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Review of  Frequency Effects In Instructed Second Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Anita Thomas
Book Title: Frequency Effects In Instructed Second Language Acquisition
Book Author: Karin Madlener
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 27.5255

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Frequency effects in instructed second language acquisition” by Karin Madlener is a monograph based on the author’s PhD project. It examines the effects of different kinds of frequency distributions in the input to adult classroom learners of German. The study is conducted from a cognitive linguistics perspective, more specifically from a usage-based approach.

The book is divided into four parts. Part I consists of a single chapter that situates the study in a general theoretical discussion about input processing and language learning processes. It questions the validity of results based on artificial languages and argues for the necessity of the study of input in a real-life second language (L2) classroom context. The aim of the study is to contribute to research on input optimization. It tests a variety of frequency distributions and how they impact the rate and the amount of (implicit) learning.

The second part consists of three chapters that present the theoretical background. Chapter 2 introduces key notions related to input and language learning as modelled in the approach of Gass (1997) with its four main components: input, intake, interlanguage development and output. The chapter ends with a series of open questions that arise from this model. They relate to input quantity and quality, as well as to the relation between input and learning, and point towards the necessity of a constructionist approach to address these questions.

Chapter 3 presents the core theoretical background of the study. It introduces the key notions related to a constructionist approach and how input processing is described in this framework. Different aspects of frequency effects are presented and discussed, especially effects of type and token frequency and processes of automatization (entrenchment, chunking, pattern detection, schema abstraction and generalization). The presentation of these notions follows the same structure as the presentation of the empirical results: they are distributed between learners with no previous knowledge of the target structure (“first contact”) and learners with some previous knowledge (“consolidation”). The processes underlying frequency effects in these levels of L2 proficiency are contrasted with L1 acquisition, where L2 acquisition is presented as less successful. Based on earlier studies, the author stresses the fact that the lack of success might also be influenced by the context in which L2 learning takes place: the L2 classroom. In this context, learning is traditionally connected to explicit instruction and limited input. However, from a usage-based point of view it is possible to enhance the input situation in L2 teaching, the author says. This is different from perspectives that suggest to compensate the difficulties in L2 acquisition with more explicit instruction (e.g. Norris & Ortega 2000). The chapter ends with the explicit challenge the study wants to meet: to enhance the L2 input by implicit means.

Chapter 4 presents and discusses different approaches and techniques of input optimization: Sharwood Smith’s (1993) Input Enhancement approach, Focus on Form (e.g. Doughty 2001), Van Patten’s (2009) Processing Instruction, Visual Text Enhancement (e.g. Wong 2005) and Input Floods (e.g. Hernández 2011). This last approach is the one that will be used and developed in the study. The author stresses the need not only for input floods, that is extensive exposure to input, but also for structured input floods where type and token frequencies of the target structure are controlled. The chapter finishes with a short section about structural priming and implicit learning.

The third part presents the methodology and the results of the study. Chapter 5 describes the study design. The first section presents the different characteristics of the data collection: the target structure (the German predicative present participle construction – be + present participle), the training and testing procedures, the five different frequency distributions (number of different verbs used, skewed versus balanced type-token ratio), the testing material (listening comprehension tasks followed by a variety of production tasks and grammaticality judgement tasks). The second section presents the study’s five main hypotheses and the last section the methods used for the data analysis.

Chapter 6 and 7 present the results. Both chapters first present the results for the learners that showed no knowledge of the target structure at the pre-test and then for the learners that had some previous knowledge. Chapter 6 concentrates on the three first hypotheses. They concern the effect of type frequency, that is the number of different verbs (50, 25 or 9) used in the input in the balanced condition. Chapter 7 concentrates on the two last hypotheses, which concern the effects of skewed versus balanced type token ratio in the input (the number of tokens of the target structure per specific verb). The results are presented in bar charts and graphs and described and interpreted in the text.

The fourth part consist of the last chapter. The main results with regard to the hypotheses are summarised in the three first sections. They are followed by a section about the study’s implications for second language teaching and a final section with a list of open questions. The five main hypotheses are all clearly or partially confirmed by the data. In short, the main findings are the following: 1) Structured input floods in listening comprehension training have a positive learning effect on adult L2 classroom learners. Most interestingly, there was a significant improvement in the learners’ usage of the target forms in the production tasks but not in the acceptability ratings in the grammaticality judgement tasks. This result suggests that comprehension and production precede explicit knowledge and, according to the author, constitutes a clear argument for implicit (incidental) learning. 2) Type frequency, that is the number of different specific verbs used in the input, also had an impact on the learners’ improvement rates. For the learners at initial stages, the best results, in terms of training effects, were obtained with a low number of different verbs. The more advanced learners showed better results with a high number of different verbs but overall the advantage of the high number of different verbs in the input was rather limited. 3) Skewed input makes a difference in terms of learning outcomes but skewed input is not necessarily beneficial in first contact with a new construction.


The classroom study presented makes a clear contribution to research in the field of input influence on L2 classroom learning by observing L2 learners’ improvement in both production and judgmental tasks in different frequency conditions. The fact that the study was conducted in a real classroom context is another strength of the study.

The theoretical background provides a useful overview of the main theories and notions related to the influence of input, input enhancement and frequency. These are summarised in Figure 4.1 on page 96, where the author combines the model of Gass (1997), key issues from Ellis (2002, 2009) and language development over time. Like most figures, it might be subject to discussion, which is precisely what makes the figure interesting and useful. Given the important role of implicit learning in the study, I was wondering why there was no single reference to the work of Rod Ellis (e.g. 2005). In my view the discussion of the results would have profited from reference to this earlier research on different characteristics of implicit and explicit learning (and knowledge).

The strongest regret about the reported study is that the semi-experimental intervention was limited to two weeks. Given the real-life classroom situation, it would have been really interesting to test the long term effect of the intervention, for example by adding some test sentences in other tests later on. This would have given the opportunity to disentangle memory effects (or structural priming effects) from learning effects (or entrenchment). With respect to the short duration of the study, I find that the section about the implications for second language teaching could have been more modest. The study shows effects from a two-weeks intensive focus on one single target structure but we don’t know whether there is a long term learning effect.

As mentioned above, the study presented in the book makes an important contribution about the effect of different frequency conditions. The variation of the number of different verbs used and the number of tokens for each verb, while keeping the number of input tokens constant, is a nice design. What surprised me, was the fact that the author is aware of the fact that there is a relation between type frequency and category formation (p. 304) but seem to completely leave out that part from the study design. From my understanding of the literature about prototypicity, type frequency and zipfian law (e.g. Ellis & Collins 2009, Bybee 2009), the most frequent exemplar of a specific linguistic category will help the learners to recognize and establish (entrench) the category represented by this exemplar. However, when this exemplar is not contrasted with any other category, I can’t see how the learners would recognize the category to which it belongs. In other words, the fact that the results for the skewing conditions are weak could be explained by the fact that no contrast with the target structure was available in the skewed conditions.

The results are presented in a very detailed way, but the two chapters are difficult to read. Instead of the constant repetition of the very densely formulated hypotheses, I would have preferred to have some reminders about how they were tested in the experiment. This is also a general criticism I have towards the book: it is difficult to read. The book presents a study that combines a high number of factors in a complex way. Unfortunately, neither the titles nor the Table of Contents will help the reader to navigate between the different levels of the book.

Despite these critical comments, this volume will be of interest to researchers and PhD students working on input enhancement and will hopefully inspire several follow-up studies.


Bybee, J. 2008. Usage-based grammar and second language acquisition. In P. Robinson et N.C. Ellis, Handbook of cognitive linguistics and second language acquisition (pp. 216-236). New-York, NJ: Routledge.

Doughty, C. 2001. Cognitive underpinnings of focus on form. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and second language instruction (pp. 206-257). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, N. C. 2002. Frequency effects in language processing: A review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24. 143–188.

Ellis, N. C. 2009. Optimizing the input: Frequency and sampling in usage-based and form-focused learning. In M. H. Long and C. Doughty (eds.), The Handbook of Language Teaching (pp. 139–158). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Ellis, N.C. & Collins, L. 2009. Input and second language acquisition: The roles of frequency, form, and function. Introduction to the special issue. The Modern Language Journal 93,iii. 329-335.

Ellis, R. 2005. Measuring implicit and explicit knowledge of a second language. A Psychometric Study. SSLA 27.141-172

Gass, S. M. 1997. Input, interaction, and the second language learner. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hernández, T.A. 2011. Re-examining the role of explicit instruction and input flood on the acquisition of Spanish discourse markers. Language Teaching Research, 15. 159- 182.

Norris, J., & Ortega, L. 2000. Effectiveness of L2 instruction: A research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis. Language Learning, 50. 417-528.

Sharwood Smith, M. 1993. Input enhancement in instructed SLA: Theoretical bases. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 15. 165-179.

VanPatten, B. 2009. Processing matters in input enhancement. In T. Piske & M. Young-Scholten (Eds.), Input matters in SLA (pp. 47-61). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Wong, W. 2005. Input enhancement: From theory and research to the classroom. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Anita Thomas is an Associate Professor of French as a foreign language at the Department of Multilingualism and Didactics of Modern Languages at University of Fribourg/Freiburg, Switzerland. Her main research interests include second language development with focus on the influence of input, structural priming, usage-based approaches, and the development of French verb morphology at different ages.