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Review of  Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Annamaria Cacchione
Book Title: Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition
Book Author: Dwight Atkinson
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Cognitive Science
Language Acquisition
Discipline of Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.4614

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EDITOR: Dwight Atkinson
TITLE: Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor & Francis)
YEAR: 2011

Annamaria Cacchione, Departamento de Filología Italiana, Universidad Complutense
de Madrid


This book starts from the consideration that, in the last 20 years, several
interesting ''alternative'' approaches to SLA research have arisen --
alternative in the sense that they do not belong to the dominant cognitive
perspective. All these approaches developed autonomously, without being able to
integrate and reducing, in this way, their heuristic potential. According to the
editor and author, Dwight Atkinson, ''it therefore becomes necessary for all the
varied perspectives, and this includes cognitivism, […] to ''talk'' to each other''
to achieve at last a ''richer, more multidimensional understanding of SLA'' (p. xi).

The volume begins with a detailed and clear introduction that outlines the goals
of the book and summarizes each of the following six chapters, corresponding to
six different alternative approaches. The book ends with a discussion of the
presented approaches, thus summarizing some of the most relevant findings and
providing a comprehensive point of view.

The Introduction -- ''Cognitivism and Second Language Acquisition'' -- by
Atkinson, is focused just on cognitivism, as the main reference point for the
whole book. After defining it by means of a set of ten main features -- the
first three being ''mind as a computer'', ''representationalism'' and ''learning as
abstract knowledge acquisition'' -- and tracing back its roots in the Cartesian
dualism, he describes the Cognitive Revolution, born as a direct response to
American behaviourism and fully developed by Chomsky starting in 1959.

Atkinson then highlights what in his opinion are the cognitivist bases of SLA:
Krashen’s emphasis on input, Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis (1990) and the
editing of “The Handbook of SLA” (2003) by Catherine Doughty and Michael Long.

The last part of the Introduction presents the common plan Atkinson, as the
editor of the book, proposed to all the authors in order to ''to make those
approaches directly comparable'' (p. 16). The comparability lies in the common
organization of each chapter, structured around the same six topics/questions
that the editor put to all the contributors: Overview (distinctive features of
the approach); Theoretical principles of the alternative approach; Research
methods; Supporting findings; Differences vis-à-vis other alternative approaches
described; and Future directions of the proposed alternative approach.

The first chapter -- “The sociocultural approach to Second Language
Acquisition: sociocultural theory, second language acquisition, and artificial
L2 development” - is by James Lantolf. His contribution is built on the key
idea of mediation, defined as follows: ''If/how learners develop their ability to
use the new language to mediate (i.e. regulate or control) their mental and
communicative activity'' (p. 24). The sociocultural approach -- first
elaborated by Vygotsky (1978) - focuses on the development of the mediational
ability. ''Translated'' into SLA research, ''this means studying how learners
deploy the new language to regulate their behavior when confronted with
communicatively or cognitively challenging tasks'' (p. 26). In the “Supporting
findings” section, Lantolf highlights issues that are particularly relevant in
daily life at school (e.g. the connection with classroom interaction and
teacher’s feedback uptake).

The second contribution is by Diane Larsen-Freeman, ''A complexity theory
approach to second language development/acquisition''. It focuses on a growing
research field emanating from the natural sciences -- complexity theory. In
contrast with her generative training, the author found that the image of a
''complex, adaptive system, which emerges bottom-up from interactions of multiple
agents in speech communities'' (p. 49) was much more consistent and correct
The third contribution is by Bonny Norton and Carolyn McKinney. It is entitled
''An identity approach to Second Language Acquisition,'' and, as the title shows,
focuses on identity perspectives on SLA -- a theoretical perspective rooted in
the post-structuralism theories of language. SLA is conceived as part of the
identity construction process. This means that every time a learner speaks,
he/she negotiates his/her self in relation to the world, and speaking a second
language is part of this continuous process. The implication for SLA comes in
particular from the construction of identity as multiple: ''learners who struggle
from one identity position can reframe their relationship with their
interlocutors and reclaim alternative, more powerful identities from which to
speak'' (p. 74). A second language can thus play a major part in this
relationship complex and reframe it in a more positive shape.

Patricia Duff and Steven Talmy are the authors of the fourth chapter, ''Language
Socialization Approaches to SLA''. This kind of approach has strong ethnographic
and anthropological roots. The chapter addresses the way L2-related
socialization unfolds in different contexts and situations, where experts and
novices mutually construct their identity. The attention provided to
socialization in any kind of context provides a good starting point to
investigate new, virtual contexts and the related forms of socialization, like
those of social media.

Gabriele Kasper and Johannes Wagner are the authors of ''A
Conversational-Analytic Approach to SLA'', chapter 5. CA investigates how people
make sense of conversational interactions. Hence CA-SLA focuses on social
aspects of language acquisition. CA methodology explores ''the resources that L2
speakers, jointly with their interlocutors, draw upon to keep the interaction
going'' (p. 129), and, as linguistic elements are among these resources, it can
catch the appearance of new linguistic elements and to trace their development
-- this is ''development CA'' (Wootton 2006). Several CA extracts, treated
following ''classical'' and CA transcription methodology by Sacks, Schegloff &
Jefferson (1974), are presented and discussed.

The book’s editor, Dwight Atkinson, is also the author of the sixth chapter,
focused on sociocognitive theory -- ''A sociocognitive approach to SLA''. This
new approach describes an ecological framework in which components of different
natures, including cognition, function integratively, as the subtitle claims:
''How mind, body, and world work together in learning additional languages'' (p.
143). Humans are organisms continuously adapting themselves to the changes
occurring in the environment. Learning a new language can thus be seen both as a
change occurring in an already structured environment and the creation of a new
environment. Cognition, in this innovative perspective, is no longer rejected
but is treated as one of the key factors -- to be precise, it promotes
intelligent adaptive action-in-the-word (p. 143).

In the closing chapter, ''SLA after the social turn'', Lourdes Ortega tries to
answer two main questions: ''What can we make of differences between cognitivism
and alternatives in SLA?'' and ''How can our knowledge help advance our
understanding?'' (p. 167). The key issue is the ''social turn'' of the title: the
social dimension is in fact the leading thread of all the six approaches
described. These approaches brought about relevant insights (e.g. the roles
played by social practices, values and indexicality). Therefore, Ortega
concludes by claiming that SLA is stronger and better after the social turn:
epistemological diversity can lead to ''a fuller and ultimately better
understanding of the learning of additional languages'' (p. 178).


The book has an ambitious goal that is not easy to accomplish, given the deep
diversity among the approaches presented -- a diversity sometimes turning into

Sometimes the differences between the proposed approaches are difficult to
understand , and there seems to be large zones of overlap. Several sections are
not so easy to understand for those who do not share the same theoretical
background. In these cases, further explication and practical case studies would
be helpful. An example: in chapter 1 about the sociocultural approach, Lantolf
says that the over-usage of progressive aspect to describe actions means that
''the speaker did not control the task and therefore could not create a coherent
narrative'' (p. 27): why could this simply not indicate that the speaker can use
only the progressive aspect at his L2 stage -- and why should a narrative be
incoherent just because it includes only progressive aspect?

Another difficulty in understanding the proposed approaches is the fact that
some chapters do not fully develop all the six steps of the scheduled common
plan, which results in problems in making a comparison.

Samples of data collected and analyzed -- like in the chapter on CA -- should
have been included more extensively, to show how the theory unfolds in practice.

These limitations do not prevent the book from being very useful in many ways.
The book, in fact, can be read at different levels by different target-readers:
undergraduate and/or junior researchers can benefit especially from the framing
chapters and senior researchers can find the central chapters useful for
consultation, and can search for additional sources if needed.

But most of all it is a remarkable effort to provide a comprehensive overview of
current trends in SLA by gathering together different approaches in a critical
way. This could be an example to follow also in other linguistic subfields.


Doughty, Catherine J. & Michael H. Long (eds.). 2003. Handbook of Second
Language Acquisition. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Maturana, Humberto & Francisco Varela. 1972. Autopoiesis and Cognition. Boston
MA: Reidel.

Sacks, Harvey, Schegloff, Emanuel A. & Gail Jefferson. 1974. A Simplest
Systematics for the Organisation of Turn-Taking for Conversation. Language 50.

Schmidt, Richard W. 1990. The role of consciousness in second language learning.
Applied Linguistics 11. 129-157.

Vygotsky, Lev S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological
Processes. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Weaver, Warren. 1948. Science and Complexity. American Scientist 36. 536-544.

Wootton, Anthony J. 2006. Children's practices and their connections with
'mind'. Discourse Studies 8. 191-198.

Annamaria Cacchione has a PhD in Linguistics and Didactics of Italian as L2. She teaches Italian L2, Textual Linguistics and Acquisitional Linguistics at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. She also teaches Italian L2 at the University of Molise, Italy. Her research interests include SLA, clinical linguistics and pragmatics. Her present research includes investigations on mobile language learning and ICT-based innovation in education in general.

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