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Review of  Theories in Second Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Robert Arthur Cote
Book Title: Theories in Second Language Acquisition
Book Author: Bill VanPatten Jessica Williams
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 27.817

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Reviews Editor: Sara Couture


'Theories in Second Language Acquisition: An Introduction' is an informative yet challenging text comprised of thirteen chapters written by some of the field’s most notable authors who explore various topics in SLA. Although it is described as a text written for the novice reader, there is an overwhelming variety of complex topics, and the reader will likely require previous knowledge of the SLA field in order to fully access much of the content.

VanPatten and Williams begin Chapter 1, ''Introduction: The nature of theories'', by defining necessary terms that will be utilized throughout the rest of the book. These include basic words like theory, model, hypothesis, constructs, and explicit and implicit learning and knowledge. This chapter also introduces 10 possible essential observable phenomena that can be identified in different theories of SLA (pp. 29-30). These observations are as follows:

''Exposure to input is necessary for SLA'' (p. 9).
''A good deal of SLA happens incidentally'' (p. 9).
''Learners come to know more than what they have been exposed to in the input'' (p. 9)
''Learners output (speech) often follows predictable paths with predictable stages in the acquisition of a given structure'' (p. 10).
''Second language learning is variable in its outcome'' (p. 10).
''Second language learning is variable across linguistic subsystems'' (p. 10).
''There are limits on the effects of frequency on SLA'' (p. 10).
''There are limits on the effect of a learner’s first language on SLA'' (p. 11).
''There are limits on the effects of instruction on SLA'' (p. 11).
''There are limits on the effects of output (learner production) on language acquisition'' (p. 11).

This chapter defines and further explains the observable phenomena as they relate to SLA. They are important to note because they are all referred back to throughout the remaining chapters whenever a particular theory involves any of them. It is important for the reader to realize that not all theories are comprised of all 10 of the phenomena. Due to the general nature of Chapter 1, it is very accessible to most readers.

The editors continue explaining basic SLA terminology and information in Chapter 2, ''Early theories in SLA''. Here, they explore the major, seminal theories in the field including behaviorism/structural linguistics and Krashen’s Monitor Theory (see Krashen, 1985). The behaviorist topics include classical conditioning, its associated role of stimuli frequency, and the reality of the extinction of abilities due to lack of exposure and/or use (p. 18). Operant or behavioral conditioning is also mentioned, stating that with regards to language learning, ''Active participation by the learner is considered a crucial element of the learning process'' (p. 19). This section also mentions L1 to L2 language transfer, interference, and degree of contrast.

Chapter 2 continues with Krashen’s Monitor Theory. Distinctions are made between language learning and language acquisition, and the three major hypotheses – Natural Order Hypothesis, Input, and Affective Filter – are briefly introduced. It is interesting to note that in the chapter’s conclusion, the author’s mention the theory and its component parts having ''considerable criticism over the years'' (p. 31), but then go on to state ''yet for many practitioners (and learners), the most powerful evidence for Monitor Theory is their own experience'' (p. 31).

Chapter 3, ''Linguistic theory, universal grammar, and second language acquisition'' by White, investigates the topics of linguistic competence, Universal Grammar (UG), poverty-of-the-stimulus, and interlanguage. The chapter is difficult material to digest for a novice, and in my opinion, this chapter should have been placed further back in the book to avoid scaring away less knowledgeable readers. Early on, the chapter focuses on how children become fluent in their L1, whereas adult learners of second languages do not in their L2. The chapter brings up the notion of an innate, 'unconscious knowledge [that] does not have to be learned in the course of L1 acquisition; it is derived from UG' (p. 34). It explains that children also have the ability to create original and unique utterances that are grammatically correct without having heard them before (poverty-of-the-stimulus). On the other hand, adult second language learners exhibit interlanguage, a systematic and rule-governed language competence that does not adhere to the linguistic rules of the target language (p. 36) (see Selinker, 1972).

Chapter 3 also explores in detail ''four common areas of misunderstanding about generative SLA research'' (p. 41). These include ''the scope of the theory, lack of native-like success in L2, transfer and methodology'' (p. 41). This section of the chapter is well-written and clear for all readers.

One challenging aspect of this chapter is the use of wh-movement in both English and Chinese as examples. It seems to me that the reader would need a solid background in English (and/or Chinese) syntax to fully understand these explanations. Another difficult concept is Government and Binding Theory (see Chomsky, 1981) and its principles, parameters and constraints components. These are all explained in one page, a daunting concept to absorb so briefly.

In Chapter 4, ''One functional approach to SLA'', Bardovi-Harlig begins by defining functionalist approaches to language as those in which ''language is primarily used for communication and does not exist without language users'' (p. 54). The chapter gives good explanations of the function-to-form, also known as concept oriented, approach which ''identifies one function, concept, or meaning and investigates how it is expressed'' (p. 54). The focus here ''is that adult learners of second or foreign languages have access to the full range of semantic concepts from their previous linguistic and cognitive experience'' (p. 55). The challenge for the speaker is utilizing this knowledge and knowing when and how to correctly apply and express it. The chapter explores longitudinal research studies aimed at observing productive speech or output, in particular, reverse-order-reports or retelling of stories by second language learners. The most important findings include ''how various linguistic means convey temporal reference, how they relate to each other, and how the balance changes over time'' (p. 68).

Ellis and Wulff focus on ''Usage-based approaches to SLA'' in Chapter 5, initially stating that language learning is primarily based on learners’ exposure to the target language and that learners induce the rules of their L2 by using general cognitive mechanisms (p. 75). The approaches discussed are so varied that the authors caution they should be considered more of a framework than a theory. Usage-based approaches are composed of the following five constructs: constructions, associative language learning, rational cognitive processing, exemplar-based learning (connectionism), and emergent relations and patterns (pp. 75-76). All are explained in further detail in the first half of the chapter.

Although usage-based approaches are strongly supported by reliable corpus-based analyses, there are several misunderstandings regarding them, especially related to exemplar-based learning. These include labeling usage-based approaches as a new form of behaviorism, ''that connectionist models cannot explain creativity and have no regard for internal representation, and that cognitive approaches deny influence of social factors, motivational aspects, and other individual differences between learners'' (p. 84). However, the chapter shows that eight of the ten observable phenomena in SLA are present in this usage-based framework. Overall, this is one of the most accessible chapters.

In Chapter 6, ''Skill acquisition theory'', DeKeyser ''accounts for how people progress in learning a variety of skills, from initial learning to advanced proficiency'' (p. 94), and that this is done via three stages of development known in the literature by varying names: cognitive, associative and autonomous (see Fitts & Posner, 1967); declarative, procedural, and automatic (see Anderson, 2007); or presentation, practice and production (see Byrne, 1986) (p. 95). It is important to note that these stages can be applied to learning any number of skills, not just language. The key element that allows someone to progress from one stage to the next is automatization as a result of extensive practice (see Segalowitz, 2010). The chapter also introduces the power law of learning, which ''describes the specific way reaction time and error rate decline as a function of practice…[where] power refers to the exponent in the mathematical equation describing the learning curve'' (p. 283).

Chapter 6 also mentions several shortcomings of Skill Acquisition Theory. One is the rarity of empirical research associated with the theory because of the large number of participants required and the length of time needed to conduct studies, both which result in copious data that require a great deal of time and manpower to analyze. Other issues are misunderstandings regarding the theory itself. These include the notion that Skill Acquisition Theory either ''explains everything about second language acquisition or nothing at all'' and ''that it is incompatible with a variety of empirical findings in the field'' (p. 101). DeKeyser clearly explains that both of these misunderstandings are simply not true.

VanPatten continues his contribution to the text by writing Chapter 7, ''Input processing in adult SLA'' where the general notion is that input processing (IP) should be viewed as a phenomenon that comprises ''one part of a complex set of processes that we call acquisition'' (p. 129). A fundamental assumption of IP is that ''acquisition cannot happen if comprehension does not occur'' because ''acquisition is dependent upon learners making appropriate form-meaning connections'' (p. 113). The author then leads the reader through an in-depth discussion of basic tenets of IP that address different aspects of creating successful form-meaning connections. This includes the following 10 principles: Primacy of Content Words, Lexical Preference, Preference for Non-redundancy, Meaning before Non-meaning, First-Noun, L1 Transfer, Event Probability, Lexical Semantic, Contextual Constraint, and Sentence Location (pp. 115-122).

VanPatten next presents research based on sentence interpretation tasks and eye-tracking studies as examples of evidence of IP. He continues by disproving numerous, erroneous assumptions concerning IP including the beliefs that IP “is a model of acquisition; discounts a role for output, social factors, and other matters; is equivalent to noticing; is a meaning-based approach to studying acquisition and ignores what we know about syntactic processes; is a pedagogical approach'' (pp. 124-25). All of these topics are clearly explained and thus accessible to all readers.

One final feature worthy of mention is the extensive list of notes provided at the end of the chapter. They are useful not only for the further explanations they give related to the chapter’s content, but they also offer further resources in addition to the suggested further reading and references.

Chapter 8, entitled ''The declarative/procedural model: A neurobiologically motivated theory of first and second language acquisition'' by Ullman, concentrates substantially on psycholinguistics, and novice readers will surely struggle with its content. There is a great deal of discussion on the anatomy and chemistry of the human brain and its declarative and procedural memory systems. There is also very transitory mention of Broca’s and Brodmann’s areas of the brain, as well as ''the famous patient H.M.''. However, no further information is provided about H.M., who suffered from medial temporal lobe (MTL) damage and whose memory disorder was studied by brain scientists for years (see for a brief overview).

The section on evidence to support the declarative/procedural model is the most extensive in the book. It presents correlational studies as behavioral evidence (p. 144-45), studies on brain lesions as neurological evidence (pp. 145-46), and brain measurement activities, or Event-Related Potentials (ERPs) as electrophysiological evidence (pp. 146-47). Lastly, PET (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) are provided as functional neuroimaging evidence (p. 147-48). Unfortunately, all of these complex topics would need to be researched elsewhere to obtain basic, simplified, foundational knowledge of the concepts before attempting to understand them in this chapter. Furthermore, not all of the information presented focuses on the neurological aspects of second language acquisition in particular, forcing the reader to look elsewhere (see Abutalebi, 2008).

In Chapter 9, Pienemann and Lenzing discuss ''Processability theory'', or PT, which is a theory of second language development whose core concepts are ''formed by a universal processability hierarchy based on Levelt’s (1989) approach to language production'' and ''is formally modeled using Lexical Functioning Grammar'' (p. 160) (see Bresnan 2001). The chapter relies quite heavily on grammar to explain PTs handling of second language issues including ''developmental problems (i.e., why learners follow universal stages of acquisition)'' and ''logical problems (i.e., how do learners come to know what they know if their knowledge is not represented in the input?)'' (p. 161).

Examples from English syntax continue in the section on Pienemann’s (1998) processability hierarchy, which ''is based on the notion of transfer of grammatical information within and between the phrases of a sentence'' (p. 161). The significance of the hierarchy, which contains six components or procedures, is based on the beliefs that ''every procedure is a necessary prerequisite for the next procedure, and the hierarchy mirrors the time-course in language generation. Therefore, the learner has no choice but to develop along this hierarchy'' (p. 163).

The chapter becomes more and more complex as it explores topics like hypothesis space, transfer of grammatical information and feature unification, lexical mapping, unmarked alignment, and the TOPIC hypothesis, and Multiple Constraints Hypothesis (MCH). Fortunately, not only are these concepts described in detail within the chapter, but most of them are also succinctly defined in the glossary at the back of the book for quicker and easier reference. Oddly, the chapter has no conclusion section.

Chapter 10, ''Input, interaction, and output in second language acquisition'' by Gass and Mackey, can be summed up as follows:
The central tenet of the approach is that interaction facilitates the process of acquiring a second language, as it provides learners with opportunities to receive modified input, to receive feedback, both explicitly and implicitly, which in turn may draw learners’ attention to problematic aspects of their interlanguage and push them to produce modified output. (p. 199)
The chapter presents various aspects of input and output hypotheses, including noticing, working memory, attention, interaction, negotiation for meaning, automaticity, and implicit and explicit feedback. One very useful approach is the use of real-world examples of spoken interaction in both English and Spanish. This brings the text to life by clearly demonstrating to the reader certain concepts.

Chapter 10 also mentions the importance of various types of empirical studies that support the claims associated with input, interaction and output. This includes studies having longitudinal and cross-sectional designs, case studies, and involving ''learners in a range of carefully planned tasks'' (p. 192). In fact, the authors provide one of their own studies as an example. Finally, there are seven pages of suggested further readings and references, the most of any chapter, giving the reader many options.

In Chapter 11, Lantolf, Thorne, and Poehner present a thorough explanation of ''Sociocultural theory and second language development''. The premise here is the undeniable importance of human interaction with others as well as with one’s physical surroundings, known as cultural artifacts. Historically significant names such as Hegel, Spinoza, Marx and Vygotsky are mentioned at the start of the chapter, and terms like private speech, internalization, and Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) are explored. The authors write that both lower and higher mental processes play important roles in language acquisition. One important focus is on second language ''development in instructed settings, where activities and environments may be intentionally organized according to theoretical principles in order to optimally guide developmental processes'' (p. 208). In fact, the authors state that ''higher order mental functions, including voluntary memory, logical thought, learning, and attention, are organized and amplified through participation in culturally organized activity'' (p. 221). Lastly, several pages are dedicated to Vygotsky and semiotics, symbols, and ZPD, all worthy of further exploration by the reader but beyond the scope of this review.

Larsen-Freeman wrote Chapter 12, ''Complexity theory'', which begins by explaining how the theory is typically used by scientists to describe and trace ''emerging patterns in dynamic systems in order to explain change and growth'' (p. 227) in non-language systems. Term such as self-organizing, open, adaptive, non-linearity and iteration are first introduced as they occur in non-linguistic settings and then applied to second language acquisition, however, only briefly. The chapter leaves the reader with unanswered questions regarding CT in a second language context, requiring further reading elsewhere. A good reference source is Larsen-Freeman & Cameron (2008), which provides more details on Complexity Theory and its role in ''language, language development, discourse and classroom interactions'' p. 240).

The sections on what counts as evidence and common misconceptions are short and do not address much in the way of second language acquisition. In addition, the longitudinal exemplary study by Eskildsen (2012) was based on only two participants, hardly a sufficient sample size to make any general deductions. The most comprehensive part of the chapter was the extensive explanation of observed findings in SLA, which included six of the ten.

The final Chapter, ''Second language learning explained? SLA across 10 contemporary theories'', by Ortega, differs greatly from the rest of the textbook in that it does not follow the same pattern of offering recurring sections that are addressed in each of the previous chapters. Instead, it provides brief summarizes of portions of each chapter as they relate to certain important topics in SLA. This includes language knowledge and cognition (pp. 246-250), interlanguage (pp. 251-54), the role of first language (pp. 254-256), linguistic environment (pp. 256-262), and the role of instruction (pp. 262-266). There are several informative and useful tables spread throughout the chapter, which serve as easy-to-read references. Ortega’s chapter plays an important role as a type of overall summary of the book, closing with areas of research she believes will need to be further explored in future SLA research.


There are many positive aspects of this book. One is the first chapter’s list of ten essential observable phenomena that can be identified in different theories of SLA (pp. 29-30). The ten phenomena are discussed in each subsequent chapter whenever they are relevant and observable. Another good component is the conformity of each chapter beginning with Chapter 2. There are numerous recurring sections that are addressed in every chapter as they relate to a specific topic including the following: The Theory and Its Constructs, What Counts as Evidence, Common Misunderstandings, Explanation of Observed Findings in SLA, the Explicit/Implicit Debate, and Exemplary Studies. Although the individual chapter themes may be very different, presenting them using the same format makes it easier for the reader to compare and contrast the different approaches to SLA.

Throughout the textbook, key terms are bolded, not only alerting the reader to their importance, but also because they are listed and further explained in the glossary at the end of the book. There are numerous discussion questions at the end of each chapter, as well as comprehensive lists of suggested further readings and references. Worthy of note is that many of the suggested further readings are immediately followed by a sentence describing their content and why they are worthy of reading. Finally, each chapter could stand alone or be read in any order based on the needs and interests of the reader. As a result, each chapter, except for Chapter 13, addresses only one primary topic and functions well independently.

Despite its worthy attributes, there are so many different terms that are presented so briefly that it would be impossible for the reader to internalize them all during a semester long course. In addition, due to the complexity of some of the topics, certain chapters are challenging to read and require a great deal of background knowledge on the part of the audience. The book comes across as highly academic, resulting in a text that is not very approachable to novices in the field of SLA. The level of language is less of a problem; it is the quantity of advanced concepts and the brevity of the explanations that are the issue. In all honesty, I would not be able to use several of the chapters with undergraduates getting their first glimpse into the field of SLA. Novice readers will have to explore some of the topics in more depth in a more accessible text (see Gass, 2013).

In conclusion, VanPatten’s and Williams’ book touches upon the most pressing theories and questions in the field of SLA today. It would serve well in master and doctoral level studies as well as a reference book but not so much as an introductory text as it was originally intended. It is simply impossible to give the amount of attention required for each topic in a 15 to 20-page chapter.


Abutalebi, J. (2008). 'Neural aspects of second language representation and language control. Acta Psychologica 128, 466-478.

Anderson, J.R. (2007). 'How can the human mind occur in the physical universe?' New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Bresnan, J. (2001). 'Lexical-functional syntax'. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Byrne, D. (1986). 'Teaching Oral English' (2nd Ed.). Harlow, England: Longman.

Chomsky, N. (1981). 'Lectures on government and binding'. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Foris.

Eskildsen, S. (2012). 'L2 negation constructions at work'. Language Learning, 62, 335-372.

Fitts. P. & Posner, M. (1967). 'Human performance'. Belmost, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Gass, S. (2013). 'Second language acquisition: An introductory course'. New York, NY: Routledge.

Krashen, S. D. 1985. 'The input hypothesis: Issues and implications'. London: Longman.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Cameron, L. (2008). 'Complex systems in applied linguistics'. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Levelt, W.J.M. (1989). 'Speaking: From intention to articulation'. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

White, L. (2012). 'Research timeline: Universal Grammar, crosslinguistic variation, and second language acquisition'. Language Teaching, 45, 309-328.

Segalowitz, N. (2010). 'Cognitive bases of second language fluency'. London, England: Routledge.

Selinker, L. (1972). 'Interlanguage'. International Review of Applied Linguistics 10, 209-231.
Robert Cote holds a PhD in Second Language Acquisition & Teaching. For over 20 years, he has worked as a classroom instructor, administrator, and teacher trainer in high schools, community colleges, IEPs and universities around the world. His interests include second language writing, peer review, L1 culture and identity, Generation 1.5 students, special needs and CALL. He currently holds two Assistant Directorships at the University of Arizona’s Center for English as a Second Language and the Writing Skills Improvement Program and also serves as the Associate Editor of Arab World English Journal.

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