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Review of  Key Concepts in Second Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Alex Ho-Cheong Leung
Book Title: Key Concepts in Second Language Acquisition
Book Author: Shawn Loewen Hayo Reinders
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 22.4826

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AUTHORS: Shawn Loewen and Hayo Reinders
TITLE: Key Concepts in Second Language Acquisition
SERIES TITLE: Palgrave Key Concepts
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR: 2011

Alex Ho-Cheong Leung, School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics,
Newcastle University, U.K.

This book targets a wide audience including students, researchers, and teachers
interested in teaching a second/foreign language. It is the latest of Palgrave’s
“key concepts” titles specifically tailored for undergraduate students. It comes
with a 4-page overview of second language acquisition (SLA) where those three
words are defined respectively along with related concepts such as regional and
social variations. The rationale for the selection of terms included is also
explained. The introduction is followed by a comprehensive list of terms and
definitions covering important concepts in SLA. Most entries are accompanied by
suggestions for readings for those who want to explore further. A few key
references are given at the end before the index.

A typical entry consists of a definition of the term listed, concepts that are
crossed-referenced with the entry and a reference related to the term defined.
The definition given is aimed to be specifically relevant to SLA, since terms
such as “bilingualism” (p.21), “variation” (pp.175-6) may have a “(slightly)
different meaning in other fields” (xiii). Take “acquisition” (p.6) as an
example; this entry includes two definitions, the first of which defines
acquisition as the “general process of L2 development that occurs as learners
are exposed to L2 input” (p.6), and the second contrasting acquisition with
“learning” in light of Krashen’s “acquisition” and “learning” dichotomy. Related
concepts such as “development” and “implicit L2 knowledge” are highlighted for
cross-referencing. These are then followed by references relevant to the entry,
in this case work by Krashen (1982; 1985). Where appropriate, language
data/excerpts are given as exemplifications of the concept defined. Examples of
that include an exchange between two learners under the entry for “confirmation
check” (p.38):

1. Learner A: Now draw some ducks in a pond.
2. Learner B: Yeh.
3. Learner A: Draw now.
4. Learner B: Now? All the time you tell me now what to draw?
5. Learner A: Yeh I have the picture and you need to draw it. No looking.
6. Learner B: Oh, I draw ducks then all over here.
(Mackey et al. 2007: 303)

Tables and figures are used to add substance to some entries as can be seen in
the entry of “universal grammar (UG)” (pp.171-2) where various positions
regarding access to UG in SLA are given in a table, and a diagram from MacIntyre
et al. (1998:547) is included for “willingness to communicate (WTC)” (pp.178-9)
to reinforce the definition.

The scope of coverage of this book is quite comprehensive; it encompasses over
400 entries of concepts pertaining to the study of SLA, ranging from those of
methodological concerns (e.g. grammaticality judgement test (pp.77-8)) to
general framework of reference for language proficiencies (e.g. Common European
Framework of Reference (p.30)). Most mainstream theoretical approaches in the
field are included, e.g. Generative Grammar (p.76)/Universal Grammar (p.171),
Connectionism (pp.38-9), Usage-based theories (p.173), Processability Theory
(pp.140-1). Apart from major theoretical enquiries, the glossary also includes
entries related to the applied aspect of SLA such as learner strategies
(pp.108-9), individual learner differences (pp.88-9), teaching methodologies
(e.g. total physical response (p.167)), etc. Furthermore, the inclusion of
up-to-date references under most entries sets it apart from other similar
glossaries where the bibliography tends to come towards the end, making
immediate cross-referencing more difficult. In what follows, I point out some
issues regarding the terms defined where I believe improvements can be made and
where the layout and editing on occasion impinge on the quality of the content.

Although the majority of concepts are clearly defined, two entries deserve some
attention. They are the one on ''cross-sectional research'' (p.47) and that on
''markedness'' (p.112). The authors defined ''cross sectional research'' as ''a type
of research that attempts to look at language development by collecting a
one-off sample of data from a large number of learners of different proficiency
levels rather than by following learners over a period of time'' (p.47). However,
I find the definition too limiting as ''different proficiency levels'' is only one
of many criteria that can be used to divide groups in a cross-sectional SLA
research, including ''age'', ''length of exposure'', ''age of onset''. In fact, a
cross-sectional research design is more aptly defined as a technique by which
''we collect a comparatively large amount of data at one point in time, hence
obtaining a snapshot of the status quo'' (Litosseliti 2010: 57). This research
method, sometimes referred to as an ''apparent-time'' design, forms a polar
contrast with a longitudinal design which stretches over a period of time. Thus,
the emphasis of the definition should have focused solely on the matter of
''time'' rather than the dividing criterion, in this case narrowly treated as
levels of proficiency. The entry for ''markedness'', on the other hand, is largely
unproblematic until ''conceptual markedness'' is discussed. The authors claim that
''robin'' and ''chicken'' are prototypical or unmarked examples of the concept
''bird''. This analogy seems to make perfect sense when the comparison is made
with ''kiwi'' and ''ostrich''. However, conceptual markedness as a construct is not
without problems as speakers of different languages brought up in different
cultures might have diverse understandings of an ostensibly identical concept
(cf. linguistic relativity/Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). That is to say, an entity
(conceptual/abstract) considered ''unmarked'' by one speaker might be seen
differently by others. In the example given, a ''chicken'' might not be an
unmarked prototype of a ''bird'' for some, since a chicken cannot fly while most
''birds'' can, e.g. sparrow, robin, dove. In addition, evidence suggests that
multilinguals may perceive the same concept differently from monolinguals in the
respective languages (Athanasopoulos 2011). Thus, the explication of conceptual
markedness at its current state is over-simplistic if not misconstrued.

Moreover, some entries could have been improved by including more information.
For instance, a relation between the second definition of ''first language''
(pp.65-66) and ''language dominance''/''dominant language'' could be drawn to enrich
this entry. Likewise, the authors might have also referred readers to the term
''primary linguistic data (PLD)'' in the entry on ''input'' (p.91). Similarly,
readers could also be made aware of the alternative name for ''poverty of
stimulus'' (p.136), ''Plato’s problem''. On the other hand, the book would have
benefitted from reference to online materials such as Vivian Cook’s page
(, which contains an
impressive amount of material on SLA. In addition, it would also be useful to
include a list of journals where SLA research is frequently published;
interested readers can then delve into the relevant outlets listed for further
references and details.

Turning to editorial issues, the key terms defined in the book are
cross-referenced with related concepts in most cases by bolding or explicitly
referring readers to a specific section at the end of the definition (e.g.
section 2). However, in several instances the terms are highlighted but not
listed as separate entries. Although some will be clear to most readers (e.g.
IELTS and TOFEL), others may not necessarily be immediately apparent (e.g.
type-token ratio, feedback). Relying on learners being able to refer to the
entry on ''corrective feedback'' where only ''feedback'' is in bold (under the entry
for ''uptake'' (pp.172-173)) assumes previous knowledge that users of this book
might not have; needless to say, ''feedback'' itself does not have to be
corrective in nature if “corrective” is taken to mean negative/explicit in this
context (cf. recast, elicitation). On the other hand, some terms that should
have received emphasis under the related entry had not been pointed out. For
example, ''learning'', a concept closely related to ''acquisition'' should have been
cross-referenced under this entry (p.6). In a similar light, ''naturalistic
language acquisition'' under the entry on ''instructed second language acquisition
(ISLA)'' (p.93) should have been highlighted.

Perhaps more significant are errors that bear on the quality of the definitions.
For example, the sample sentence given to illustrate a yes/no inversion in table
6 on p. 141 should have been ''Has he seen you?'' instead of the non-inverted
version, ''He has seen you?'' which is an echo question or intonation question.
Likewise, the voiced dental fricative which was referred to as a phonology
feature was introduced by phonetic square brackets, [ ], under the entry for
markedness (p.112) instead of phonological slanted brackets, //. This confusion
muddles the distinction between phonology and phonetics. The former is defined
as “the study of way speech sounds are organised into patterns and systems”
(Davenport and Hannahs 2011: 244), while the latter is “the study of physical
aspects of speech sounds” (ibid.). It is important that the clarity of and
distinctions between such fundamental concepts are maintained. Addressing the
issues raised above and other editorial and formatting issues (e.g. the
mis-ordering of the ''Emergentism'' entry (pp.57-58) which came between other
entries in “en”) will definitely help to improve the consistency and readability
of the text in a future edition.

All in all, despite the few issues raised here and the suggestion for
improvements, this comprehensive glossary is a handy tool for anyone interested
in SLA.

Athanasopoulos, P. (2011). Color and bilingual cognition. In Cook, V., Bassetti,
B., (eds.) “Language and bilingual cognition”. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Davenport, M., and Hannahs, S.J. (2011). “Introducing phonetics and phonology”.
(3rd edn.) London: Hodder Education.

Krashen, S. (1982). “Principles and practice in second language acquisition”.
Oxford: Pergamon.

Krashen, S. (1985). “The input hypothesis: issues and implications”. London:

Litosseliti, L. (2010). ''Research methods in linguistics''. London: Continuum.

MacIntyre, P.D., Clément, R., Dörnyei, Z., and Noels, K.A. (1998).
“Conceptualizing willingness to communicate in a L2: a situational model of L2
confidence and affiliation”. Modern Language Journal, 82 (4), 545-562.

Mackey, A., Kanganas, A.P., and Oliver, R. (2007). “Task familiarity and
interactional feedback in child ESL classrooms”. TESOL Quarterly, 41, 285-312.

Alex Ho-Cheong Leung is a final-year PhD student in English Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University, U.K. where he is also a tutor for the courses 'Core issues in SLA', 'Introduction to phonetics and phonology' and 'Introduction to English Historical Linguistics'. His primary research interests are child second language acquisition and phonology, as well as sociolinguistics, bilingualism and historical linguistics.

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