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Review of  Form Meaning Connections in Second Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Hiroshi Matsumoto
Book Title: Form Meaning Connections in Second Language Acquisition
Book Author: Bill VanPatten Jessica Williams Susanne Rott Mark Overstreet
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 16.1041

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Date: Sun, 3 Apr 2005 21:41:17 -0700
From: Hiroshi Matsumoto
Subject: Form-Meaning Connections in Second Language Acquisition

EDITORS: VanPatten, Bill; Williams, Jessica; Rott, Susanne; Overstreet,
TITLE: Form-Meaning Connections in Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
YEAR: 2004

Hiroshi Matsumoto, San Francisco State University


This volume is an edited collection of papers presented at the conference
on Form-Meaning Connections in Second Language Acquisition (February 21-
24, 2002, Chicago) except the introductory chapter by VanPatten, Williams,
and Rott, and the last chapter (commentary) by Larsen-Freeman. This book
examines various processes and mechanisms underlying form-meaning
connections (FMC) in second language acquisition (SLA) from various
psycholinguistic perspectives. Many chapters explore how lexical forms,
grammatical morphemes, and other linguistic forms (input) are processed
into their meaning comprehension and/or proper reproduction output with
generative linguistics as their primary supporting/explanatory theory.
However, insights from and perspectives of other theories such as
cognitive linguistics, cognitive psychology, construction grammar, and
traditional grammar are also introduced to uncover the complex processes
of FMC.

Chapter 1, "Form-Meaning Connections in Second Language Acquisition" (by
VanPatten, Williams, and Rott), provides an overview of this volume and
what FMC research is about. First, the chapter defines two important
notions, specifying "form" as surface features of language, such as
lexemes, verb inflections, nominal inflections, complementizers,
determiners, particles, and formulaic expressions, and "meaning" as
concrete or abstract semantic referential, sociolinguistic, and pragmatic
meaning. (Many of the subsequent chapters seem to cover form and meaning
in a narrower sense, dealing with form as lexemes and grammatical
morphemes and meaning as concrete/abstract referential meaning, as
Williams in Chapter 10 indicates.) The chapter also explicates various
processes and factors associated with FMC in a detailed and comprehensive

In Chapter 2, "Input and Output in Establishing Form-Meaning Connection,"
VanPatten examines "factors and processes" underlying SLA, especially the
roles of input and output. From his generative linguistics perspective,
VanPatten defines SLA as "the development of some underlying competence on
which skills in language use depend." He then explicates three sets of
processes essential for SLA, (1) input processing, (2) accommodation, and
(3) restructuring in acquirers' interlanguage (IL) grammar. He reaffirms
that SLA process is input dependent. The chapter also addresses a question
of recent concern among SLA researchers, that is, whether SLA is output
dependent or not. VanPatten agrees with several other studies that
output "pushes" L2 acquirers to be better processors of input. However, he
carefully points out that the role of pushed output is far from evident
when learners make the initial connection in establishing FMC.

In Chapter 3, "The Process of Second Language Acquisition," Ellis explores
the process of SLA as "the learning of constructions that relate form and
meaning." From his psycholinguistic construction grammar view, Ellis
presents the process of SLA as that of constructing linguistic systems
that map forms and meanings by showing many specific examples. He also
examines the important issue of whether/how implicit learning (without
conscious operations) and explicit learning (with conscious operations,
such as "noticing") may be involved in constructing FMC.

In Chapter 4, "Context and Second Language Acquisition," Gass presents a
historical perspective of how various paradigms of linguistics and SLA
theories have evolved/developed to find the right place of studies
of "context" (or environment as the source of input). Referring to
insights from anthropological linguistics (such as Ferguson, 1971), the
Interaction Hypothesis (Long, 1996), studies on attention (Robinson,
2003), and other FMC studies, Gass explicates how context
interplays/interacts with acquirers' internal mental activities. As
acquirers interact with context/environment through "attention," it links
the context with acquirers' internal learning mechanisms. The chapter also
shows some other emerging areas of research (such as input-output
relationships) in SLA that were not of central concern before, but are
becoming prominent more recently.

The subsequent chapters, from Chapter 5 till Chapter 8, focus on the
acquisition of certain/specific form and meaning connections. In Chapter
5, Shirai presents his multiple-factor account in regard to the
acquisition of tense-aspect morphology, such as past tense and
perfective/imperfective aspects. Among the multiple factors included are
learner internal factors, such as (a) universal predispositions on behalf
of learners, (b) individual differences, and (c) learner's first language
(L1), and external factors, like (a) input and interaction both in L1 and
second language (L2) and (b) instructional factors in the case of L2

In Chapter 6, Bardovi-Harlig explores the acquisition of future
expressions by utilizing longitudinal production (written and oral) data.
With sixteen English as a second language (ESL) learners representing four
language backgrounds (Arabic, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish) as the
subjects, she addresses (1) what expressions of futurity are used, (2)
what the frequency of occurrence of the futurity expressions is, and (3)
what the order of emergence is, and identifies (like Shirai) their
potential multiple determinants: (a) instruction, (b) compositional
complexity, (c) the interpretation of "will" as a lexical marker, and (d)
the one-to-one principle.

Chapter 7, written by Cadierno and Lund, focuses on the acquisition of
motion events. With cognitive linguistics as their conceptual framework,
the two researchers from Danish institutions examine how motion events,
which consist of three components (source or starting point, path or the
route, and goal or intended destination), are acquired.

In Chapter 8, Klein examines the acquisition of tense and aspect, as well.
Based on the results of several experimental studies, she shows that L2
learners' tense/aspect errors are often caused by elements that lie beyond
the syntactic level. She points out that L2 learners' performance factors,
which pertain to the interface between morphosyntax and features of
phonology, semantic, pragmatics, or discourse, need to be taken into
consideration, as well.

Chapters 9-11 show some important issues and areas of recent FMC research
that may provide implications/insights helpful for "the classroom."
Chapter 9 examines effects of instruction, Chapter 10 the issue of
implicit learning, and Chapter 11 semantic vs. structural elaboration in
lexical acquisition respectively.

In Chapter 9, Doughty presents readers the state (and her critique) of
instructed SLA research, which purposes to investigate comparative
efficacy of different types of instructive intervention. Though it may not
be the primary focus of this entire volume, the field of SLA research is
oftentimes expected to suggest sound L2 pedagogical implications. From a
more pedagogical point of view, this chapter (as well as Chapters 1, 3,
and 4) seems to be of pivotal importance. Coherent with the standpoints in
Doughty & Williams (1998), this chapter takes "a cautious interventionist
view" regarding the efficacy of instruction. The chapter also shows the
state of and future directions for instructed SLA research based on Norris
& Ortega's (2000) comprehensive examination of various
experimental/empirical studies.

In Chapter 10, Williams explores the issue of whether form-meaning
associations can be learned implicitly (rather than explicitly) in regard
to the determiner plus noun form. Based on insights from Schmidt's studies
(1994, 2001), Williams conducts two experimental studies and tests if
there is any evidence of implicit/intuitive learning of FMC in the absence
of conscious awareness about the form regularity to be learned. He
indicates that although "word forms" can be learned implicitly, form-
meaning associations appear to be very resistant to implicit learning.

In Chapter 11, Barcroft examines the effect of semantic and structural
elaboration (which seems to be used occasionally in the classroom as a
learning strategy) on the acquisition of lexical items (both word
recognition and reproduction). Results of his two experiments do not show
a significant effect of semantic elaboration (over structural elaboration)
on L2 lexical learning rates. However, Barcroft's careful discussion on
the use of various learning strategies for acquiring lexical items is
useful from a more pedagogical point of view.

The final and commentary chapter (Chapter 12) by Larsen-Freeman presents
her discussion on the above-mentioned 11 chapters, covering (1) the scope
of this volume's FMC research, (2) its contribution, and (3) issues and
directions for further research.


My critique about this volume encompasses (1) its
significance/contribution, (2) limitations/issues, and (3) future

This volume's contribution to SLA research and pedagogy is significant
because of the following four reasons. First of all, this volume presents
readers (who are most likely to be SLA researchers, graduate students, and
second language pedagogues) most updated knowledge and insights from FMC
frontline research. Many FMC processes, subprocesses, and mechanisms
uncovered by many chapters of this book are presented in a very detailed
and specific manner, including "making the initial
connection," "subsequent processing," "strengthening/restructuring,"
and "access for use" (Chapter 1), "input processing" (consisting of two
subprocesses, the formation of initial FMC and parsing)
and "accommodation/restructuring" (Chapter 2), "associative mapping"
and "noticing" (Chapter 3), and "attention" (consisting of alertness,
orientation, and detection) (Chapter 4).

Second, this book also presents sound pedagogical implications in regard
to teaching form/grammar in the classroom. Many of the implications are
also consistent with those of other well-recognized books/articles, such
as Doughty & Williams (1998), Long & Robinson (1998), and Brown (2001,
Chapter 20).

Since 1980s, Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) has been the most
dominant driving force in second language pedagogy. Sometimes, many
practitioners feel so unsure and lose sight about how they should handle
teaching form/grammar under CLT. Some people withdraw to a
noninterventionist view as to teaching form/grammar. This volume helps
readers to reassure that teaching form/grammar is essential as an
effective tool for assisting students to process input into intake. This
kind of attitude, which is often called "form-focused instruction" (vs.
formS-focused instruction), is shared by many other distinguished SLA
researchers and practitioners.

Third, many chapters of this book are written with generative linguistics
as their primary supporting theory. However, the fact that SLA generative
linguists and grammar specialists are exploring how "form" can be
processed into "meaning" implies their efforts to open up a communication
channel with Vygotskian and other sociolinguists (Vygotsky, 1990). Many
theologians agree that the legacy of Pope John Paul II was exemplified by
his efforts to open up a dialogue with Protestantism, Greek Orthodox
Church, Judaism, Moslem, and other world religions. In a similar manner, I
sense very positive steps have been taken by SLA generative linguists to
start an "ecumenical" dialogue with other "bands" of SLA linguists who may
not fully agree with generative linguistics theory. I hope that this kind
of wise efforts will continue for the purpose of further growth of SLA
research as one area of scientific endeavor.

Lastly, many experimental studies used in this book are methodologically
solid, as Doughty (Chapter 9) shows the guidelines for sound empirical
studies. The area of SLA research has demonstrated a substantial
improvement with respect to its methodological issues (Long, 1980;
Matsumoto, 1998, Chapter 3).

In spite of its extensive significance and contribution, this book has
limitations/issues, as well. First, as Larsen-Freeman (Chapter 12) points
out, many FMC studies have been relying on the assumption that SLA is the
process of acquiring mental "competence," following Chomsky's (1965)
relatively narrow notion of competence as referring to grammatical
competence alone. However, Canale and Swain (1980), and many other SLA
researchers (advocating the importance of Communicative Language Teaching)
have expanded this narrow notion of competence into a broader notion
including sociolinguistics competence, discourse competence, and strategic
competence. The famous ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign
Languages) Proficiency Guidelines (1986) also reflect this expanded notion
of competence. The theoretical underpinnings of FMC research may require
some sort of reexamination so that it can become compatible with this
widely accepted view of SLA theory and practice.

The second limitation/issue is related to the first point to some extent.
I want to understand that the notion of "meaning" in this volume (see
Chapter 1) needed to adhere to its narrow definition ("concrete and
abstract referential meaning," not including "sociolinguistic and
pragmatic meanings") to ensure well-controlled FMC research. However, the
constructs of meaning and comprehension should not be limited to the micro-
processing level alone (like lexeme and grammatical morpheme) to fully
grasp the entire picture of what the complex process of SLA is about. We
really need to examine processes/mechanisms underlying FMC at the macro-
processing level (such as paragraph gists and main points), as well.
Clearly, many teachers are interested in knowing how they should teach
sociolinguistic meaning and "cultural meaning," which Lado (1957)
mentioned a long time ago. I hope that VanPatten and other distinguished
scholars will continue their exploration further, gradually expanding FMC
research to the pragmatics, discourse, and sociolinguistic levels, as
well. Interesting, Klein's Chapter 8 may be a good example of such efforts.

Finally, this volume presents a high caliber of careful psycholinguistic
studies about how form and meaning are connected at the micro-processing
level. It also shows further directions we need to take, including the
studies about input-output relationships and the role of implicit learning
in FMC. I highly recommend this volume for many SLA researchers, graduate
students, and pedagogy specialists.


ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. (1986). Hastings-on-Hudson, NY: American
Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Brown, D. (2001). Teaching by principles: An integrated approach to
language pedagogy. White Plains, NY: Addison Wesley Longman.

Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative
approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics 1,

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T.

Doughty, C., & Williams, J. (1998). Focus on form in classroom second
language acquisition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ferguson, C. (1971). Absence of copula and the notion of simplicity: A
study of normal speech, baby talk, foreigner talk and pidgins. In D. Hymes
(Ed.), Pidginization and creolization of languages (pp.141-150). New York:
Cambridge University Press.

Lado, R. (1957). Linguistics across cultures. Ann Arbor: University of
Michigan Press.

Long, M. (1980). Inside of the "black box": Methodological issues in
classroom research on language learning. Language Learning, 1, 1-42.

Long M., & Robinson, P. (1998). Focus on from: Theory, research, and
practice. In C. Doughty & J. Williams (Eds.), Focus on form in classroom
second language acquisition (pp.15-41). New York: Cambridge University

Matsumoto, H. (1998). The relationship between various types of teachers'
language and comprehension in the acquisition of intermediate Japanese.
Lanham, ML: University Press of America.

Norris, J., & Ortega, L. (2000). Effectiveness of L2 instruction: A
research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis. Language Learning. 50,

Schmidt, R. (1994). Implicit learning and the cognitive unconscious: Of
artificial grammars and SLA. In N. C. Ellis (Ed.), Implicit and explicit
learning of language (pp. 165-209). London: Academic Press.

Schmidt, R. (2001). Attention. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognitive and second
language instruction (pp.3-32. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University

Robinson, P. (2003). Attention and memory during SLA. In C. Doughty & M.
Long (Eds.), Handbook of research in second language acquisition.
Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1990). Mind in society: The development of higher
psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Hiroshi Matsumoto is an assistant professor of second language acquisition
and pedagogy at San Francisco State University. His research interests
include the relationship between various types of second language input
and meaning comprehension, error analysis of students' output, form-
focused instruction, and intrinsic motivation in second language

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