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Review of  A Dynamic Approach to Second Language Development

Reviewer: Julie Bruch
Book Title: A Dynamic Approach to Second Language Development
Book Author: Marjolijn H. Verspoor Kees de Bot Wander Lowie
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
General Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Discipline of Linguistics
Issue Number: 22.4013

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EDITORS: Marjolijn H. Verspoor, Kees de Bot, and Wander Lowie
TITLE: A Dynamic Approach to Second Language Development
SUBTITLE: Methods and Techniques
SERIES: Language Learning and Language Teaching 29
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2011

Julie Bruch, Department of Languages and Literature, Colorado Mesa University


This book suggests a new pragmatic approach to second language (L2) research
methodology. The book's main purpose is twofold: (1) to present strategies from
a dynamic systems approach for analyzing second language development, focusing
both on ''intra-individual and inter-individual variation over time'' (p. 2), and
(2) to show how data from computational modeling and simulations can be combined
with empirical linguistic data to more effectively discover processes involved
in language development. The book also sets out to convince readers that
mathematical modeling techniques are worth mastering and can help future
researchers obtain valid and convincing data. The editors suggest that obtaining
such data will continue to promote the dynamic system perspective of language,
giving us new ways of understanding the complexities and high variability found
in language.

This volume consists of eight papers contributed by pioneers in the field of
dynamic systems theory (DST). Its audience is student and professional
researchers in applied linguistics and especially in L2 development. The papers
will be of interest to those who are interested in learning and applying the
methods/techniques of DST as well as to those still invested in more traditional
approaches. The opening chapters explain some of the theoretical underpinnings
of the DST perspective, and subsequent chapters present detailed descriptions of
how the theory has been applied in actual studies. One overriding theme
emphasized in these papers is the importance of moving forward from traditional
analytical methodology (such as that based on Chomskyian theory) toward the
greater explanatory richness provided by the analyses possible in DST.

The first paper by Kees de Bot and Diane Larsen-Freeman is ''Researching Second
Language Development from a Dynamic Systems Theory Perspective.'' It begins by
explaining some of the ways in which DST is distinct from traditional L2
acquisition theories (see earlier work such as Celce-Murcia, Doughty and Long,
and Larsen-Freeman and Long). The paper goes on to outline the nature of dynamic
systems in general (following characterizations similar to those found in recent
work by Ellis and Larsen-Freeman), and it provides numerous examples of how the
features of dynamic systems are particular to second language use and
development. The key point suggested here is that DST is especially powerful as
a tool for studying phenomena that are comprised of a multiplicity of complex
variables and therefore un-amenable to prediction or traditional analyses. For
example, in traditional approaches, it has been challenging or unnecessary to
simultaneously quantify the multiple interactions of various subsystems of
language or of the influence of internal and external factors on individual
language development. The authors claim that the DST approach is an effective
way of measuring and describing the ways in which such multiple variables
interact. Another important idea of DST discussed here is that of cognition
being ''embodied'' and socially situated (p. 17-18) rather than isolated in the
brain of the individual. This idea necessitates a shift in language development
research methodology. The paper mentions theories (such as complex adaptive
systems theory (p. 8) and emergentist theories (p. 17)) which because of their
rejection of the nativist approach, including the innateness of language
perspective and universal grammar (UG), have stirred some controversy and
created new paradigms of thinking in the field of linguistics, particularly in
the past decade. The paper closes by pointing out that there are great
challenges inherent in researching dynamic systems, which by definition hold
everything to be related to everything else and which seem to have infinite
variables. Due to these challenges, an entirely new view is emerging in which
the job of a good theory is not necessarily to predict and generalize, but
rather, to identify patterns and relationships in a descriptive rather than
explanatory manner. This paper introduces the succeeding chapters by
convincingly arguing for employment of the DST approach in language development

The second paper, ''Dynamic Systems Theory and a usage-based approach to Second
Language Development,'' by Marjolijn Verspoor and Heike Behrens, explains in
greater detail why language development should be treated as a complex dynamic
system and then lays out some of the variables that can be usefully analyzed
using the DST approach. The authors show why the paradigms of UG and the
syntactic systems approach have become inadequate by overviewing some of the
features of more recent language learning theories. They explain how the newer
theories are mutually compatible and tell why these theories provide a more
coherent picture of the processes involved in second language development. The
theories they discuss include: cognitive linguistics (Langacker 2008),
emergentism (Hopper 1998), grammaticalization (Bybee 2008), connectionism (Elman
1995), activation theory (Rumelhart and McClelland 1987), and usage-based
theories, such as the model suggested by MacWhinney (2008). Interacting
variables discussed here as areas easily handled by such approaches include:
frequency of exposure and usage, the role of the first language (L1) in L2
development, the role of social interaction, variability of input and output,
and individual variables which create differences from predicted outcomes. The
main goal of this chapter is to convince the readers that in order to understand
L2 development more clearly, we need to examine how such variables function
simultaneously as a dynamic system.

Each of the remaining chapters of the book describes actual case studies carried
out using the DST approach. The first of these is ''Coding and extracting data,''
by Monika S. Schmid, Brian MacWhinney, and Marjolijn Verspoor. This paper
provides a model of how linguistic software, including word processors, spread
sheets, and language coding and analysis programs can be used to answer
questions about L2 development from the DST perspective. The authors explain
that because the DST approach recognizes the inherent instability and
variability of language in language learners, data should be longitudinal and
spontaneously produced under natural conditions. Compared to elicited data,
collection and analysis is more challenging, and therefore, there must be
greater reliance on efficient transcription, coding, and automatized computing.
In the case study outlined here, the authors show the elegance and efficiency of
computer-generated statistical analyses. For their three-year longitudinal
collections of data, they were able to identify and quantify the details of
mutual interactions of syntactic structures and lexicon in an individual L2
learner of English. The CLAN, CHILDES, and CHAT programs were recommended in
this paper as resources for achieving such analyses. By simultaneously measuring
a multiplicity of variables (such as sentence length and type, clause types,
lexical type/token ratio, number of new words used, rarity of lexical items
chosen, and length of the content words used), the researchers were able to
describe with great precision how the variables competed with each other during
language development and also precisely when and how the ''trade-offs'' (p. 54)
between different skills occurred. This study illustrates how the ability to
obtain and quantify rich data feeds into increased richness in the research
questions asked.

Chapter 4, ''Variability and DST,'' by Marijn van Dijk, Marjolijn Verspoor and
Wander Lowie, continues the discussion of effective ways to measure and describe
variability in L2 development. The paper opens by discussing reasons why
variability was largely ignored in earlier models of L2 acquisition research,
and it goes on to describe in detail how studies of variability have flourished
as its importance was better recognized. The paper articulates clearly why
intra- and inter-individual variability among L2 learners should be considered a
central ''sound'' in the development of language rather than just a ''noise'' (p.
60). The authors revisit a classic 1978 study of L2 negative verb constructions
which concluded that it was impossible to write rules for the inter-language
points of development (Cancino, Rosansky, and Schumann). By re-organizing the
original raw data from that study into computer-generated visuals, re-plotting
the data using statistical ''sketches'' (p. 72), and carrying out resampling
analyses, the authors are able to reach a number of significant conclusions
related to patterns of individual learner variability, including where, when,
and how it occurs. The statistical techniques are explained without overly
technical details; however, the explanations are adequate to provide confidence
to readers who want to follow suit with their own investigations.

Chapter 5, ''Visualizing interactions between variables,'' by Marjolijn Verspoor
and Marijn van Dijk, examines more closely means of evaluating possible
relationships between mutually interacting variables (called ''growers,'' p.
85-86) to determine whether they are worthy of deeper inspection. This study
examines the findings reported in Chapter 3 to see how additional information
about the relationship between syntactic and lexical development can be gained
using distinct coding and analytical techniques. Since this paper also serves as
an introduction to the computer modeling techniques described in Chapter 6, it
becomes rather more technical than previous chapters. For example, it describes
the use of smoothing functions, the normalization of smoothed data, and ways to
develop moving correlation coefficients. While this terminology may be new and
intimidating to some readers, the associated methodologies are explained in
understandable terms, and helpful links to the ''How to'' sections are plentiful.
The paper demonstrates that relationships between ''growers'' in language
development can be visibly represented and that the statistical techniques
outlined can not only further clarify how the ''trade-offs'' mentioned in Chapter
3 function but also help determine whether the relationships between variables
are worthy of further investigation by means of modeling and simulation in order
to make further generalizations and test resulting assumptions.

Chapter 6, by Wander Lowie, Tal Caspi, Paul van Geert, and Henderien Steenbeek,
is entitled ''Modeling development and change.'' This last case study demonstrates
that computer simulations of variability in language development can provide a
final, more conclusive test of theoretical assumptions. The paper initially
presents a helpful overview of types of mathematical modeling. For readers new
to the techniques used in DST research, computer modeling may be intimidating,
but this chapter shows how it can be an effective way to approach what may be an
overwhelming set of hypotheses. Again, the information becomes rather technical,
but it is explained using readily understandable examples from L1 and L2
development as well as references to previous work. The authors argue that the
use of modeling and simulations is essential in testing whether the assumptions
arising from analysis of actual language data hold true when it is simulated on
a grander scale. They show how modeling allows a great number of interacting
variables to be tested simultaneously, and they report on their case study which
tests the interaction of internal and external factors on both passive and
active vocabulary growth over time. By entering empirical data into the computer
and specifying certain parameters, the researchers show how computer-simulated
iterations can statistically model some of the probable development patterns.
The authors explain how to compare simulated results statistically to those
obtained from actual data in order to test validity. They sum up by suggesting
that modeling techniques can be key in successfully describing dynamic features
of language development and also help determine the validity of theories. They
also emphasize that modeling provides a powerful way of speculating about
further language growth at later stages of development. Some critics may be
convinced to try out the DST perspective, and many readers will feel equipped to
begin using some of these techniques in their own research.

A short epilogue to the book re-emphasizes the focus of the dynamic approach to
studying language as one that attempts to describe a constantly moving and
evolving target. Here, we are reminded once again that for such an evasive
object of study, it may suffice for a theoretical model to simply describe and
quantify the interacting variables of language development rather than to
determine causal factors. This final chapter ends by challenging others to
master the basics of DST research methodology in order to extend the scope and
weight of the dynamic systems movement.

Seventy pages at the end of the book provide detailed ''How to'' explanations
replete with visuals. These sections contain step-by-step instructions for
carrying out the computer-assisted language analyses mentioned in the earlier
chapters. Some examples are: how to format a CHAT file, using Macros in
Microsoft Word, how to do lexical frequency counts, and how to employ resampling
techniques using Excel. Rather than being an appendix, these seventy pages are
an integral piece in accomplishing the book's goal of actually enabling readers
to engage in the new paradigms of DST research. For those who are already well
into such research, these pages will likely help to expand their capabilities or
serve as easy-reference reminders of some of the details.


This book achieves its goal of describing and illustrating in practical terms
some of the DST research methods currently being developed. Chapters 1 and 2
argue cogently for the value of DST in conceptualizing L2 development. The ideas
and techniques outlined will be accessible to researchers who are new to the
computer-generated analytical techniques described here. Chapters 3 and 4, in
particular, provide excellent examples of the richness of the DST approach.
Readers may be left a bit dazzled by the possibilities suggested in Chapter 6,
but they are certain to also be inspired. Small boxes at key points throughout
the book direct readers to the linked ''How to'' sections at the end of the book,
so that they can pause and find examples of actual data and detailed
instructions related to data collection, transcription, and coding. There are
also over 40 graphic figures in the chapters that allow the written explanations
to be more succinct by providing clear visuals.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is that it will be relevant to both
novice and experienced researchers. The novice will find advice, examples, and
encouragement. More experienced researchers will find a convenient reference to
much of the field-breaking work being done within the DST perspective as well as
tips for extending their methodology. Another strength is that the book's
ability to reduce extremely challenging and technical methodology to manageable
bits will inspire readers to engage in such methodology themselves. The main
genius of this book is its ability to translate very complex ideas and
methodology into layman's terms. Those who dislike mathematical processing will
be enabled to integrate these new methodologies into their work.

Much of the information in the ''How to'' sections at the end of the book is
readily available elsewhere. For example, it is easy to find detailed
instructions for coding language in the CHAT or CHILDES programs on the
respective websites for those programs. However, having a minimal outline of
such procedures at hand in this book allows the reader who is unfamiliar with
such programs to refer to the ''How to'' sections without having to go directly to
the websites to understand what is being described in the chapters. The
technical writing in these sections is clear, succinct, and effective.

One small inconvenience in this book is that while there are many references
within the book to specific chapter numbers, nowhere are the chapters listed by

The DST perspective has deep implications for the study of second language
development. This book, while relatively short in length, is long in innovation,
and it will contribute in unique ways to our understanding of dynamic systems
and of the theory and its many applications.


Bybee, J. (2008) Usage-based grammar and second language acquisition. In P.
Robinson and N. Ellis (Eds.), Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second
Language Acquisition (pp. 216-236). London: Routledge.

Cancino, H., Rosansky, El, and Schumann, J. (1978) The acquisition of English
negatives and interrogatives by native Spanish speakers. In E. M. Hatch (Ed.),
Second Language Acquisition: A Book of Readings (pp. 207-230). Rowley, MA:
Newbury House.

Celce-Murcia, Marianne (Ed.). (2001) Teaching English as a Second or Foreign
Language, 3rd edition. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Doughty, Catherine J., and Long, Michael H. (Eds.). (2003) The Handbook of
Second Language Acquisition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Ellis, Nick C. and Larsen-Freeman, Diane (Eds.). (2009) Language as a Complex
Adaptive System. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Elman, J. (1995) Language as a dynamical system. In R. Port and T. van Gelder
(Eds.), Mind as Motion (pp. 195-225). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Hopper, P. (1998) Emergent grammar. In M. Tomasello (Ed.), The New Psychology of
Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure (pp.
155-175). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Langacker, R. W. (2008) Cognitive grammar as a basis for language instruction.
In P. Robinson and N. Ellis (Eds.), Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second
Language Acquisition (pp. 66-88). London: Routledge.

Larsen-Freeman, D. and Long, M. (1991) An Introduction to Second Language
Acquisition Research. New York: Longman.

MacWhinney, B. (2008) A unified model. In P. Robinson and N. Ellis (Eds.),
Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition (pp. 341-371).
London: Routledge.

Rumelhart, D. and McClelland, J. (1987) Learning the past tense of English
verbs: Implicit rules or parallel processing? In B. MacWhinney (Ed.), Mechanisms
of Language Acquisition (pp. 195-248). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Julie Bruch hold a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Kansas. She currently teaches Linguistic Diversity, History of English, Structure of English, and Beginning Japanese at Colorado Mesa University. Her principle research interests are culture and language and language change and diversity.