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Review of  Universal Grammar and the Second Language Classroom

Reviewer: Alexandra Galani
Book Title: Universal Grammar and the Second Language Classroom
Book Author: Melinda Whong Kook-Hee Gil Heather Marsden
Publisher: Springer Nature
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 25.2303

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The book is a collection of twelve chapters, an editors’ introduction, eleven chapters organised in three parts, and an index (pp. 249-252). It aims to bridge the gap on how research on generative second language acquisition (GenSLA) can be applied to classroom language teaching, show whether Universal Grammar plays a crucial role in language acquisition and discuss other factors (e.g. processing, practice) which might further influence language acquisition and development. The book is addressed to researchers with backgrounds on Generative Second Language Acquisition, on instructed Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and it could be further used as a textbook for advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students in second language acquisition and/or applied linguistics.

Introduction (pp. 1-13)
This chapter introduces the fundamental issues in the volume, first introducing the aims before offering a brief discussion of Generative Linguistic Theory and Generative Second Language Acquisition. The editors round off the discussion by outlining the volume and each chapter.

Part I: GenSLA applied to the classroom (pp. 17-114)
In Part I, authors discuss the problems raised in the acquisition of a wide range of linguistic phenomena by various L1/L2 speakers. They conclude that explicit teaching and highly qualified second language teachers play an important role in language acquisition and development.

Chapter 2: “What research can tell us about teaching: The case of pronouns and clitics” by Joyce Bruhn de Garavito (pp. 17-34)
Bruhn de Garavito discusses clitics and pronouns in Spanish, showing is a gap in the way clitics and pronouns are presented in textbooks and, consequently, how they are taught in class. She suggests that generative linguistics can add valuable information e.g. as to how L1 and L2 learners learn languages, the knowledge they carry from their L1 and how language works. She concludes with remarks on what second language teachers should avoid in classroom teaching and what they need to put emphasis on, when teaching Spanish.

Chapter 3: “L2 acquisition of null subjects in Japanese: A new generative perspective and its pedagogical implications” by Mika Kizu (pp. 35-55)
Kizu examines null subjects in Japanese, specifically the choices L2 students make in identifying the referent in 1st, 2nd and 3rd person constructions depending on discourse agreement, following Hasegawa (2009). She first briefly sketches previous analyses of null subjects in Japanese and then focuses on Hasegawa’s analysis for which she brings experimental evidence. She finds that the acquisition of null subjects by L2 learners is difficult not only due to their syntactic nature but also due to their limited discussion in textbooks. She suggests that the focus on form method (a method which focuses on the grammatical forms of language features) should be followed in classrooms where students are gradually introduced to structures on null-subjects depending on their level of proficiency. For example, beginners can taught structures including generalisations they can make on lexical items, whereas more advanced students can be taught structures involving pragmatic factors.

Chapter 4: “Verb movement in Generative SLA and the teaching of word order patterns” by Tom Rankin (pp. 57-76)
Rankin deals with the difficulties L2 learners face in acquiring English word order, focusing on structures involving verb movement. He first offers a brief overview on word order patterns in German and French and then presents studies (e.g. Schwartz and Sprouse (1994, 1996)) on the acquisition of word order in English by German, French and Norwegian learners. He shows that L1 grammar causes problems for the acquisition of word order in English and suggests that it needs to be explicitly taught. He proposes a grammaring approach to teaching according to which students need to develop five skills: grammar, reading, writing, speaking and listening. Students are encouraged to analyse structures by combining form, meaning and use in order to formulate their own rules. The advantages of this approach are that it is student-oriented (it addresses students’ needs at different levels in different classroom settings), can be guided by second language teachers, can be incorporated in the syllabus and can be combined with various activities (e.g. vocabulary, text production, editing, interactive tasks, oral communication).

Chapter 5: “Modifying the teaching of modifiers: A lesson from Universal Grammar” by David Stringer (pp. 77-100)
Stringer discusses the acquisition of modifier word order in English, specifically the acquisition of adjectival and prepositional multiple modifiers by L2 Korean, Chinese, Turkish, Japanese and Arabic speakers. He examines whether L1 plays a crucial role in the acquisition of these structures in English and whether teaching materials and syllabuses need to be implemented accordingly. Experimental results show that all L2 learners can easily acquire the syntax of prepositional modifiers, suggesting that L2 learners have access to a universal hierarchy and, consequently, their ordering need not to be taught in class. Nevertheless, he finds that the acquisition of multiple modifiers’ order is more complex and different adjectival groups require explicit instruction.

Chapter 6: “The syntax-discourse interface and the interface between Generative Theory and pedagogical approaches to SLA” by Elena Valenzuela and Bede McCormack (pp. 101-114)
The authors examine the interface of syntax with discourse by looking at the acquisition of topic-comment structures by L1 English L2 Spanish speakers and L1 Spanish L2 English speakers. They find that teachers’ knowledge of the semantic notions involved in the realisation-interpretation of clitics plays an important role in students’ understanding, as teachers may improve the material taught in class (e.g. through appropriate use of examples). They also find that students’ increased exposure to relevant structures may also improve their performance.

Part II: GenSLA and classroom research (pp. 117-183)
In Part II, the authors discuss how effective explicit instruction is, by presenting the results of empirical classroom studies.

Chapter 7: “Alternations and argument structure in second language English: Knowledge of two types of intransitive verbs” by Makiko Hirakawa (pp. 117-137)
Hirakawa examines the acquisition of unaccusative and unergatives verbs by L1 Japanese L2 English speakers. She offers an overview of Burzio’s (1986) Unaccusativity Hypothesis and Sorace’s (2000) Universal Auxiliary Selection Hypothesis before presenting the results of her classroom research, showing that teachers’ awareness of the linguistic differences of theme roles may help students overcome overpassivisation errors. She finds that teaching of the verbal categories benefits from explicit instruction.

Chapter 8: “Quantifiers: Form and meaning in second language development” by Kook-Hee Gil, Heather Marsden and Melinda Whong (pp. 139-159)
The authors first discuss previous research on the acquisition of quantifiers in a number of languages in the literature (e.g. Dekydtspotter et al. (2001) for English speakers of French).The studies show that quantifiers are generally hard to acquire and consequently this raises the question of whether implicit instruction may help learners’ acquisition. Nevertheless, in their pilot study (Chinese students of English), Gil et al. find no evidence for the positive effects of explicitly teaching quantifiers. The authors, nonetheless, identify the need for collaborative work between GenSLA and language pedagogy as far as different methodological challenges in classroom research are concerned (e.g. student numbers, attendance, background, etc.).

Chapter 9: “Explicit article instruction in definitess, specificity, genericity and perception” by Neal Snape and Noriaki Yusa (pp. 161-183)
Snape and Yusa investigate the effectiveness of explicit instruction in the acquisition of the indefinite and definite articles in English by L1 Japanese speakers. The explicit instruction focused on the properties of definiteness, specificity, genericity and perception. Results of a pilot study show that explicit instruction has no significant results on the participants’ performance. Nevertheless, explicit instruction has positive results on the perception of articles, which may lead to better article comprehension in the long run.

Part III: GenSLA, the language classroom and beyond (pp.187-247)
In Part III, additional factors which may influence language acquisition and development and which have not been extensively discussed in the generative literature, are presented.

Chapter 10: “Whether to teach and how to teach complex linguistic structures in a second language” by Roumyana Slabakova and María del Pilar García Mayo (pp. 187-205)
The authors review previous studies in the literature to show that the acquisition of meaning is easier than the acquisition of syntactic structures or inflectional morphology because pragmatic and semantic meanings are universal. They examine scalar implicatures and conclude that the more students practice, the better understanding they have. Finally, they claim that linguistic materials used in experiments can and should be used in classroom activities to enhance student awareness of the structures.

Chapter 11: “Great expectations in phonology? Second language acquisition research and its relation to the teaching of older and younger learners” by Martha Young-Scholten (pp. 207-229)
Young-Scholten examines the factors which affect phonological acquisition. She first discusses the influence of L1 phonology, the universal phonological constraints and the results of longitudinal studies of post-puberty L2 phonology (e.g. Smith (1973), Rose (2000)). She concludes that several factors influence L2 phonological acquisition,. varying from native-accented input to age-targeted input and delayed orthographic input.

Chapter 12: “Applied Generative SLA: The need for an agenda and a methodology” by Melinda Whong (pp. 231-247)
In the final chapter, Whong links the volume’s main points to general questions concerning GenSLA and language pedagogy. She proposes that GenSLA research should be applied to language teaching classrooms. GenSLA research sheds light on difficult areas of linguistic acquisition and student learning will benefit from teachers’ linguistic awareness (e.g. choose the right examples, implement teaching material, explain complex structures, decide what to teach and what not on different levels). GenSLA research should be extended to issues raised in classrooms, not just theoretically oriented. GenSLA should be further concerned with what can be learnt and what cannot as a result of the influence of positive and/or negative evidence in teaching. Finally, Whong addresses methodological problems raised in classroom research (e.g. students background and experience, level of proficiency). She concludes that it may be time to look at a new area in Applied Linguistics: the Applied Generative Second Language Acquisition.

The editors bring together papers covering a wide range of phenomena, explained concisely and generally well-exemplified. The theoretical discussion, though, could have benefited from richer exemplification at points. Despite the fact that the majority of the chapters examine syntactic structures, chapters which treat interfaces (syntax, semantics, discourse/pragmatics) as well as phonology are also included. The book mainly deals with the acquisition of L1 and/or L2 English, Japanese and Chinese. Nonetheless, the discussion is enriched by papers reviewing the acquisition of English by Spanish, German and Arabic speakers, which helps the book cohere.

The chapters are well-organised and referenced, and there are good cross-references. All chapters stress complexity, highlight problems second language teachers face in classrooms and suggest whether or not explicit teaching may contribute to knowledge. Readers have a chance to explore the different tests and strategies used in experimental studies.

Central to the book’s value and strength is that it discusses the gap in linking generative linguistics to language pedagogy, the need to make (theoretical) GenSLA accessible to second language teachers. It shows how findings from GenSLA can improve teaching and, consequently, language acquisition and development.

This book will be of great interest to researchers in GenSLA, language pedagogy and advanced students in linguistics. Second language teachers will also benefit, although the theoretical discussion may be somewhat advanced for those lacking a solid linguistic background. It can also be used as a reference book. It shows the need for research on combining GenSLA to classroom teaching. It surely opens the field for interdisciplinary research in all areas all linguistics and all areas in language pedagogy.

Burzio, Luigi. 1986. Italian Syntax. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Dekydtspotter, L. A. R. A. Sprouse and K. A. Swanson. 2001. “Reflexes of Mental Architecture in Second-Language Acquisition: The Interpretation of Combien Extractions in English-French Interlanguage”. Language Acquisition 9(3): 175-227.

Hasegawa, N. 2009. “Agreement at the CP Level: Clause Types and the ‘Person’ Restriction on the Subject”. In MIT Working Papers in Linguistics: Proceedings of the Workshop on Altaic Formal Linguistics, vol. 5, pp. 313-152.

Rose, Y. 2000. Headedness and prosodic Licensing in the L1 acquisition of phonology. Ph.D. dissertation, McGill University.

Schwartz, B. D. and R. Sprouse. 1994. “Word order and nominative case in non-native language acquisition: A longitudinal study of (L1 Turkish) German interlanguage”. In T. Hoekstra and B. D. Schwartz (Eds.), Language acquisition studies in generative grammar, pp. 317-368. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Schwartz, B. D. and R. Sprouse. 1996. “L2 cognitive states and the full transfer/full access model”. Second Language Research 12(1): 40-72.

Smith, N. V. 1973. The acquisition of phonology: A case study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sorace, A. 2000. “Gradients in auxiliary selection with intransitive verbs”. Language 76: 859-890.
Alexandra Galani is a permanent member of the academic staff at the University of Ioannina. Her main research interests are in morphology, its interfaces and language acquisition.