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Review of  Usage-Based Perspectives on Second Language Learning

Reviewer: Jordan Garrett
Book Title: Usage-Based Perspectives on Second Language Learning
Book Author: Teresa Cadierno Søren W. Eskildsen
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 27.3555

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


In the spirit of cross-pollinating ideas between different theoretical approaches, which has been a recurring theme recently in second language acquisition (SLA) (see e.g., Atkinson, 2011, Ortega, 2011, this volume), Teresa Cadierno and Søren Eskildsen (eds.) identify two usage-based approaches that they deem ‘ripe’ for cross-paradigmatic collaboration: cognitive usage-based SLA (CUB-SLA), which focuses on the construction and cognitively-based processes such as saliency, chunking, frequency and the like), and approaches based in conversational analysis and ethnomethodology (CA-SLA). Crucial to both perspectives is that the central components of L2 learning can be linguistic or non-linguistic (i.e., social) in nature as well as rooted in the situational, experiential and meaningful use of an L2 (or Ln) for communication. Nevertheless, while these two perspectives acknowledge the fact that frequency and cognitive processes go hand-in-hand with the social-interactional reality of communication, they are not easily reconcilable despite the shared role of use and input (Ortega, this volume). In the view of the editors, these two approaches, despite differing orientations to the reality of SLA, should be considered complementary and, as such, are prime candidates for the cross-paradigmatic pollination of ideas because of the common thread of the centrality of usage. In the review that follows, each chapter is individually summarized followed by a final evaluation and recommendation for this necessary and timely work.



In this opening chapter titled “Advancing usage-based approaches to L2 studies”, Eskildsen and Cadierno outline their rationale for assembling a series of papers that attempt to explain and apply these two complementary and necessary approaches in one coherent text. Instead of aiming for a multitude of more disparate perspectives, the text is timely in that it studies two complementary approaches more in-depth. The volume is organized as follows: Part I lays out the centrality of usage in the language learning process with papers detailing each approach. Parts II and III contain empirical research papers in both paradigms. Part IV then applies these approaches in language teaching. Finally, Ortega synthesizes the research in this volume, discussing the common themes she finds central to the approaches adopted by the authors and discussing the recent traction gained by usage-based perspectives of SLA.


In the opening chapter of this section aptly titled “Multidimensional SLA”, Brian MacWhinney sketches the main points of emergentism and the basic tenets of the competition model described in previous work (Bates & MacWhinney, 1989; MacWhinney, 1987) and attempts to place language learning in “a multidimensional context, both theoretically and practically” (p. 19). For him, this means that while learners can face what he calls ‘risks’ such as negative transfer or entrenchment of non-target form-meaning-use patterns, they can be mitigated or counteracted via L2 instruction. With the goal of showing how perspectives of such a model can be useful in formulating new L2 pedagogical methods, MacWhinney outlines a system he calls eCALL, in which learners can engage with the L2 in a variety of contexts, and which is easily adaptable to multiple settings and levels of language use. Importantly, this chapter establishes that this approach is complementary and even amenable to CA-SLA models or other usage-based paradigms such as Wagner’s learning ‘in the wild’ (this volume).

Chapter 3, “Cognitive and social aspects of learning from usage” by Nick Ellis, centers on the experiential nature of language learning, namely, the inventory that emerges as the learner encounters the L2 in a multitude of situations and occurrences. Crucial to Ellis’s chapter is the recognition that a central part of learning is “determining structure from usage” (p. 47), which derives from the direction of attentional resources be they conscious or unconscious. Further, he notes that learning is deeply connected with the situational and social context in which usage takes place as it is a complex-adaptive system (Beckner et al., 2009). While recognizing that associative learning cognitive processes such as frequency, iconicity, salience, prototypicality, etc. are central to learning, Ellis also acknowledges that the nature of language is essentially social and concludes that the cognitive computational component of learning (L1 or L2) constructions conspires with the socio-cultural and interactional aspects of the acquisition process. He closes his chapter by calling for increased integration across usage-based frameworks, which is, essentially, the goal of the volume as a whole.

In “Designing for language learning in the Wild: Creating social infrastructures for second language learning”, Johannes Wagner shifts the conversation from cognitive processes and mental representations towards what transpires in the space of shared cognition between speakers. He argues that participants in these shared experiences, be they native speakers or learners, must make sense of these interactions and of each other, endeavors that go beyond the understanding of what has been said to include competence, knowledge and identity (p. 78). Additionally, in this chapter, Wagner touches on the pedagogical implications of such an approach, which may be far-reaching. He suggests that since L2 classrooms are such well-organized/predictable settings, they may not prepare learners for the unpredictable nature of the L2 ‘in the wild’. In closing, he proposes making the ‘wild’ more accessible to learners, which in itself can hold a variety of possibilities for language teaching and learning, some of which he outlines in this chapter.


Chapter 5, “Structural priming and the acquisition of novel form-meaning-mappings” by Kim McDonough and Pavel Trofimovich, opens this section of empirical papers adopting a usage-based framework. The authors focus their study on input frequency and specific input characteristics by investigating the role of priming in the acquisition of Esperanto transitive constructions by learners of two typologically distinct languages, Thai and Farsi. Their results do not find any effect for structural priming, and they propose that this may be due to the novel nature of the Esperanto constructions. They suggest that other kinds of exposure may be better suited to novel constructions (i.e., extensive input and output practice) and that structural priming may be more effective for incorporating low-scope patterns (morphological marking) into more prominent cues (word order).

In Chapter 6, titled “Input and language competence in early-start foreign language classrooms”, Anne Dahl investigates the role of input in early foreign language (FL) classrooms, asking whether it is substantial enough to effect changes in measures of vocabulary, sentence comprehension and sentence repetition. The study follows similar English FL learner groups in Norway that are exposed to different modes of instruction: one with the target language (TL) as the object of instruction and the other with it as the medium of instruction. In all three measures, the learners exposed to less didactic and more naturalistic (and more frequent) English input in the immersion context outperformed their counterparts studying English only 30 minutes per week in English class, with the largest difference found in sentence comprehension. The authors conclude that increased early exposure to English in these contexts can be highly beneficial for L2 development and discuss some of the implications of their findings.

In “Online informal learning of English: Frequency effects in the uptake of chunks of language from participation web-based activities”, Geoffrey Sockett and Meryl Kusyk study the online informal learning of English (OILE), noting that the availability of social media, file sharing and online streaming has dramatically increased access to the TL outside of the classroom. OILE can take many forms and is, crucially, an easily-accessible source of authentic and naturalistic input for learners. Sockett and Kusyk discuss OILE in two studies of French learners’ of English knowledge of English vocabulary items in oral comprehension and another examining learners’ use of idioms in fan fiction. Both studies find a facilitative role for OILE in the learning of chunks and/or frequent vocabulary and suggest that the nature of this exposure provides learners with access to more naturalistic input.


Chapter 8, “Long-term development in an instructed adult L2 learner: Usage-based and complexity theory applied” by Karen Roehr-Brackin, begins this second section of empirical studies and reports the findings of a longitudinal case study of one English native speaker learning German. By combining usage-based approaches to SLA with complexity/dynamic systems theory (de Bot and Larsen-Freeman, 2011; Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008), the study finds a complex relationship between the multitude of linguistic, contextual and individual learner factors which are “engaged in a continuous interplay” (p. 181) during the learning process. The discussion of the results of this paper focuses on aspects of formal accuracy as the results are intertwined with the learner’s focus on ‘getting it right’ and metalinguistic strategies. Ultimately, the authors conclude that development in this case is driven by the learner himself through his usage.

Chapter 9, “On the development of motion constructions in four learners of L2 English” by Søren Eskildsen, Teresa Cadierno and Peiwen Li, reports the findings of a study that combines the typology of motion constructions (Talmy, 2000) with Slobin’s (1996) ‘thinking-for-speaking’ hypothesis. By studying the development of four learners of English whose L1s are typologically distinct from each other and also from the TL (Chinese and Spanish), the authors find a great deal of individual variety. They conclude that their results provide support for exemplar-based approaches and suggest a four-stage process of development in the acquisition of English motion constructions. For these authors, learners’ development is the result of usage and highly dependent on context. Consequently, they call for more longitudinal studies of L2 learning.

The section concludes with “The development of interactional competence: Evidence from turn-taking organization, sequence organization, repair organization and preference organization” by Simona Pekarek Doehler and Evelyne Pochon-Berger. This study charts the development of how learners meet interactional demands in multiple interaction types. By tapping into a wide range of empirical studies, the authors illustrate how development entails the ability to deploy language and control procedures to accomplish social actions. From these studies, the authors build a “cumulative picture” (p. 262) in which learners recalibrate, build and diversify linguistic resources and methods for accomplishing social actions; essentially, language learning for them is “learning how to do” (Eskildsen & Cadierno, this volume, p. 10).


“‘I told you so’: Storytelling development of a Japanese learning English as a second language” by Anne Marie Barraja-Rohan connects with the previous chapter by taking one specific communicative function and tracking the development of a L1 Japanese speaker, Akiko, over a 19-week period. In conversation-for-practicing sessions with an Australian English speaker, John, Akiko was able to increase her repertoire of interactional resources despite experiencing difficulties. As her command of grammar increased, her interactions with John become more sophisticated and, with respect to the relational aspects of language learning, Barraja-Rohan finds that the pair built a friendship during these sessions that further facilitated Akiko’s development. The chapter concludes by suggesting that increasing L2 learning opportunities seems to be facilitative and that conversation-for-practicing with a focus on social relationships can be valuable in bringing learners ‘into the wild’ (Wagner, this volume).

In “A dynamic usage-based approach to second language teaching,” MarjolijnVerspoor and Hong Nguyen apply dynamic systems approaches (de Bot & Larsen-Freeman, 2011) to usage-based pedagogy in an English FL classroom in Vietnam. After viewing short scenes of English-language films with scaffolding multiple times, learners outperformed a comparison group receiving traditional instruction in measures of their receptive and productive abilities. These findings were in line with other research in communicative language teaching as students were able to engage with authentic input (Lightbown & Spada, 2013). Further, the authors interpret these gains as implicit learning given that the students, despite receiving no explicit grammar instruction, were initially directed to interpreting meaning as the activities’ were based on comprehension of the scenes. The authors then interpret the results as indicative of learners later directing these same processing resources towards specific forms in subsequent iterations of the screenings.

In Chapter 13, “L1, quantity of exposure to L2, and reading disability as factors in L2 literacy skills”, Ammara Farukh and Mila Vulchanova study the role of immersion in Pakistani children with dyslexia learning English. Results indicate a facilitative effect for immersion pedagogy and the authors conclude that increased exposure to L2 goes beyond just developing L2 proficiency and can also be extended to specific skills, in this case, literacy. Importantly, the authors suggest that these two points also apply to learners with a reading deficit. They close with several recommendations for curriculum development that should create more access to meaningful input in the L2, regardless of the student population.


Lourdes Ortega closes the volume with her paper, “Usage-based SLA: A research habitus whose time has come”, in which she advocates for the combination of these two different orientations by reaffirming that there is not one single approach that can encompass the entirety of SLA. While the introduction lays out the contents this volume in order, Ortega opts for identifying common themes across the volume and organizes them into several subsections. These subsections denote several far-reaching and timely topics in SLA including input-driven L2 learning, the importance of authentic and multimodal input, socially-contingent interaction, ‘eclecticism’ in the ontology of SLA, usage-based inspired instruction, the role of consciousness and attention, and, finally, agency, reciprocity and power in language learning in the classroom and ‘in the wild’. She then discusses each subsection as it relates to the individual chapters showcasing the interconnectedness of the themes prevalent in this volume. She closes with a discussion of why usage-based approaches are gaining so much traction recently and calls for more cross-paradigmatic work to be done in SLA.


In their attempt to synthesize two approaches that share a common epistemology, i.e., that language learning is usage-driven, Eskildsen and Cadierno in their introduction suggest that both approaches be united despite the challenges mentioned in the introduction. However, notwithstanding this lack of a common orientation to language learning, they maintain that these approaches are complementary rather than competitive, which, in turn, has the potential to widen the scope of usage-based SLA. Hymes (1972) notes that language is not solely linguistic or constructional competence, but that there is an inherent social end as is it is necessarily situated within a context. This notion is often acknowledged by researchers working in both of these usage-based approaches, but it is not often more than a line for future research. As cognitive processes occur within a social-interactional space and, conversely, since there is no interactional competence without language (p. 6), this volume provides a much needed and timely contribution cross-paradigmatic research which has been growing in popularity in recent SLA research (see e.g., Atkinson, 2011).

In establishing that construction-based and conversational analytic approaches are complementary rather than fully compatible, the editors and authors, while working within the same space of learning through usage, remain agnostic as to how such collaboration can be done as they explore different questions using different methods. It is refreshing to see a volume that plants the idea of cross-paradigmatic research and collaboration without knowing how to exactly achieve this end. The purpose of this volume, it seems, is to promote dialogue and foster cross-paradigmatic sharing in a complementary manner rather than dictate or promote a particular approach. In this respect, the editors and authors are, in fact, successful.

Perhaps the best-conceived aspect of this particular volume is its organization, which should make it accessible to students, language educators and researchers from a variety of paradigms both inside and outside usage-based linguistics. The first section clearly encapsulates Cadierno and Eskildsen’s rationale for organizing this volume as each of the authors acknowledges the goal of cross-paradigmatic collaboration in their papers in addition to outlining the basic tenets and contributions of CUB-SLA and CA-SLA, respectively. Further, not only do they call for collaboration and acknowledge the importance of how language is rooted in its usage, each chapter provides pedagogical implications and applications of these perspectives, mirroring the overall organization of the volume. This section takes language use and learning, starting with its theoretical and mental representations, and places it outside of the human skull (or, rather, the human mind) into the social and interactional context where it can be seen in its ‘local ecology’ (Wagner, this volume). For anyone new to these research paradigms, this section is a good starting point, as each chapter begins with an explanation of their respective models and how each are applied in research and can be applied in pedagogical practice. Subsequently, the following two sections present research papers working within these frameworks that focus on the role of frequency and the development of interactional competence in usage-based frameworks.

In the first of two sections of empirical papers, the quality of exposure and the nature of input are explored in different contexts and under differing conditions. While the centrality of input is by no means unique to usage-based approaches, these chapters take an in-depth look at the qualities of different types of input and the conditions under which learners come into contact with the L2. These studies tap into some very timely topics such as the popularity of early immersion or early exposure to FLs in classroom contexts, as well as the increased access to multimodal authentic L2 input that technology provides. As the study of the frequency and nature of the input learners are exposed to is invaluable to SLA, studies incorporating the specific qualities of L2 input should, hopefully, increase with time. The studies in this section support this notion and tap into some innovative ways to study L2 input itself, learners’ access to input and how learners use the input they are exposed to in communication.

As in both of the usage-based perspectives offered in this volume, language derives from novel or multiple experiences which become sedimented over time. In Part III, we see that language learning is envisioned as a process through which learners build up an arsenal of resources which can then be deployed in various ways for different communicative purposes. Further, this section notes that learners do have some agency in this matter and can control the focus of their attention and their access to interaction in the L2. Each of these chapters summarizes the importance of learners’ participation in local language contexts in their development and affirms that learning develops through use and experience. These chapters segue nicely into the following section in which the authors analyze one particular context, the language classroom, and discuss examples of the pedagogical applications of an approach based in language usage.

The final section contains three studies which share a common thread in that they find a connection between the frequency/quality of exposure to the L2 and the engagement learners have with the L2 in the interactional aspects of communications. While Barraja-Rohan’s study takes place outside of the typical classroom setting, she successfully illustrates that these types of interactions should be encouraged, and that access to language in the wild should be a focus of L2 instruction. Verspoor and Nguyen’s study takes place in a more traditional classroom and shows how scaffolding, iteration and engagement with input can encourage implicit learning. Especially interesting is Farrukh and Vulchanova’s application of these concepts into teaching specific language skills for different learner groups, in this case dyslexic students’ literacy skills. This study supports the notion that L2 learning can be for anyone and that quality input still remains central, while Barraja-Rohan’s and Verspoor and Nguyen’s studies both maintain that there is a facilitative role of iterative processes in language learning, whether they be in terms of frequent exposure to linguistic constructions and vocabulary or of performing similar tasks in the language on multiple occasions. Together, these three studies take the concepts of usage-based linguistics from both perspectives outlined in this volume and successfully apply them to specific pedagogical practices. In taking these approaches out of the academic discipline and applying usage-based pedagogy in a variety of real-world contexts, these chapters bring this volume full circle.

Ortega’s final chapter adds, perhaps, the strongest contribution to this volume by asking some of the central questions of the state-of-the-art in SLA and providing the reader with some insight as to why usage-based approaches have grown in recent years. Even before the so-called ‘social turn’ in SLA (Block, 2003), the divisions in SLA research have often taken a somewhat categorical approach; however, Ortega notes that the theoretical plurality and interdisciplinary nature of usage-based approaches is not limited to the dualism of the cognitive vs. social nature of SLA (p. 369). Additionally, this final chapter identifies several timely themes in current SLA such as the prevalence of what she calls ‘nativespeakerism’, or a focus on monolingualism, which brings further credence to the notion that SLA research is far from a field filled with discrete categories but, rather, is one consisting of complex interactions between many variables. From this chapter, we are further reminded that different frameworks may try to tackle different aspects of the complex process of language acquisition, but in many cases they investigate complementary aspects of the same phenomenon.

As a whole, this volume is particularly well-placed to inform researchers and students unfamiliar with these paradigms as to how these different frameworks pursue their respective goals as well as how different paradigms can complement each other without being mutually exclusive. Further, by organizing this volume from the theoretical to the applied (i.e., pedagogical) aspects of language learning, the authors potentially encourage engagement with research for teacher educators, teaching practitioners and instructed SLA researchers (R. Ellis, 2010). By tapping into research investigating many current trends in language education, this volume makes a contribution to instructed SLA as well as theory and, as such, would be valuable for multiple stakeholders in applied linguistics fields.

From a research perspective, a volume such as this one has the potential not only to inform usage-based researchers, but also those not familiar with this approach, thus increasing the opportunity for fruitful cross-paradigmatic dialogue. The editors and authors astutely identify a need for cross-paradigmatic research and collaboration and are successful in illustrating how these two approaches share a common epistemology rooted in the use of language in context. While beyond the scope of this particular volume, the discussion that Cadierno and Eskildsen start here can and should go further in attempting to ‘bridge the gap’ and promote dialogue between approaches that may not be so complementary in further research. Such cross-paradigmatic dialogue can only promote a healthier field of SLA and, as the authors note, the time is ripe for more research along these lines.


Atkinson, Dwight (ed.). 2011. Alternative approaches to second language acquisition. Routledge: London.

Bates , Elizabeth, & Brian MacWhinney. 1989. Functionalism and the competition model. In Brian MacWhinney & Elizabeth. Bates (eds.), The crosslinguistic study of sentence processing, 3–73. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Beckner, Clay, Richard Blythe, Joan Bybee, Morten H. Christiansen, William Croft, Nick C. Ellis, John Holland, Jinyun Ke, Diane Larsen-Freeman & Tom Schoenemann. 2009. Language is a complex adaptive system: Position paper. Language learning 59(s1). 1-26.

Block, David. 2003. The social turn in second language acquisition. Edinburgh: University Press.

Bot, Kees de, & Diane Larsen-Freeman. 2011. Researching second language development from a dynamic systems theory perspective. In Marjolijn H. Verspoor, Kees de Bot & Wander Lowie (eds.), A dynamic approach to second language development: Methods and techniques, 5-24. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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Larsen-Freeman, Diane, & Lynne Cameron. 2008. Complex adaptive and applied linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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MacWhinney, Brian. 1987. Applying the competition model to bilingualism. Applied Psycholinguistics 8(4). 315-327.

Ortega, Lourdes. 2011. SLA after the social turn: Where cognitivism and its alternatives stand. In Dwight Atkinson (ed.), Alternative approaches in second language acquisition, 167–180. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ortega, Lourdes. 2013. SLA for the 21st century: Disciplinary progress, transdisciplinary relevance, and the bi/multilingual turn. Language Learning 63(s1). 1-24.

Slobin, Dan I. 1996. From'' thought and language'' to'' thinking for speaking''. In John J. Gumperz & Stephen C. Levinson (eds.), Rethinking linguistic relativity. 70-96. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Talmy, Leonard. 2000. Toward a cognitive semantics: Typology and process in concept structuring. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Jordan Garrett is a PhD candidate and instructor at Indiana University where he teaches courses on the Spanish language, Hispanic linguistics and Spanish composition and conversation. His research interests are varied but primarily focus on second language acquisition, heritage language instruction/bilingualism, the structure of Spanish and Portuguese and the syntax-discourse interface. Currently, he is working on a doctoral dissertation which investigates how learners acquire sociolinguistic variation in study abroad contexts; namely, the role qualitatively and quantitatively different input can have on language learning and how different approaches to second language acquisition can inform each other through mixed-methods studies.