LINGUIST List 28.555

Mon Jan 30 2017

Review: Applied Ling; Lang Acquisition: Wen (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 25-Sep-2016
From: Akiko Kashiwagi-Wood <kashiwagoakland.eduu>
Subject: Working Memory and Second Language Learning
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Zhisheng (Edward) Wen
TITLE: Working Memory and Second Language Learning
SUBTITLE: Towards an Integrated Approach
SERIES TITLE: Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Akiko Kashiwagi-Wood, Oakland University

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Zhisheng (Edward) Wen’s book, entitled “Working memory and second language learning: Towards an integrated approach”, is divided into three parts following an introductory chapter, which provides a scope of the book as well as introducing the issues of working memory (WM) research within the field of second language acquisition (SLA). Part I (Chapters 2 and 3) provides the theoretical and methodological background of WM research. Part II (Chapters 4 and 5) focuses on summarizing the past first language (L1) and second language (L2) WM research and points out their shortcomings and issues. Then, in Part III (Chapters 6-10), Wen starts by re-conceptualizing and redefining WM for L2 research (Chapter 6), followed by a proposal of his integrated Phonological/Executive model (Chapter 7). Chapter 8 explores how the new model may illuminate L2 task performance research. Chapter 9 shifts its focus from SLA, processing, and performance to the relationship between WM and L2 language aptitude. The concluding section, Chapter 10, summarizes the previous chapters and presents ideas for future research.

The book has brought together a number of influential WM studies that contributed to the field of applied linguistics. Additionally, the book introduces Wen’s ‘integrated perspective’ on WM and SLA, which is a new conceptual WM framework with SLA specifically in mind. Thus, although it is not specified, this book is suitable for expert scholars who want to find out about Wen’s integrated Phonological/Executive model, as well as students of both memory and language. In the following, I will give a brief summary of each chapter.

Chapter 1 “Introduction and Overview” is dedicated to providing the research scope, themes, and issues discussed in the book. Wen talks briefly about each chapter and how they are related to WM. In the beginning of the chapter, he lays out two motivations for writing the book. One of the motivations is to “review and evaluate the extent to which the cognitive construct of WM plays a central role in L2 acquisition as an aptitude component (p.2).” His second motivation is “to elucidate the cognitive underpinning of L2 task planning and speech performance by specifying the possible effects of the WM functions independently or in combination with the task features or designs (p.4).” The last section of Chapter 1 provides an outline of the book providing a brief introduction of each chapter. Additionally, he states that the aim of the book is to introduce a principled approach to WM in L2 research.

Chapter 2 “ Working Memory Theories and Models” provides the theoretical background of WM and its development over the past several decades. He goes back to William James (1890)’s concepts of ‘primary’ memory and ‘secondary’ memory connecting them to ‘short-term’ memory and ‘long-term’ memory. Wen, then discusses perhaps the most influential model in the history of WM research: Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch (1974)’s multicomponent model of WM and its development into current WM models. WM, in general, is considered to be comprised of a phonological loop and a visuospatial sketchpad, which are both regulated by a supervisory system, i.e. central executive and an episodic buffer. There are a number of tables and figures throughout the book, but the tables in this chapter provide commonalities and differences among the 10 current WM models focusing on whether it takes unitary vs. non-unitary system(s), sources of causing limitations in WM, role of WM in cognitive activities, basic mechanism and representations, control and regulation of WM, relationship between WM and attention, links to LTM, and biological implementation. Despite diverse images presented from different models of what WM is supposed to be, Wen summarizes 6 common themes drawn from the models: 1) WM is not a structurally separate ‘box’ or ‘place’ in mind or brain, 2) the maintenance function of WM serves complex cognition, 3) executive control is integral to WM functions, 4) the limited capacity of WM reflects multiple factors and may even be an emergent property of human cognition, 5) a completely unitary, domain–general view of WM does not hold, 6) long-term memory forms an integral part of the WM system. He states the limitations of current WM models, and he concludes the chapter by pointing out the necessity to form a more integrated approach to WM, which works for both L1 and L2.

Chapter 3 “ Working Memory Measures and Issues” introduces different measures that are utilized in WM research. The simple memory span tasks, such as the digit span task and letter/word span task, are suited for measuring phonological short-term memory and thus in particular used for the acquisition and development of vocabulary. The complex memory span tasks, such as the reading span task, the speaking span task, and the operation span task, are suited for measuring the executive component of WM and thus, in particular used in acquisition and development of reading and listening comprehension. Wen, then brings us to the issues surrounding WM measures. Two issues discussed in the chapter are: 1) the construct that underlies individual differences in WM and 2) which individual differences in WM are domain-specific or domain-general. He also mentions methodological issues (reliability and validity).

Chapter 4 “Working Memory in First Language Research” introduces well established L1 WM research in Europe and in the USA. The European L1 WM research focuses on the role of phonological working memory in vocabulary acquisition and grammar development. The USA L1 WM research focuses on executive working memory in comprehension and production. The chapter further considers linguistic theories and language processing models. Wen explains O’Grady’s (2012) model, which places the non-grammatical domain-general processor in the human language faculty (‘processing amelioration/determinism’ (p.53)) as well as Jackendoff’s (2002) parallel architecture, which treats phonology, syntax and semantics as independent generative components, but linked by interface rules. Gibson’s ‘Dependency Locality Theory’ is also introduced as a theory, which specifies operationalizing and measuring of WM by considering that the complexity of a sentence’s structural integration can be taken by the locality and distance of the new referents and the number of events that intervene between a head element and its dependent structure.

Chapter 5 “Working Memory in Second Language Research” has a 7-page table, which compiles an impressive 80 studies that investigated the effects of WM on different areas of SLA. The table has 5 columns: 1) Authors, 2) Participants (age and proficiency), 3) Target WM components and WM measures, 4) Research design and methodology and 5) Results and findings. The last section offers a critique of the current WM-L2 acquisition studies. Wen expresses the view that current L2 WM research has many issues. One of the issues is the term ‘working memory’ denoting different factors or components of the same construct among studies. Another issue is methodological considerations. He asserts that some studies adopt inappropriate measures for the research intent. The third issue that Wen raises is that research objectives and research design of some studies have ignored possible effects of WM such as L2 proficiency and planning time in task completion. He ends the chapter with a strong sense of the need to “develop a more principled approach to conceptualizing and operationalizing the WM construct in SLA so that future research can be based on a more solid theoretical foundation (p.76).”

Chapter 6 “An Integrated Framework of Working Memory and SLA Research” is the first chapter of Part III. The chapter attempts to re-conceptualize and redefine WM in SLA research. Wen postulated that the construct of WM consists of multiple components, with the emphasis on phonological WM and executive WM due to their relevance to SLA, and that components are associated with multiple mechanisms/functions for complex L2 cognitive tasks.

Chapter 7 “Working Memory in L2 Acquisition and Processing: The P/E Model” presents Wen’s integrated WM theory for SLA. In this theory, phonological working memory is a “(ST-) WM sub-component that subsumes the phonological short-term store and the articulatory rehearsal mechanism, and is postulated to be closely linked to the efficiency of acquiring novel (but not familiar) phonological forms and to play an instrumental role in the retention and consolidation of serial-order information (p.108).” The P/E model posits that executive working memory is “mediating the attention-regulating mechanisms and is drawn upon during cognitively demanding L2 sub-skills learning and processing (p.108).” In the chapter, Wen proposes two P/E model figures: One for Low and (post-) intermediate L2 learners and one for advanced/native like L2 learners/L1 learners. Wen also proposes 4 principles that serve as guidelines for practical SLA research.

Chapter 8 “Working Memory and Tasks in L2 Speech Performance” attempts to apply the P/E model to L2 speech performance research. Wen first reviews backgrounds for L2 task-based speech planning research in SLA. Giving L2 learners the opportunity to plan for the task generally provides positive effect on fluency and complexity in L2 speech, but not in accuracy. He asserts that executive WM should be linked more to the fluency measures and accuracy measures due to their required skills such as monitoring and self-repairing.

Chapter 9 “Working Memory and Language Aptitude in L2 Development” is dedicated to Wen’s argument that WM should be included as a central component of L2 aptitude. He states that L2 aptitude research has “lagged far behind that of other individual difference factors (p.135),” and theory and methodology have not developed much. Wen first reviews the major L2 aptitude models and then stated that incorporating WM into L2 aptitude will benefit L2 aptitude research. The major L2 aptitude models reviewed in the chapter were Carroll’s four-factor aptitude model (Carroll, 1962, 1981, 1990, 1993) and Skehan’s nine L2 cognitive processes (Skehan, 2016) as well as Robinson’s four aptitude complexes (Robinson, 2005, 2007, 2013) that are postulated to affect L2 acquisition. He then explains how the WM perspective complies with different criteria of L2 aptitude. He concludes the chapter by suggesting future research on ‘WM as L2 aptitude (p.140)’.

Chapter 10 “Conclusions and Implications for Future Research” summarizes the previous chapters and suggests a few SLA research topics with WM. In this short chapter, Wen first recaps the importance of an integrated perspective on WM and re-conceptualizes WM. He then mentions a few research topics related to WM in the field of SLA, such as developing more L2 oriented WM measurement, WM and production research, WM and L2 instruction and classroom practice.


Overall, the book provides an excellent overview for WM research in SLA. The book defines core terminologies used in the WM research in SLA and the table of 80 previous WM studies in SLA is impressive (Chapter 5) and provides well-rounded background references in research. Wen also provides a thorough analysis of different components of the WM in different aspects of L2. Since there has not been a comprehensive book which has focused on WM and SLA, this book is perfect for undergraduate and graduate students in the field of SLA.

One of the goals of this book is to ‘propose’ a new integrated model of WM for L2. The P/E model may be promising; it seems to capture unique stages of L2 development by proposing separate versions of the P/E model: one for beginner/intermediate L2 learners and one for children and adults with advanced/native-like L2 proficiency based on the findings of previous studies. It was rather disappointing, however, to find that no empirical research is provided to support or examine the model. Chapter 8 attempts to apply the model in L2 speech performance, but it stopped at the point of just providing the possibility of applicability of the P/E model in L2 speech performance research. On top of that, Chapter 9, which focused on L2 aptitude, seems quite a shift from the previous chapters, which focused on SLA and the P/E model. Obviously, WM could be one factor of language aptitude in L2 development. However, I had difficulty connecting the P/E model, introduced in Chapter 7, which is then applied in Chapter 8, with Chapter 9.

Because most of the previous studies of WM in SLA are conducted to investigate the effect on vocabulary acquisition and sentence comprehension of different L2 proficiency levels (Chapters 4 and 5), it would have been valuable to reevaluate the previous studies from the perspective of the P/E model and examined its applicability. Additionally, it would have been informative if Wen had discussed the P/E model with different proficiency level learners since different versions are proposed for different proficiency levels. In sum, the book could have been much stronger, if the P/E model was used to reevaluate previous studies and was supported by empirical evidence.

To conclude, this book is highly recommended to scholars and students in the field of second language acquisition and cognitive psychology.


Baddeley, Alan David & Hitch, Graham. 1974. Working memory. In G.H. Bower (ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory, vol. 8, 47–89. New York: Academic Press.

Carroll, John Bissell. 1962. The prediction of success in intensive foreign language training. Pittsburgh, PA: Training Research and Education, University of Pittsburgh Press.

Carroll, John Bissell. 1981. Twenty‐five years of research on foreign language aptitude. In K. C. Diller (ed.), Individual differences and universals in language learning aptitude, 83–118. Rowley, MA: New-bury House.

Carroll, John Bissell. 1990. Cognitive abilities in foreign language aptitude: Then and now. In Thomas Parry & Charles Stansfield (eds.), Language Aptitude Reconsidered, 11–29. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Carroll, John Bissell. 1993. Human cognitive abilities: A survey of factor‐analytic studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

James, Williams. 1890. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt.

Jackendoff, Ray. 2002. Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O’Grady, William. 2012. Three factors in the design and acquisition of language. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 3. 493-499.

Robinson, Peter. 2005. Aptitude and second language acquisition. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 25. 46-73.

Robinson, Peter. 2007. Aptitudes, abilities, contexts, and practice. In Robert Dekeyser (ed.), Practice in a Second Language: Perspectives from Applied Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology, 256-286. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robinson, Peter. 2013. Aptitude in second language acquisition. In Carol Chapelle (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, 129-133. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Skehan, Peter. 2016. Foreign language aptitude, acquisitional sequences, and psycholinguistic processes. In Gisela Granena, Daniel Jackson and Yucel Yilmaz (eds.), Cognitive Individual Differences in L2 Processing and Acquisition. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. (forthcoming)


Akiko Kashiwagi-Wood received PhD from the East Asian Languages and Literatures from The Ohio State University. Her research interests include the examination of the possibilities and limitations related to individual differences, including working memory, in online processing of adult learners, particularly by L2 Japanese learners. Additionally she is interested in examining the developmental stages of Japanese as foreign language acquisition as well as pedagogy. She is currently employed as Assistant Professor of Japanese at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, USA.

Page Updated: 30-Jan-2017