Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login

New from Cambridge University Press!


Revitalizing Endangered Languages

Edited by Justyna Olko & Julia Sallabank

Revitalizing Endangered Languages "This guidebook provides ideas and strategies, as well as some background, to help with the effective revitalization of endangered languages. It covers a broad scope of themes including effective planning, benefits, wellbeing, economic aspects, attitudes and ideologies."

New from Wiley!


We Have a New Site!

With the help of your donations we have been making good progress on designing and launching our new website! Check it out at!
***We are still in our beta stages for the new site--if you have any feedback, be sure to let us know at***

Review of  Understanding Second Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Marga Stander
Book Title: Understanding Second Language Acquisition
Book Author: Rod Ellis
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 27.1217

Discuss this Review
Help on Posting
Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This is the second edition of Understanding Second Language Acquisition by Rod Ellis, published in 1985. Now, thirty years later, the second edition addresses some of the same areas, for instance individual learner factors, the order and sequence of second language (L2) development, variability in learner language, and the role of the first language, input and interaction. However, some areas are omitted from this second edition, for example, learning strategies (because of its problematic nature and the methodological weakness in its research); linguistic universals and Universal Grammar. Ellis has added two new chapters on cognitive and social aspects of L2 acquisition and also expanded the single chapter on form-focused instruction in the first edition to two separate chapters in this edition, focusing on explicit and implicit instruction. Ellis also includes more reference to research on all micro-aspects of language and on some of the macro-aspects.

The book has 12 chapters and covers a broad scope of L2 acquisition (SLA). It gives an overview of SLA research: age; psychological factors; the development of a second language; variability; the role of the first language; input and interaction; cognitive and social aspects of SLA; explicit and implicit instruction; and understanding and applying SLA. It also gives a definition of the key concepts and an extended glossary of terms at the end of the book.

In the Introduction, Ellis explains the main differences between the first and the second editions and also the chapters that were added. He also explains why he omitted some sections and for whom the book is intended. In Chapter 1 Ellis makes a distinction between L2 acquisition and SLA and states the purpose of the book, namely to give an outline of what SLA has discovered about L2 acquisition. He defines the concepts of ‘second language acquisition’, ‘second language’ and ‘acquisition’. The chapter deals with a brief history of SLA, looking briefly at a wide range of topics, including order and sequence in L2 acquisition, variability in learner language, the role of the first language (L1), input and interaction, consciousness and L2 acquisition, implicit and explicit learning, the social turn in L2 acquisition and sociocultural SLA. Ellis gives a summary at the end of the chapter, confirming the importance of integrating cognitive and social perspectives, the role of the L1 and individual learner factors.

Chapter 2 deals with age and L2 acquisition. Ellis states that learner differences are very important in L2 learning, noting that the starting age is one of the most obvious differences. He continues by looking at different theoretical perspectives and research ; firstly the theoretical importance, investigation and conclusions regarding the Critical Period Hypothesis; age and rate of acquisition; the age and route of L2 acquisition; and the educational policy. The summary focuses on adult L2 learners’ proficiency: whether there is a critical period for language acquisition; the advantages of starting young and its conditions; the initial stages of language learning; and the effect of age on the L2 acquisition process. The key theoretical issue is the question why younger learners reach higher levels of achievement than older learners.

In Chapter 3 Ellis evaluates psychological factors and L2 acquisition, looking extensively at the key psychological factors, i.e. language aptitude, motivation and language anxiety. He also considers various models and research done in each of these three areas. A brief section on learning strategies is added, as well as age and psychological factors. Ellis compares different research approaches, but confirms the need to examine differences in terms of the whole learner. He mentions the challenge to determine how this can be done. In this chapter he does not consider individual learner differences or how motivation is treated in neuropsychological SLA.

Chapter 4 is about L2 development and how the interlanguage system is constructed and reconstructed as acquisition takes place. Ellis considers methods that researchers use to investigate interlanguage development and examines what research has shown. He discusses learner varieties and looks closely at the order and sequence of acquisition, as well as usage-based accounts of L2 development. He reports on different case studies of L2 learners. In this chapter he also gives attention to other linguistic systems and L2 pragmatic development. He gives a summary of the descriptive research done in this regard and generalises about research in L2 development. He concludes that context and individual learners’ factors play a big role. There are universal tendencies in how L2 is acquired with variability in the use of a L2.

The variability in learner language is discussed further in Chapter 5. The nature and importance of this are explored to identify the factors that shape L2 development. Ellis gives an overview of research done in variationist sociolinguistics, as well as the Dynamic Paradigm and the Dynamic Systems Theory. He also focuses on social and linguistic factors in interlanguage variation forms which influence learners' choice of L2 forms. In the conclusion he briefly explains the significance of free variation, sequences of acquisition, sociolinguistic competence and sources of variation. He confirms that psycholinguistic factors should be included in a study of variability.

The role of the L1 is discussed in Chapter 6, and Ellis confirms that this is very important in the understanding of L2 acquisition. He treats various aspects of this issue, such as language transfer and different factors, i.e. linguistic, psycholinguistic, contextual, developmental and conceptual factors. Transfer in communication and learning is also looked at briefly. He emphasises that there is no single acknowledged theory of L2 acquisition, neither is there one for L1 transfer, nor one to explain the interaction of these factors. He concludes by saying that research should not focus so much on the separateness or comparisons of the learners' L1 and L2, but should focus more on multi competence and bilingual/multilingual language use, as suggested by Cook (2000).

In Chapter 7 Ellis discusses input and interaction with emphasis on the cognitive interactionist perspective. The interaction approach (Gass and Mackey, 2007) means that learners are involved in interaction, receive feedback and produce output. Ellis focuses on this approach by examining and defining the different key constructs that are involved, i.e. non-interactive input, interactive input and output. He furthermore discusses focus on form and incidental learning, early research on input and interaction, the Input and Noticing Hypotheses (Krashen 1985; Schmidt 1994, 2001), premodified and interactionally-modified input, noticing, and acquisition. He looks at the effects of constructs such as modified output, corrective feedback, interaction, working memory and the effects of input and interaction on acquisition. In the conclusion he summarises the key theories and the main findings from the interaction approach and states that researchers have drawn on cognitive theories of L2 acquisition. Input and interaction influence learners' attention to linguistic features and cognitive systems influence the way input is processed.

The discussion of cognitive aspects of L2 acquisition continues in Chapter 8. Ellis confirms the importance of cognitive psychology in SLA and although it is mainly concerned with language and learning, it also examines the mental processes involved in L2 acquisition. The chapter includes a discussion of paradigms in cognitive SLA, of the representation of L2 knowledge, of attention, and of the different cognitive theories of L2 acquisition . Ellis briefly looks at ways in which SLA researchers have investigated cognitive processes. In the conclusion he emphasises that it is still important to know how the L2 is represented in the mind of the learner and confirms the importance of attention, the processes involved and the social context of learning.

Chapter 9 concentrates on the social aspects of L2 acquisition, which Ellis regards as a very important factor. He mentions that no consideration was given to the possibility that language learning is a social rather than a cognitive activity. Social factors and L2 achievement are also discussed, and Ellis considers different models, e.g. Schumann's acculturation model (1978) and the socio-educational model. Ellis looks at different critiques of cognitive SLA and gives a response to each critique. He summarises the difference between cognitive and social SLA. He furthermore discusses different approaches, i.e. the sociocultural SLA, the sociocognitive, the conversation-analytic, and the social identity approaches. Language socialisation and L2 learning are also discussed. In conclusion he says that the 'social turn' (Block 2003, 2007) challenges existing theories and calls for attention on the individual learner and different learning styles. He criticises researchers in cognitive SLA for under-theorising the nature and importance of social context, but at the same time criticises ‘social turn’ researchers because they failed to theorise the cognitive side of L2 learning.

Ellis looks at the role of explicit instruction in Chapter 10. He mentions that all language instruction constitutes a form of intervention and considers whether instruction involves different learning processes. He looks specifically at types of intervention; types of explicit instruction and presentation-practice-production instruction. A summary of the different studies is given, which helps the reader to compare different research done on this topic. Ellis also reflects on integrated explicit instruction, concept-based instruction, comprehension-based instruction, pattern practice, and consciousness-raising instruction. He briefly discusses the importance of (corrective) feedback. He continues to discuss research done on explicit instruction according to different L2 acquisition theories in relation to their respective interface positions. Ellis concludes that explicit instruction ‘works’ and has long-lasting effects for some linguistic features, but emphasises that it is not the same for all learners. Individual factors might alternate the effect of instruction, for example; high-aptitude learners will probably benefit more from explicit instruction, according to DeKeyser (2007).

Chapter 11 focuses on the role of implicit instruction that goes hand-in-hand with incidental acquisition. Ellis indicates that implicit instruction should be distinguished from implicit learning (defined in Chapter 8) when learners are not learning linguistic features deliberately, but are ‘picking them up' as they go along. However, it is still important that learners are paying attention to target features which are “needed for learning to take place” (p. 268). He continues by looking at theoretical issues in implicit instruction, types of implicit instruction, the investigation of task-based teaching, and input- and output-based tasks. He makes some general comments on research that involves tasks and also compares explicit to implicit instruction. He concludes by saying that although there are differences, implicit and explicit instruction and knowledge have the same goal, i.e. “the development of the kind of knowledge needed to engage effectively in communication” (p.287). Finally, Ellis emphasises that the best is to include both methods to ensure that balanced L2 development takes place.

The final chapter deals with the understanding and applying of L2 acquisition. Ellis examines SLA research as a discipline, but mentions that it is rather interdisciplinary in nature. He looks at its role amongst other disciplines, but says that SLA is still not able “to provide a uniform account of how L2 is acquired” (p.291). The rest of the chapter focuses on the boundaries of SLA, research methodology in SLA and the goal of SLA. Ellis describes the complexity of L2 acquisition, variability, the L1, age, psychological factors, social interaction, cognitive and social phenomena, and instruction. Lastly, in this chapter, he considers different ways of applying SLA in language pedagogy. In the conclusion he reminds the reader of his comment in the first edition: “there is no consensus about the overall direction that SLA research should follow” (p.311), and this is very much the same today. The debate continues.


Ellis makes a distinction between SLA (the field of study in L2 acquisition) and L2 acquisition (a cover term for the acquisition and learning of any additional language other than the L1) and also provides a broad discussion on the understanding of L1 acquisition. He mainly looks at what SLA has discovered about L2 acquisition. By doing this, he fills a gap in the SLA research base. This is a much needed source of information in the study area.

He compares various studies related to L2 acquisition, addressing the many different aspects involved in L2 acquisition and providing an extensive discussion of relevant theories and research.

Apart from the focus on research and L2 acquisition theories, the author gives special attention to the importance of individual learner characteristics (such as age, psychological factors, development of a L2 and variability), the role of the first language, cognitive and social aspects of L2 acquisition, as well as implicit vs. explicit instruction.

This book is intended for a broad audience: undergraduate students who want to explore the field of SLA; graduate students who are involved with applied linguistics and language teaching; and teachers who want to understand better how L2 learners learn in different contexts, and also how about implicit and explicit language learning differ.

The author confirms that the theoretical diversity in SLA is a problem for some researchers, because of the complexity of the study field, but that debate is healthy and should continue. The author recognizes different studies in SLA research and provides valuable information on theory and research. He also examines the critical reactions to some of these studies.


Block, D. (2003). The Social Turn in Second Language Acquisition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Cook, V. (2000). ‘Is transfer the right word?’ Paper presented at the 7th International Pragmatics Conference, July 2000. Budapest.

DeKeyser, R. (2007). ‘Introduction: situating the concept of practice’ in DeKeyser, R (ed.): Practice in a Second Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gass, S. and Mackey, A. (2007). ‘Input, interactions, and output in second language acquisition’ in Van Patten, B. and J. Williams (eds.): Theories in Second Language Acquisition: An Introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Krashen, S. (1985). The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. London: Longman.

Schmidt, R. (1994). ‘Deconstructing consciousness in search of useful definitions for applied linguistics’. AILA Review 11:11-26.

Schmidt, R. (2001). ‘Attention’ in Robinson, P. (ed): Cognition and Second Language Instruction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schumann, J. (1978). ‘The acculturation model for second language acquisition’ in Gingras, R. (ed): Second Language Acquisition and Foreign Language Teaching. Arlington, VA: Center for Applied Linguistics.
MARGA STANDER, Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics (Afrikaans) is a lecturer/researcher in the Centre for Teaching and Learning and the coordinator of the Writing Centre on the Qwaqwa Campus of the University of the Free State, South Africa. Her research interests include L2 acquisition, L2 teaching and learning, sociolinguistics, aspects of applied linguistics, translation, sign language linguistics and culture. She specializes in L2 learning and the problems students encounter in academic writing. She has taught linguistics and applied linguistics in English and Afrikaans, as well as academic literacy courses. She has done several translations from English to Afrikaans of academic and religious texts. She also does regular proofreading and editing of scholarly articles and essays.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780194422048
Pages: 376
Prices: U.K. £ 35.50