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Review of  Second Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Florencia Franceschina
Book Title: Second Language Acquisition
Book Author: Susan M. Gass Larry Selinker
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Issue Number: 12.1551

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Gass, Susan, and Larry Selinker (2001) Second language
acquisition. An introductory course. Second edition. Mahwah,
NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
488 pp., paperback, ISBN 0-8058-3528-8.

Reviewed by Florencia Franceschina, University of Essex


The second edition of Second language acquisition: an
introductory course is a modified and extended version of the
1994 book by the same authors. The new edition offers a
clearly-presented and accessible introduction to second
language acquisition research, focusing attention on
methodological issues, first language (L1) influence,
theories of second language acquisition (SLA), interlanguage
(IL), second language (L2) input, non-linguistic factors
affecting L2 acquisition and the role of the lexicon. The new
edition also incorporates new chapters on child L1 and L2
acquisition and instructed SLA.
Each chapter is accompanied by a series of exercises and a
list of references for further reading on the topics
discussed. In some chapters the authors indicate where
exercises from Gass, Sorace and Selinker (1999) provide
relevant follow-up activities. The book also contains a
glossary of key terms that has been expanded to approximately
120 entries.
The book is intended for undergraduate or postgraduate
students with little or no background in SLA research. It
presupposes only a basic grounding in general linguistics,
which makes it appropriate for use with first or second year
undergraduates and postgraduates coming from fields outside


Chapter 1: Introduction
In the first chapter the authors describe the object of
study of SLA research and define its boundaries, especially
in relation to language pedagogy, an area with which it is
often confused. They also provide a summary of the main areas
of linguistic study (phonology, syntax, morphology, semantics
and pragmatics) and define terms that reappear in the
subsequent chapters (e.g., native/target language, SLA,
foreign language acquisition, IL, fossilization).

Chapter 2: Looking at interlanguage data
This chapter allows students to familiarize themselves
with investigatory approaches and techniques commonly
used in current SLA research. Particularly useful for
novices, it draws attention to some of the problematic
aspects of L2 data collection such as, for example, the
difficulty researchers often have in interpreting potentially
ambiguous data, or the variability often found across and
within subjects. These issues have been illustrated by three
data sets: one on plurals, one on -ing marking and one on
prepositions. The authors summarise information from the
tables and model the dialectic process the researcher would
go through when analysing them, proposing and either
discarding or retaining a number of hypotheses. In so doing,
they discuss some important issues in data analysis such as
when exceptions are serious enough to compromise the
hypotheses, when the data available are not sufficient to
confirm or reject the hypotheses, or whether it is advisable
to ascribe particular meanings to learner utterances.
This chapter also features discussion of longitudinal
versus cross-sectional and experimental versus naturalistic
data-collection techniques, and qualitative versus
quantitative analyses. The authors provide many examples of
elicitation techniques reported in the literature and
introduce a short section on replication.
The penultimate section addresses such complex issues as
finding adequate indexes of development and units of
linguistic analysis, adopting appropriate scoring techniques
(with some very interesting discussion of the 'suppliance in
obligatory context' and 'target-like use' methods), and
determining the language variety to which L2 learners have
been exposed.
Finally, in a new section entitled 'What is acquisition?',
the authors mention some of the difficulties researchers
encounter when trying to determine the exact point at which
acquisition has taken place, citing such complicating matters
as backsliding and the different possible criteria that could
be adopted for determining what constitutes evidence that
acquisition has taken place.

Chapter 3: The role of the native language: an historical
The chapter begins with an introduction on the concept of
transfer and how it was interpreted in the early
psychological and linguistic literature. The rest of the
chapter is devoted to a detailed discussion of Contrastive
Analysis and Error Analysis, and to presenting the
theoretical and empirical challenges to these theories that
have accumulated over the years.

Chapter 4: Child language acquisition: first and second
This is one of the new chapters that Gass and Selinker
have introduced in the second edition of the book. Most of
the material is new, with the exception of certain examples
and exercises that were taken from other chapters in the
first edition.
The first two sections provide a summary of some important
facts of L1 acquisition such as developmental stages
(babbling>1-word stage>2-word stage>telegraphic stage) and
the predictable order of acquisition of certain morphemes.
The two following sections address the questions of transfer
and sequences of development in child SLA, presenting
evidence from the acquisition of question formation and
morpheme orders.

Chapter 5: Recent perspectives on the role of previously
known languages
This chapter is a modified version of chapter 4 in the
first edition. The child data originally discussed in that
chapter are now considered in the chapter dedicated to child
language acquisition (chapter 4); a section on phonology that
originally appeared in chapter 4 of the first edition is now
included in the chapter on SLA and Linguistics (chapter 6);
and a new section on IL transfer has been included in this
The chapter picks up from where chapter 3 leaves off, with
a discussion of the approaches to L1 influence that followed
Contrastive Analysis and Error Analysis. The first group of
studies presented are the Morpheme Order Studies of the
1970s, followed by a detailed summary of the challenges that
have been presented to this body of evidence. The conclusion
reached seems to be that the studies constitute an
interesting description of the facts but that a satisfactory
explanation of the morpheme orders is still lacking.
The following section deals with subsequent approaches
that have been adopted in the study of the role of the L1,
focusing on the effects of L1/L2 (perceived or actual)
distance, and the effects of the L1 in the rates and
sequences of L2 development and in the frequency of use of
particular L2 forms.
A new section on IL transfer in the context of
multilingual language acquisition has been added at the
end of this chapter. This is a fairly new area of research
and much of the data available are anecdotal. Nevertheless,
some studies have already been conducted, mostly
investigating lexical learning, and a good number have been
mentioned here. The authors pose the question of whether
multilingual speakers make better or worse L2 learners than
monolinguals and conclude that the evidence available at
present is contradictory and insufficient to provide a
definite positive or negative answer.

Chapter 6: SLA and Linguistics
This chapter is a modified version of chapter 5 in the
first edition. The section on phonology originally featured
in chapter 4 has been incorporated here, a new section on
Tense and Aspect has been introduced, and the section on
Universal Grammar (UG) that was originally part of this
chapter has been expanded and presented as a separate chapter
(chapter 7).
The starting point is a discussion of the parameters
within which languages can vary, both from cognitive and
typological perspectives. Parameters of variation are
illustrated by a detailed discussion of the Accessibility
Hierarchy and the acquisition of resumptive pronouns.
Universals are also exemplified by data from the acquisition
of questions and voicing.
In the new section on Tense and Aspect, the authors show
how lexical meaning and discourse structure are important
factors in the development of these categories in the L2,
with some discussion of the Aspect Hypothesis and the
Discourse Hypothesis.
The final section on phonology returns to the question of
typological universals and presents the Markedness
Differential Hypothesis, which was originally based on a
hierarchy of phonological difficulty. Phonological universals
are considered in relation to seemingly incompatible
explanations of L2 phonology, such as the effects of L1
transfer and sociolinguistic factors.

Chapter 7: Universal Grammar
In the first part of this new chapter the authors
introduce and define some of the key concepts of UG theory
(e.g., UG, principles, parameters, innateness, poverty of the
stimulus, Subset Principle). The following section summarises
current opposing views on what constitutes the L2 initial
state and subsequently examines data bearing on the
acquisition of principles and parameters in an L2. Finally,
the authors mention some of the modifications to the theory
introduced by the Minimalist Program, such as the shift of
attention away from principles and onto parametric variation
in the lexicon and particular grammatical features.

Chapter 8: Looking at interlanguage processes
This chapter is devoted to a discussion of the
psycholinguistic processing of the L2. It is a review of
some theories that have been proposed in the literature in
the past two decades, with special attention given to the
Competition Model (Bates and MacWhinney, 1982) and the
Monitor Model (Krashen, 1982, 1985).
This is followed by a section where some basic concepts
related to knowledge representation (e.g., implicit versus
explicit learning, controlled versus automatic processing,
automaticity, restructuring, monitoring, planning) are
defined and exemplified. The last section, a new feature of
the second edition, is a brief presentation of the basic
ideas behind Connectionism, with a couple of references to
connectionist models of L2 learning.

Chapter 9: Interlanguage in context
Gass and Selinker provide a detailed and well-presented
discussion of variation in L2 grammar in the first part of
this chapter, bringing in evidence from the acquisition of
phonology, morphology and syntax from various L2 studies. The
treatment of this topic is divided into variation resulting
from linguistic factors (e.g., the L1 or the phonological
environment) and variation related to the social context,
taking into account variables such as formality of the
situation, interlocutor, elicitation task, degree of
attention to form, interest in the discourse topic, content
knowledge and discourse domain. The section finishes with
some discussion of the relation between free and systematic
variation, and reference to two different approaches to the
explanation of L2 variation: the approach taken by
researchers in the Chomskyan tradition and that taken by
researchers like Ellis (1990) and Tarone (1990).
This is followed by a short section on communication
strategies, a concept with which researchers have
traditionally had some difficulty. The last section is about
IL pragmatics. Gass and Selinker point out that most of the
empirical research available relates to IL pragmatic use
rather than acquisition and argue that the study of L2
pragmatic development must be carried out bearing in mind its
direct relation to the development of L2 grammatical

Chapter 10: Input, interaction and output
The treatment of L2 input, interaction and output is one
of the topics in the book which receives more detailed
attention. Chapter 10 begins with a reference to the concepts
of input and intake (Corder, 1967) and some discussion of
the similarities between speech addressed to young children
('baby talk') and NNSs ('foreign talk'). Next is a section
which looks into the factors which aid understanding of
NNS speech and understanding of L2 speech by NNSs, and
comments on the differences between turn-taking in NS
conversation and interchanges with NNSs. In the last part of
this section the authors provide several examples of
different strategies used in the negotiation of meaning,
which they consider a crucial factor in triggering L2
The following section on output is a significantly
expanded version of section 8.4 in the previous edition. It
starts by citing research suggesting that output has an
important role in L2 development. According to the authors,
output can be beneficial to the process of language learning
for at least the following four reasons: (a) it allows
learners to test their hypotheses about the TL, (b) it
provides them with opportunities to get feedback on their
hypotheses, (c) it helps to develop automaticity in the L2,
and (d) it forces a shift from meaning-based to syntax-based
processing. In sections 10.4.1 to 10.4.4 the authors present
empirical studies in support of these claims.
Section 10.5 further explores the relation between
interaction and language learning. Gass and Selinker briefly
mention the innatist position, according to which input and
interaction have a limited role in language development, and
go on to discuss approaches which attribute more importance
to these factors. In particular, the Interaction
Hypothesis (Long, 1990) is considered and supporting
empirical evidence is presented.
Next, attention, noticing and focus on form are
considered in relation to L2 interaction and learning. The
Direct Contrast Hypothesis (Saxton, 1997), originally
proposed for L1A, is discussed in the context of L2A, and
other matters relating to metalinguistic awareness are
touched on. Finally, the authors make reference to research
indicating that L2 development can take place in a gradual or
discontinuous manner and that this varies according to the
area of grammar concerned.

Chapter 11: Instructed second language acquisition
This is another new chapter that begins with a discussion
of the different sources of input available to classroom
learners, namely materials, teachers and other learners, and
how the last two impact on the language learning process.
Some discussion of form-focused instruction follows and
examples of student interactions are presented where this
approach is put to practice. The conclusion reached is that
form-focused instruction is mostly beneficial, although not
an infallible teaching technique. In the last section the
authors mention a study which directly compares naturalistic
and instructed learners and finds that there are no
substantial differences in learning outcomes between the two

Chapter 12: Non-language influences
This chapter offers a very comprehensive coverage of many
and varied factors that have been suggested as influencing
individual L2 attainment, although the authors note
throughout the chapter that there are serious questions about
whether many of these factors are actually causal variables
in L2 development.
They start by reporting on research looking at the effects
of social factors (e.g., 'acculturation', linguistic
dominance, degree of social integration, culture shock) in L2
attainment, and they go on to consider the age factor. They
present an overview of how age interacts with other factors,
such as task type or language skill, and they briefly mention
the controversial issue of whether age effects are best
described as a gradual or abrupt change in L2 leaning
ability. A number of studies of ultimate attainment are
mentioned and some plausible explanations for age-related
differences in achievement are considered.
Next, Gass and Selinker tackle more controversial issues
such as the relation between language aptitude -defined as
phonemic coding ability, grammar sensitivity, inductive
learning ability or memory- and attainment. Another fairly
thorny issue they consider in some detail is motivation as a
predictor of L2 learning success. Finally they discuss how
personality factors impact on L2 learning and they consider
data related to anxiety, locus of control (i.e., how
individuals attribute causes to events that affect them),
extroversion, risk-taking and field (in)dependence. The
conclusion reached is that the evidence available is not
enough to show that any personality factor is a reliable
predictor or L2 success.
The final section on learning strategies briefly
discusses the type of behaviour typically associated with
good and poor learners but is mainly devoted to reporting the
many objections that researchers have to the concept and
providing empirical evidence on learner strategies.

Chapter 13: The lexicon
In the penultimate chapter Gass and Selinker argue that
the lexicon plays a crucial role in language learning. They
mention some of the taxonomy for lexical knowledge proposed
in the literature (e.g., potential versus real, active versus
passive, controlled versus free) and spell out some of the
common assumptions made when talking about lexical
information contained in L2 vocabulary items.
They mention a study documenting the transfer of lexical
patterns from the L1 to the L2 and present evidence that NSs
and NNSs differ in the type of association that lexical
items induce. They go on to discuss the more controversial
issue of incidental vocabulary learning and argue for a
view of the lexicon as a part of memory which is under
constant development and subject to regular restructuring.
The last section deals with productive and receptive
lexical skills and Levelt's (1989) model is presented as
an adequate model of L2 production/comprehension. Under this
view, lexical learning is conceived as the introduction of
modifications to the Conceptualizer (i.e., the processing
system which determines the notions expressed in the verbal
message). The section on perception devotes most of its
attention to the acquisition of phonology and word formation
rules and the suggestion is that the L1 influences the
perception strategies adopted by L2 learners. Finally, the
authors point out that word combinations, collocations and
phraseology are notoriously difficult areas in L2

Chapter 14: An integrated view of second language acquisition
In the last chapter Gass and Selinker present an
integrated conceptual model of SLA which intends to mirror
the dynamic and interactive nature of the L2 acquisition
process and how it interfaces with external systems. They
conceived the model as a five-stage system comprising the
following: (a) apperceived input (i.e., what is noticed and
retained for further analysis), (b) comprehended input (i.e.,
input which is comprehended for the purposes of interaction),
(c) intake (i.e., the linguistic material that is analysed),
(d) integration (i.e., the stage at which hypotheses are
either confirmed or rejected), and (e) output (i.e., the
stage at which the learner's hypotheses can be tested out).
Finally, the authors restate their account of language
development and fossilization as largely determined by
selective attention which they had introduced in chapter 10.


The clarity of the style and presentation of Second language
acquisition: an introductory course makes the discussion
accessible to the intended readership throughout the book.
The order of presentation of the material is adequate
for developing a one-term syllabus, although the instructor
can easily leave out chapters as they are mostly self-
contained. The book starts with the discussion of basic SLA
concepts and it equips the reader with methodological tools
for evaluating the empirical data presented in later
chapters. A transition which is rather forced is that between
chapters 3, 4 and 5: It is not immediately obvious why the
authors have chosen to introduce the new chapter on child L1A
(chapter 4) between the two chapters on the role of the L1
(chapters 3 and 5). Chapter 5 seems to be a logical
continuation of the discussion in chapter 3, and it may
therefore have been desirable to keep these chapters
together, as in the previous edition. Nevertheless, the
addition of a chapter on child L1 and L2 acquisition is a
welcome new feature, despite some shortcomings detailed
below. The following four chapters discuss SLA issues from
linguistic, cognitive, psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic
perspectives respectively, providing the reader with a
comprehensive survey of the major approaches to SLA research.
The following four chapters address other specialist topics.
Chapter 10 discusses L2 pragmatics, an area not frequently
treated in as much depth in introductory manuals. Chapter 11
incorporates a section on instructed SLA, chapter 12 surveys
a wide range of non-linguistic factors affecting L2A, and
chapter 13 is a good complement to chapter 8, providing
further discussion of psycholinguistic issues. Finally,
chapter 14 brings together many of the threads present in the
different chapters and rounds off this very comprehensive
introduction to L2 research with the proposal of an
integrated model of SLA.
The book's breadth of coverage is adequate for a one-
term university course, although the level of detail in the
treatment of the different topics is somewhat variable. The
instructor may find that some topics are not dealt with in
sufficient depth to meet course requirements and may wish to
supplement it with other readings. It is likely that this
will be the case for the chapter on child language
acquisition (chapter 4) or the one on instructed SLA (chapter
11). Other chapters, on the other hand, provide impressively
comprehensive coverage of the topics, such as chapter 2 on
research methodology, chapter 9 on IL variation, chapter 10
on L2 pragmatics or chapter 12 on individual variation. There
is also variability in the degree to which the authors
present a critical view of the issues discussed. In some
instances they simply provide a summary of the literature,
while in others they point to alternative interpretations of
the data, flaws of experimental designs, and the like. This
is very helpful, for example, in the discussion of how
personality factors affect the L2 learning outcome (section
The book has a number of features of considerable
pedagogical value, such as the 'Suggestions for further
reading' and 'Points for discussion' sections at the end
of each chapter. The follow-up activities usually comprise
concept-checking questions (e.g., 'How would transfer be
dealt with in Krashen's model?', chapter 8, question 1, page
218), open questions (e.g., 'Given the emphasis on input in
Krashen's model, how would you rate the possibility of
success in a study-abroad situation?', chapter 8, question 7,
page 220) and exercises where the students have to manipulate
L2 data sets (e.g., data from L1 Arabic/L2 English on the
development of negation, chapter 8, question 8, pages 220-
221). The indication of the relevance of material in Gass,
Sorace and Selinker (1999) to specific sections of the book
provides a useful lead to further material for those
interested in a more intensive practical treatment of
particular topics. The glossary of key terms at the end of
the book is also a helpful resource for newcomers to the
field, comprising approximately 120 entries spanning a good
range of subjects. An attractive feature of the glossary is
that the use of jargon has been avoided in the definitions,
but it must be noted that some are oversimplistic (e.g.,
phonology = the sound patterns of language; interaction =
conversations). A major strength of the book is, in my view,
the methodological discussion in chapter 2. This is an
excellent introduction to SLA research methodology which
students will find very valuable later in the course. It can
help raise their awareness of the importance of the chosen
methodological approach and can help them to become more
critical in their assessment of the empirical research
presented in subsequent chapters.
The rapid development of the field of SLA makes it very
difficult to keep abreast of all empirical and theoretical
advances. This second edition successfully captures some of
the new trends in the field, as reflected in the discussion
of multilingual language acquisition (chapter 5), the
inclusion of more recent studies on the acquisition of Tense
and Aspect (chapter 6), or the reference to the debate on the
initial state (chapter 7). On the other hand, one may have
some misgivings about the author's decision to keep lengthy
discussion of certain topics which have more historical than
current relevance to the field, and which could have been
discussed in less detail to give space to more up-to-date
issues. A case in point is the long description of the
Monitor Model, followed by a detailed critique and a number
of related follow-up activities in chapter 8. The same could
apply to the treatments of Contrastive Analysis and Error
Analysis (chapter 3), the Morpheme Order Studies (chapter 5)
or the Competition Model (chapter 8). Finally, some of the
material on child L1/L2 acquisition is new to the book, but
it contains references to work done in the 1970s for the most
part and very little is said about the large body of work
produced since then.
The authors take a balanced view of the issues they
discuss and say it explicitly when they side with a
particular approach. For example, they are very open about
their support for the Interaction Hypothesis and the view
that input and interaction play a crucial role in L2
development (chapter 10). The only sense in which they may be
considered biased is in relation to the amount of space
devoted to certain issues over others. For example, in the
chapter on instructed SLA (chapter 11) most attention centres
around two topics, namely the role of classroom input and
focus on form. Without denying the importance of these two
aspects of instructed SLA, it is evident that they under-
represent the interests of researchers working in this area.
But this is probably unfair criticism, given that it is
inevitable that some topics will have to be relegated in an
introductory textbook.
In conclusion, the second edition of Second language
acquisition: an introductory course, like the first one, is
an excellent resource for undergraduate or introductory
postgraduate courses in SLA. It combines good breath of
coverage and balanced treatment of the topics with a
remarkably accessible presentation of the material. Less
successful aspects of the book are the failure to incorporate
discussion of more up-to-date research in some areas and the
somewhat superficial treatment of a few others, but all in
all it is a very readable book which accomplishes its goals.
I think both instructors and students will enjoy working with


Florencia Franceschina is a PhD candidate at the Language and
Linguistics Department of the University of Essex. She is
working on the acquisition of morphosyntax in adult L2
speakers and is particularly interested in the syntactic
representations of the L2 endstate. She is a graduate
teaching assistant in the department and has taught courses
on general linguistics and SLA.