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Review of  Universal Grammar in Second-Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Heather Marsden
Book Title: Universal Grammar in Second-Language Acquisition
Book Author: Margaret Thomas
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
History of Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 16.1765

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Date: Sat, 4 Jun 2005 21:35:17 +0100
From: Heather Marsden
Subject: Universal Grammar in Second-Language Acquisition: A History

AUTHOR: Thomas, Margaret
TITLE: Universal Grammar in Second-Language Acquisition
SERIES: Routledge Studies in the History of Linguistics
YEAR: 2004
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)

Heather Marsden, School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics,
University of Newcastle Upon Tyne

The aim of this book is to explore the relationship through western
linguistic history of the two concepts named in the book's title:
universal grammar and second language acquisition. Beginning in ancient
Greece, the book tracks ideas about commonalities among languages, and
about the experience of non-native language learning, through the
centuries, culminating with Chomskyan universal grammar and modern second
language acquisition theory.

The book's intended primary readership is, as Thomas states
(p.18) 'linguists or applied linguists concerned with the theoretical
implications of L2 acquisition'. In addition, it is aimed at language
teachers and teacher educators, and finally, historians of linguistics.

Chapter 1 introduces the topics and the rationale of the book. The
terms 'universal grammar' and 'second language acquisition' are defined
here, in the context of the book. The former refers to ideas -- explicitly
formulated or not -- about what is universal in human language, as opposed
to what is particular to one language or another. The latter is used in a
broad sense to refer to acquisition or learning (these terms are used
interchangeably) of a non-native language, without differentiating
between 'second' and 'foreign' language acquisition. A key goal of the
history -- beyond documenting a relationship between ideas that has not
been documented before -- is to broaden the horizons of the book's main
intended readership: those engaged in contemporary second language
acquisition research. Thomas shows how the field of second language
acquisition research represents itself as having no history prior to the
latter half of the twentieth century: in other words, no history prior to
Chomskyan linguistics and the concept of universal grammar in its most
modern instantiation. She argues that this ahistoricity creates a false,
and potentially detrimental, sense of the nature of second language
acquisition research.

The chronological exploration of the history of universal grammar and
second language acquisition begins in Chapter 2, which focuses on ancient
Greece and Rome. The ancient Greeks produced grammars of Greek, the
earliest of which probably dates from the second century BCE. It focuses
on describing morphology, parts of speech, and the Greek sound system. The
Greeks did not write about second language acquisition; nor did they
propose language universals. However, Greek philosophical ideas about
Forms (eidos) are argued to initiate the concepts that have later been
used to develop ideas about universal grammar. For example, in
Aristotelean theory of Forms, the essence of an object is the set of
characteristics contained within all exemplars of that object. Applied to
language, the essence of grammar would be the linguistic properties shared
by all languages: universal grammar.

Roman grammars of Latin followed the Greek model, but they served as
textbooks for school pupils studying their L1. Two important grammars
continued to be influential into the Middle Ages: Ars Grammatica, written
by Aelius Donatus, and Institutiones Grammaticae, written by Priscian of
Caesaria. A key linguistic difference between Roman and Greek society was
that educated Romans at the height of the Roman empire were bilingual in
Greek and Latin from birth, due to the presence of Greek slaves in Roman
households. Literacy in the two languages was an essential element of
Roman education. However, since children entered school already fluent in
both languages, there was no motivation to consider the nature of second
language learning. Nor did the Romans investigate language universals,
although, unlike the Greeks, they engaged in the comparative study of
Latin and Greek.

Chapter 3 focuses on the period from around the fourth century BCE to the
end of the first millennium. A key thinker early on in this period was
Augustine, whose writings suggest an early conceptualisation of innate
universal linguistic knowledge, and also include thoughts on child
language acquisition. He contrasts his experience of L1 (Latin)
acquisition, acquired simply through observation, with his experience of
being forced to learn Greek in the classroom. By implication, L1 and L2
acquisition may have been epistemologically identical to Augustine, but
the manner of exposure to the different languages resulted in different

Christianity became very influential during this period. Christianity
arose in a multilingual context, and, effectively institutionalised L2
learning as a means of furthering its aim of making its message accessible
to everyone. By the seventh and eighth century CE, Latin -- as the
language of the Western European church -- was being studied as an L2 by
Christian speakers of Germanic, Celtic, and Mediterranean languages.
Donatus's Ars Grammatica and Priscian's Institutiones Grammaticae were key
textbooks, but these were revised and supplemented in order to better meet
the needs of L2 learners. In particular, where the Roman authors had
assumed L1 knowledge of aspects of Latin, sixth and seventh century
authors attempted to spell out the relevant details. Thus, the first true
L2 grammars were created.

Chapter 4 covers development of medieval grammatical theory and ideas
about L2 learning from the eleventh to the fourteenth century. This period
saw the first articulation of the concept of universal grammar. At the
beginning of this period, grammar was re-defined as -- in the terminology
of the recently rediscovered Aristotle -- a speculative science, meaning a
theoretical science which pursues knowledge for its own sake, rather than
to a practical end. Groups of speculative grammarians emerged in European
university towns in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The
assumption that universal grammar exists was core to their work. This
assumption derived from their conviction that language is shaped by
cognition and the nature of the world. Their aim was to discover as much
as possible about the properties of universal grammar through the study of

L2 acquisition during this period continued to be dominated by the study
of Latin, although contact with other languages via travel, commerce, and
the crusades was beginning to increase. L2 pedagogy (i.e., Latin teaching)
was mostly consistent with the previous period: students had to parse and
memorise chunks of L2 text. However, an important development was that the
students' native language began to be used extensively in the classroom.
Previously, the L1 had been used only at the most elementary level, but,
by the late fourteenth century, it was also being used to facilitate
advanced L2 learning contexts.

Thomas highlights an intriguing point of interaction between speculative
grammar and second language acquisition: namely, that the focus of enquiry
into linguistic universals, namely Latin, was an L2 for all scholars.
Medieval grammarians did not question whether intuitions about their L2
could lead to insights about universal grammar. They rejected
investigation of their native vernaculars since the latter were
considered 'intrinsically unruly, structurally defective, and impoverished
relative to Latin' (pp. 72-3). This contrasts strikingly with the focus on
L1 intuitions, and the scepticism about L2 intuitions, in modern
linguistic enquiry.

Chapter 5 covers the period from the beginning of the fourteenth century
until the end of the seventeenth. Speculative grammar was gradually
abandoned at the beginning of this period. The focus of language study
turned back to the description of particular languages -- increasingly
vernaculars, and not Latin. The concept of 'living' and 'dead' languages
was born (i.e., the vernaculars v. Latin), leading to the emergence of a
new framework for comparative language study. Numerous L2 and L1 grammars
were published during this period, and the range of languages known to
European scholars increased vastly, through contact with the Americas and
the Far East. However, the model for analysis of all these languages
continued to be that of Donatus and Priscian.

As a reaction against the focus on particular languages, some scholars
returned to the ideas of Aristotle, and to universals. Among these was
Sanchez de las Brozas (1523-1601), whose logic-based work on ellipsis has
been considered an antecedent of generative grammar.

Concerning L2 acquisition, the conceptualisation of 'native' versus 'non-
native' language knowledge emerged. In L2 pedagogy, a key development was
the incorporation of L1/L2 comparison and translation. In addition, usage-
based instruction began to flourish alongside the traditional grammar-
based instruction. A key interaction of the ideas of universal grammar and
L2 acquisition occurred in the assertion by some early seventeenth-century
language teachers that L2 learning should begin with the study of general
language structure (i.e., that which is common to all languages), and then
approach the specific L2. Finally, a further innovation towards the end of
this period was the attempts by a number of scholars to create artificial
languages intended for universal communication.

Chapter 7 begins with the work of late seventeenth century grammarians
on 'general' or 'rational' grammar. The scholars of general grammar,
beginning with Port-Royal grammarians (named after the area of Paris where
they worked), aimed to discover what is common among all languages. In
other words, they worked on universal grammar. Their work is known to some
modern-day linguists through Chomsky's Cartesian Linguistics (1966), in
which he argues that general grammar is the precursor of generative
linguistics. A considerable section of this chapter is devoted to
examination of Chomsky's claims and the heated debate they provoked. This
is followed by details of the ideas of key seventeenth and eighteenth
century grammarians and philosophers, some of whom firmly embraced an
innatist theory of mind, while others rejected it and argued that all
knowledge is acquired through observation mediated by the rationalist
design of the mind.

L2 pedagogy and conceptualisation of L2 learning was heavily influenced by
universalist and rationalist ideas about language during this time.
Grammars were produced that provided instruction on the common features of
languages, assuming that such information could facilitate L2 acquisition.
The use of memorisation as an L2 learning tool declined.

In the nineteenth century, emphasis on universal grammar faded again, and
the focus returned to data and the particulars of different languages.
This trend was reflected in language teaching, where instruction on
linguistic universals was abandoned, and a variety of techniques competed
to fill the gap. These included grammar-translation, exposure to natural
spoken language with little or no use of the L1, and memorisation.
Observation of L1 acquisition also influenced thoughts on L2 learning at
this time, but opinions were divided as to whether children learn solely
by memorisation, or whether they are innately creative.

Chapter 8, the final chapter, covers the twentieth century. The chapter
begins with details of the diverse ideas of early-twentieth century
European linguists, including Ferdinand de Saussure, Otto Jespersen, and
the scholars of the Prague School. The scene then moves to the US, with a
description of American structuralism. The latter focused on capturing the
details of different languages by means of scientific observation of
empirical data. American structuralism has often been characterised as
being 'anti-universalist' and 'anti-mentalist', in contrast to generative
grammar. Thomas argues, however, that these characteristics have been
overstated. For example, the influential structuralist Leonard Bloomfield
believed that language universals may exist but that there was as yet
insufficient data about the world's languages to discover them. His aim
was to elevate linguistics to a science by means of working with
observable data. He avoided 'mentalist' theorising about the nature of the
mind because this could be too speculative and too far removed from the
empirical facts.

In L2 acquisition, contrastive analysis, involving point-by-point
comparison of the L1 and L2 grammars so as to identify where they differ,
developed alongside structuralism. It is identified as the precursor to
generative L2 acquisition research, and criticised on the grounds that it
failed to account for all the difficulties L2 learners appear to
encounter. Thomas points out that this criticism exaggerates the original
claims of contrastive analysis, which was that the technique could shed
light on some of portion of what learners know and do not know.

The final part of this chapter details the work that defines modern
linguistic theory and L2 acquisition theory. Corder (1967) and Selinker
(1972) are seen as pivotal documents in setting the scene for modern L2
acquisition research, by proposing that 'interlanguage' is inherently
systematic, like any natural language. In linguistic theory, current work
is dominated by universalism, in the forms of Noam Chomsky's theory of
universal grammar and Joseph H. Greenberg's pursuit of language
universals. Thomas concludes by pointing out that neither the idea that L2
knowledge is epistemologically equivalent to L1 knowledge, nor the focus
on universals and rationalism, are novel in the history of linguistics.
What late twentieth century adds to the story is its scientific approach.

A brief Afterword concludes the book. Here, Thomas responds to some
criticisms of Thomas (1998), an article that anticipated the present book,
including an objection by Gass, Fleck, Leder & Svediks (1998) that study
of L2 acquisition research pre-dating the modern discipline does not
contribute to current work. Thomas counters, citing Law (2003), that the
goal in considering texts from a different era is to suspend the pursuit
of utility, and seek reward in feeling 'stimulated and "restored" (Kaplan
et al. 1993) in unanticipated, intangible ways by virtue of the shift in
consciousness that an encounter with another culture's point of view
affords' (p. 192). As a member of Thomas's target audience -- a second
language acquisition researcher working within generative grammar, with no
previous knowledge of pre-1960s L2 acquisition history -- I feel I can
confirm the veracity of Thomas's description of the promised reward. I do
not know how I will make use of my newly acquired knowledge of the history
of universal grammar and second language acquisition, but I certainly feel
better educated for having read it.

This book would clearly be at home on the reading list of courses in the
history of linguistics. In addition, it would be a thought-provoking
addition to courses on L2 acquisition research. It is well-written and
painstakingly referenced. I noticed only three trivial typographical
errors. Rather than criticism, I offer only a 'wish-list': it would have
been useful to have a glossary of the Greek and Latin terms that crop up
throughout the history (for the hurried reader who is too impatient to
return to where each term first appeared); also, I would have been
interested to see more actual examples from the historical texts (or their
translations) referred to.


Chomsky, N. 1964. Cartesian Linguistics: A chapter in the history of
rationalist thought. New York: Harper and Row.

Corder, S. P. 1967. The significance of learner's [sic] errors.
International Review of Applied Linguistics 5: 161-170.

Gass, S. M., C. Fleck, N. Leder, & I. Svetics. 1998. Ahistoricity
revisited: Does SLA have a history? Studies in Second Language Acquisition
20: 407-421.

Kaplan, S., L. V. Bardwell, & D. A. Slakter. 1993. The museum as a
restorative environment. Environment and Behavior 25: 725-742.

Law, V. 2003. The history of linguistics in Europe: From Plato to 1600.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Selinker, L. 1972. Interlanguage. International Review of Applied
Linguistics 10: 209-231.


The reviewer is currently a research fellow at the University of Newcastle
Upon Tyne, and has recently completed her PhD in second language
acquisition, investigating the roles of L1 transfer and UG in the L2
acquisition of Japanese quantifier scope by Chinese-, Korean-, and English-
speaking learners.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0415310377
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 272
Prices: U.S. $ 105.00