of SLA. These include concepts such as cultural awareness, ethnic loyalty, and John Berry’s four modes of acculturation - assimilation, integration, rejection and deculturation (p. 91). In addition, six types of motivation for learning are introduced and defined: integrative, instrumental, intrinsic, extrinsic, amotivation and demotivation (p. 101). Each is defined as follows. Integrative motivation is one’s desire to become a member of the target language community; instrumental motivation is ''the desire to get something practical out of second language learning''; intrinsic motivation is ''being motivated by the learning situation itself''; extrinsic motivation is defined as ''being motivated by rewards and punishments from others''; amotivation is simply a ''lack of motivation''; and demotivation is becoming unmotivated to learn the target language either because of ''conflict, resentment, and disaffection'' (p. 101). Some real-life examples of the challenges of becoming competent in a second language are discussed, as well as the concept of language plateauing, referred to here as stabilization. The chapter provides many outside references to important seminal work by well-known researchers in this area such as Robert Gardner, John Schumann and Zoltán Dörnyei, and it also offers a number of online references, which direct the reader to some excellent resources for further reading.

Singleton continues writing in Chapter 7, ''How useful is second language acquisition research for language teaching?'' He starts off with a somewhat negative tone, stating that ''Lourdes Ortega has made the modest claim that SLA research can sharpen teaching and invigorate teachers'' (p. 110), but that the conditions necessary for this to happen are rarely met in the classroom. The chapter goes on to present, explain in greater detail and then critique three major schools of thought related to SLA research in the classroom: grammar translation, audio-lingual, and communicative approaches. Of all the chapters, this one provides the deepest analysis of its topics. It provides clear explanations and examples, mentions the pros and cons of each method, and has summary boxes for quick, easy-to-read information.

The name of the final chapter, ''What are the goals of language teaching?'' is rather misleading. Instead of containing material based on the title, Cook writes a very interesting overview of different types of languages, who studies them and why. In my opinion this makes the content more learner-related than teacher-focused. In fact, this chapter would have served very well as the introduction to the entire book. It begins by introducing and explaining Abram de Swaan’s (2001) hierarchy of languages from local to global: peripheral, central, super-central and hyper-central, the last of which there is only one on the planet, English (pp. 126-7).

Cook continues by describing his classification of the six groups of L2 users: ''people who are part of multilingual communities (p. 127); ''people regaining their cultural heritage'' (p. 128); ''short-term visitors to another country'' (p. 129); people using an L2 socially (p. 129); and ''people using an L2 internationally for specific or general functions'' (pp. 130-1). Next is a very short section on whether or not English is a hyper-central language or lingua franca (p. 132). Cook then provides a list of features of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) (see Seidlhofer, 2004), which are very similar to both inter-language productions of speech by L2 learners of English and certain English-based linguistic characteristics related to universal grammar and innateness theories. This leads to a good question -- do people learn a language to sound like and interact with native speakers or to be able to communicate with other non-native speakers in a third, mutually-known language (p. 132)?

The chapter wraps up with an analysis of different groups of language learners, a section that could have also been placed in Chapter 6. The groups are compulsory learners for immigration purposes, forced school-based learning, and learning a language voluntarily. The chapter ends with a discussion on differences between native speakers and L2 users, as well as a description of standardized exam systems like IELTS, TOEFL and CEFR, which seem slightly misplaced.


The authors write that they wanted a text whose chapters could stand alone and be read in any order based on the needs and interests of the reader. As a result, each chapter addresses only one topic, requires no background knowledge on the subject, and functions well independently, making the text very approachable to a novice in the field of SLA. Because of this, the book does not come across as highly academic, and the level of language used is quite suitable for high school students or college freshmen getting their first glimpse into the field of SLA. Another aspect of the easy-to-read format is the use of text boxes throughout the book. They contain a variety of items such as starter questions, examples and explanations, bullet point summaries, data tables and discussion questions.

Despite its accessibility, there are some issues with the book. In the introduction, the authors state, ''This book assumes that the acquisition and use of second languages is a normal part of human life, something that needs looking at scientifically because we know little about it and often depend upon folk wisdom for our views about it'' (p. xi). I understand this to mean that the text will focus on clarifying matters by avoiding folk wisdom. However, there are several areas where the chapters present generalizations that can really confuse and bias a novice reader. For example, in Chapter 1, the statement ''People who speak only one language tend to assume that bilingualism is a problem'' (p. 5) is followed by no evidence or further explanation. In the section L2 users think differently, an attempt is made to validate the claim ''where an English eye sees one colour [blue], speakers of other languages see two'' (p. 6). This is reminiscent of the now disproven belief that Yup'ik Eskimos use 50 words to refer to snow (see Martin, 1986; Pullum, 1989; Woodbury 1991).

Another broad and misleading generalization is ''One of the obvious changes in people who know more than two languages is a better feel for language in general'' (p. 7). This is seemingly validated by a list of bilingual writers whose success is attributed solely to the fact they are bilingual. In my opinion, this dismisses all of the accomplished authors, poets, playwrights, and composers throughout history who were or are monolingual. The text provides examples that become more and more anti-monolingual and anti-English, culminating in the statement ''In a sense, bilingual children believe a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, while monolinguals are unconvinced'' (p. 8). Such a statement that is not supported with any empirical evidence does not belong in a text aimed at educating novices to the field of SLA.

One minor issue, which is more aesthetic than content-related, is that the two authors conclude their chapters slightly differently. Singleton ends each of his chapters with a summary box that offers a bulleted review, some concluding remarks, a few postscript questions and a list of further suggested readings. Cook, on the other hand, omits concluding remarks, which are beneficial in that they further clarify each chapter’s content. It does not make sense to me to only include these brief but helpful paragraphs in only half of the chapters. It would have been more logical to include them in every chapter to both assist reader comprehension and keep the format of the chapters parallel.

I found the use of Chicago Manual of Style (Turabian), where all in-text citations are indicated by a footnote and then fully referenced at the end of every chapter to be distracting. Often, I found myself asking, “What research is this based upon?” so I frequently had to flip to the end of each chapter to read who made a particular claim and in what context, which disrupted the flow of reading. Related to this, many of the sources cited were not current. Of course, referring to important seminal studies is warranted, but general studies from more than 20 or 30 years ago make the information seem outdated.

Many of the topics were only briefly touched upon, and as a result, the reader will have to explore them in more depth elsewhere. There is a great deal of interesting information, but I feel that the authors often try to undermine accepted theories without evidence. Also, the last chapter would be logical as the first one, especially since this is an introductory text.

In conclusion, Cook and Singleton’s book succinctly addresses many pressing questions asked by both novices and experts in the field of SLA and could be a useful tool in an introductory SLA course. However, the book should not be read without the guidance of someone very familiar with the field of SLA, since many of its claims and examples are not supported with empirical evidence and come across as contrary to the findings and beliefs of many of the currently and historically accepted schools of thought on SLA theory.


Berry, J.W. 1980. 'Acculturation as varieties of adaptation'. In A.M. Padilla (Ed.), Acculturation: Theory, models and some new findings. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 9-25.

Brooks, G., Gorman, T., and Kendall, L. (1993). 'Spelling it out: The spelling abilities of 11- and 15-year olds. Slough: NFER.

de Swaan, A. 2001. 'Words of the world: The global language system'. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Dörnyei, Z. 2001. 'New themes and approaches in second language motivation research'. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 21: 43-59.

Gardner, R.C. 1985. 'Social psychology and second language learning: The role of attitudes and motivation'. London: Edward Arnold.

Hulstijn, J. 1992. 'Retention of inferred and given word meanings: Experiments in incidental vocabulary learning'. In P. Arnaud and H. Béjoint (Eds.), Vocabulary and Applied Linguistics. Houndmills: Macmillan, pp. 113-125.

Krashen, S. 1989. 'We acquire vocabulary and spelling by reading: Additional evidence for the input hypothesis'. Modern Language Journal 73 (4): 440-464.

Lenneberg, E.H. 1967. 'Biological foundations of language'. New York: Wiley.

Martin, L. 1986. 'Eskimo words for snow: a case study in the genesis and decay of an anthropological example'. American Anthropologist 89, 2 (June): 443-444.

Pullum, G. K. 1989. 'The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax'. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 7 (2): 275-281.

Schouten-van Parreren, C. 1992. 'Individual differences in vocabulary acquisition: A qualitative experiment in the first phase of secondary education'. In P. Arnaud and H. Béjoint (Eds.) Vocabulary and Applied Linguistics. Houndmills: Macmillan, pp. 94-101.

Schumann, J.H. 1986. 'Research on the acculturation model for second language acquisition'. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 7 (5): 379-392.
Seidlhofer, B. 2004. 'Research perspectives on teaching English as a lingua franca'. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 24: 209-239.

Weinreich, U. 1953. 'Languages in contact'. The Hague: Mouton.

Woodbury, A.C. 1991, July. 'Counting Eskimo words for snow: A citizen's guide [to] lexemes referring to snow and snow-related notions in Steven A. Jacobson's (1984) Yup'ik Eskimo dictionary'. Retrieved from


Robert received his PhD in Second Language Acquisition & Teaching from The University of Arizona majoring in sociolinguistics and minoring in pedagogy and program administration. He began his career in education 20 years ago when he taught ESL at a farm worker's camp for Literacy Volunteers of America. Since then, he has worked as an administrator, teacher trainer and classroom instructor in university IEPs, community colleges, adult education centers and public high schools in Miami Florida, Nogales Mexico, Madrid Spain, Dubai United Arab Emirates, and Guangzhou China. He enjoys teaching all aspects of the English language, and his research interests include teaching writing, peer review, Generation 1.5 students, and CALL.

Page Updated: 15-Dec-2014