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Review of  Second Language Acquisition Research

Reviewer: Edward Zhisheng Wen
Book Title: Second Language Acquisition Research
Book Author: Fethi Mansouri
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 23.3660

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EDITOR: Fethi Mansouri
TITLE: Second Language Acquisition Research
SUBTITLE: Theory-Construction and Testing
PUBLISHER: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
YEAR: 2007

Zhisheng Wen (Edward), Hong Kong Shue Yan University


This edited volume contains major papers delivered at the ''5th International
Symposium on Processability, Bilingualism and Second Language Acquisition'' that
was held at Deakin University’s Melbourne Campus, 26-28 September 2005. Despite
its ambitious title, it mainly focuses on promoting and testing Manfred
Pienemann’s Processing Theory (PT) as applied to a number of typologically
different languages (e.g. English, Japanese, Swedish and Chinese).

Chapter 1 is the conventional introductory chapter written by the editor.
Mansouri begins with a brief account of historical trends and developments of
SLA research with respect to developments in morpheme order studies, thus
setting the scene for bringing Pienemann’s PT within the broader context of SLA
research. The second section further articulates how various chapters of the
book contribute to the two key themes running through the book, i.e. theory
construction and testing of PT, and empirical studies in bilingualism and speech
processing that are intended to provide further evidence for the major claims
stipulated by PT.

Chapter 2 provides an overview of PT written by its key proponent Manfred
Pienemann himself. Pienemann begins by acknowledging the sources of inspiration
for PT (i.e. Levelt’s speech production model and Bresnan’s lexical functional
grammar) and reiterating its four basic premises pertaining to language
processing or the grammatical processor (p. 13): being (1) largely automatic and
not consciously controlled; (2) incremental and cumulative; (3) linear in its
output; (4) subserved by a short-term memory store. The unique feature of PT, as
claimed by Pienemann, is that it possesses the capacity to predict developmental
trajectories for any second language, which are in turn indexed by key
developmental stages (p. 14). In other words, there is a hierarchy in the
process ability of various grammatical structures. Between these hierarchies,
there is also a certain degree of flexibility for the shape of L2 grammar that
leaves space for finer-grained hypotheses to be formulated by researchers (the
Hypothesis Space and Development Dynamics). In the second section of the
chapter, Pienemann summarizes the major empirical evidence in PT-based research,
which culminates in the ultimate goal of accommodating typologically different

Following the two introductory chapters, Chapter 3 by Kawaguchi presents the
first empirical study in this book, which aims to provide evidence (collected
from a longitudinal case study of an 18-year-old Australian girl learning
Japanese as a second language) to support the Unmarked Alignment Hypothesis and
the Lexical Mapping Hypothesis recently postulated within the tenets of
Pienemann’s PT. Despite some minor exceptions that need to be further explored,
the overall patterns of data converge to corroborate predictions made by the
these two specific hypotheses of PT in that canonical mapping indeed preceded
non-canonical structures and that the variety of non-canonical structures
increased in time.

In Chapter 4, Håkansson and Norrby focus on the “Steadiness Hypothesis” of PT
which claims that “the level of grammatical process ability is assumed to be
steady across different tasks as long as these tasks are based on the same skill
type in language production” (p. 81). To test this hypothesis, the authors drew
on written (composition and translation tasks) and oral (elicited communicative
tasks) data from 20 students learning Swedish either as a foreign language (with
nine from the Melbourne Group) or as an L2 (11 from the Malmo Group). Results
from both data sets supported the PT hierarchy despite their differences in
modality (written vs. oral), thus confirming the “Steady Hypothesis”. In other
words, there is an implicational order of structures and no gaps in the
hierarchy of process ability.

With a view to complementing previous PT studies in their emphasis on the
predictive power of the theory for language-specific acquisition stages,
Mansouri and Håkansson’s study described in Chapter 5 builds up a strong case
and provides preliminary evidence for incorporating intra-stage developmental
sequences as an additional explanatory tool for the Hypothesis Space. Citing
data from Arabic as a second language (ASL), with a focus on definiteness
markers, the authors argue that zero (null) and reduced marking in ASL can be
accounted for in terms of processing requirements and typological features
(form-function mappings). This study provides an additional perspective to the
Hypothesis Space as an explanatory module.

In a slightly different manner, Chapter 6, by Keßler, reports on a feasibility
study of the computer-assisted procedure of “Rapid Profile” as a tool for
conducting online assessment of EFL learner’s language development. The study
seeks justification for that claim that Rapid Profile offers PT researchers a
reliable and valid means of diagnosing EFL-development in formal L2 classroom
settings. Indeed, Keßler’s study reveals an inter-rater reliability of 85.7 per
cent, thus rendering the Rapid Profile a feasible diagnostic tool for
online-assessment. In addition, this data collection procedure has significant
implications for EFL teachers in that these language learning profiles captured
by the procedure can facilitate a smooth transition from the early start to a
more target language like final state of acquisition in classroom settings.

Chapter 7 by Zhang tests the Topic Hypothesis in the case of acquiring Chinese
as a second language. The Topic Hypothesis predicts that learners go through
three stages in their acquisition of L2 syntax, “beginning with a canonical
order and progressing toward a non-linear order of sentence structure” (p. 147).
The key thrust of the Topic Hypothesis lies in its assumption that the latter
order deviates from the linearity principle of mapping between argument,
functional and constituent structures. The language data collected by Zhang from
three English native speakers at an Australian university largely support the
principle of the Topic Hypothesis, showing the successive disassociation between
topic and subject elements, and between grammatical functions and sequential
positions in a sentence.

Chapters 8 to 11 are organized around the second theme of the book, i.e.
bilingualism and speech processing within the PT paradigm. In Chapter 8,
Itani-Adams looks into the lexical and grammatical development patterns of a
Japanese-English bilingual child (age 1;11 to 4;10) who was raised in a “one
parent one language” home environment since birth. Data analysis focuses on two
aspects of the relationship between lexicon and grammar as found in both
languages: on the one hand, verb stems and verbal morphemes; on the other, verbs
and the semantic function of arguments. Overall, the data suggest that,
regardless of different input languages, nouns are bootstrapped by the bilingual
child into each language while verbs showed different patterns of development
that were similar to monolingual children, thus indicating that lexical learning
is a language-specific operation. That is to say, Japanese and English each
developed in a separate but a parallel manner in this bilingual child, thus
providing evidence in support of the Separate Development Hypothesis for first
language acquisition.

By adding the underlying cognitive mechanism of short-term memory (STM) store
into the picture, Suarez and Goh’s study in Chapter 9 investigates the
codification process among bilinguals with different levels of English/Chinese
dominance. In line with the modality model of STM, the authors conducted two
experiments and manipulated the phonological and visual features of words and
examined their influence on the degree of semantic proactive interference (PI)
in a short-term cued recall task. The results of both experiments suggest that
the codification process of these bilinguals depends largely on their dominant
language. Chinese dominants seem not to use phonological nor visual strategies
to memorize in a cued recall task, while mixed dominants recode phonologically
and store the information in a phonological code. Equally interesting is the
finding that English dominants who were less proficient in Chinese also seemed
to experience more severe visual and phonological interference, while Chinese
dominant bilinguals did not show any evidence of this influence on PI,
indicating that they have a very integrated phonological, visual and semantic
memory system.

Turning away from bilingual to multilingual processing, Van den Noort, Bosch and
Hugdahl’s study in Chapter 10 explores the processing of relative clauses among
20 multilingual learners who were all native Dutch speakers (L1), are fluent in
German (L2), and started learning Norwegian (L3). Previously, L1 research has
shown that subject relatives are easier to comprehend than object relatives. The
authors test the hypothesis that object relatives cause a greater working memory
load. Ten participants started their free acquisition of Norwegian (L3) in the 6
months prior to the study (early stage L3 learners), whereas the other ten
started their acquisition of Norwegian more than 3 years before (more advanced
L3 learners). Participants were administered a relative clause task in all three
languages, a reading span task (verbal working memory) in Norwegian (L3) and a
number ordering task. The results show that differences in subject and object
relatives can only be found among participants who are in an advanced stage of
third language acquisition. In addition, both verbal and non-verbal working
memory task scores were not correlated with the total comprehension score on the
relative clause task in all three languages, which is in line with the Separate
Sentence Interpretation Resource theory of working memory.

The final chapter of the book, Chapter 11 by Kim and Kwon, proposes a Parallel
Developmental Sequences (PDS) model for SLA that integrates three separate L2
developmental modules: procedural developmental sequence, syntactic
developmental sequence, and morphological developmental sequence. Emulating the
logic of the connectionist Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP) model in
cognitive psychology, the PDS model proposes that L2 development follows a
series of parallel developmental stages sequentially: with one of the three
mechanisms (i.e. the procedural, the syntactic, and the unificational
mechanism) being activated first, and then interconnected, and finally
synchronized with each other before moving to the next state of the PDS (p.
249). The PDS model is put to the test by empirical research on sentence
construction tests through a real-time experimental method. Responses from 136
Korean college students were collected and analyzed, culminating in an
implicational scale vis-à-vis their developmental stages in terms of PDS. The
results showed that the implicational scale reached a satisfactory level of .83,
thus rendering the PDS model a viable framework for gauging interlanguage
development of L2 learners.


To sum up, this edited volume has significantly broadened the theoretical bases
and the application areas of Pienemann’s Processability Theory (PT) within the
SLA research arena. First, on the theoretical front, the book does not just
further recapitulate the major tenets of PT (Chapter 2) -- which is important
and necessary for readers who are new to the theory -- but also successfully
extends the existing PT paradigm to include a conceptual framework that serves
to account for intra-stage developmental sequences (Chapter 5) and also a more
ambitious PDS model (Chapter 11) that integrates multiple parallel procedures in
L2 interlanguage development. On the applied side, the book also adds further
dynamics to the PT paradigm by reinforcing the computer-assisted data collection
procedure of Rapid Profile (Chapter 6), which will have significant implications
for L2 classroom research and practice.

The most important contribution of this edited volume, as I see it, is its
initial efforts to incorporate the construct of short-term memory (Chapter 9)
and working memory (Chapter 10) as a postulated cognitive mechanism subserving
the processing of grammatical structures by L2 learners. Despite the
unimpressive findings as reported in both studies with the working memory tasks
(verbal and non-verbal) in language processing, there are ample reasons to
believe that if working memory had been operationalized differently and tested
by different measures, the results could be quite different (cf. Wen, 2012). In
other words, it is still quite likely that the limited capacity of working
memory should have significant impact on the processing of L2 grammatical
structures. Further PT-based studies can follow on this line of development to
demystify the role of working memory in L2 processing.

Pienemann clearly indicates in his introduction to PT in Chapter 2 that PT as a
theory draws heavily on Levelt’s speech production model. However, it should be
noted that Levelt’s (1989) model is mainly based on L1 speech production, which
tends to be largely automatic (though see Hartsuiker & Barkhuysen, 2006 for a
different view). When it comes to L2 learning then, it is quite likely that L2
learners need to draw on more working memory resources in processing L2
grammatical structures as opposed to L1 processing (McLaughlin, 1995). That is
to say, the basic premises of PT as stated by Pienemann (p. 13) may need to be
re-evaluated and augmented in light of such limited capacity of working memory
and the consequences they may in turn bring to bear on the processing of
grammatical structures in L2 (Payne & Ross, 2005). More empirical studies
following this line will prove to be critical for PT to make its foray into a
more viable framework accounting for cross-linguistic influences among L2
learners in processing typologically different languages.


Hartsuiker, R.J., & P. N. Barkhuysen (2006). Language production and working
memory: The case of subject-verb agreement. Language and Cognitive Processes,
21, 181-204.

Levelt, W. J. M. (1989). Speaking: From intention to articulation. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.

McLaughlin, B. 1995. Aptitude from an information processing perspective.
Language Testing, 11: 364-381.

Payne, J. S. and Ross, B. (2005). Working memory, synchronous CMC, L2 oral
proficiency development. Language Learning and Technology, 9(3), 35-54.

Wen, Z. (2012). Working memory and second language learning. International
Journal of Applied Linguistics, 22: 1–22. doi: 10.1111/j.1473-4192.2011.00290.x

Zhisheng Wen (Edward) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Hong Kong Shue Yan University. His current research foci are theoretical and methodological issues surrounding “Working memory as foreign language aptitude” in SLA. Dr. Wen’s papers have appeared in many academic journals and his monograph “Working memory and second language learning” will be published by Multilingual Matters. He is the recipient of several international research awards and grants, including the recent 2012 'Language Learning' Roundtable Conference Grant which enabled him to convene an International Roundtable on “Memory and SLA” in Hong Kong (June 2012). Following the Roundtable, he is now working on an edited volume and a special journal issue on working memory and SLA.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 1443800449
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