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Review of  The Cambridge Handbook of Language Learning

Reviewer: Alexandra Galani
Book Title: The Cambridge Handbook of Language Learning
Book Author: John W. Schwieter Alessandro Benati
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 32.1087

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“The Cambridge Handbook of Language Learning”, edited by John W. Schwieter and Alessandro Benati, is a collection of 32 chapters. It includes lists of figures, tables, contributors, acknowledgements and an index.

In “Introduction”, John W. Schwieter and Alessandro Benati define second language acquisition (SLA) and outline the main research questions in the field prior to providing a sketch of each chapter.

Part I: Theories

Jason Rothman, Fatih Bayram, Ian Cunnings and Jorge González Alonso offer an overview of the main “Formal linguistic approaches to adult L2 acquisition and processing” in Chapter 1. They focus on generative approaches and compare them to data-driven ones. Attention is paid to the acquisition of morphosyntactic structures (e.g. in English and Spanish) and to the interface of morphosyntax with semantics and pragmatics. Reference is made to psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic methodologies adopted when investigating L2 language processing.

In Chapter 2, Nick C. Ellis and Stephanie Wulff discuss “Cognitive approaches to second language acquisition” with a focus on usage-based theories. According to the exemplar-based rational contingency analysis, L2 learners acquire constructions, the acquisition of which is influenced by salience, contingency and learned attention. They benefit from form-focused instruction, as it “recruits learners’ explicit and conscious processing capacities” (p. 55).

In Chapter 3, “The qualitative science of Vygotskian sociocultural psychology and L2 development”, Rémi A. van Compernolle shows how Vygotsky’s sociocultural psychology concepts (i.e. zone of promixal development, perezhivanie “personal experience) can be applied to qualitative analyses in SLA. Toward this end, he reviews study abroad, classroom praxis and teacher education studies.

John Truscott and Michael Sharwood Smith examine “Theoretical frameworks in L2 acquisition” in Chapter 4: interlanguage theory, the creative construction approach, the generative approach, processability theory, the modular online growth, the use of language framework, the five graces framework. They look at the similarities and the differences between the last two frameworks in terms of the stand they take on cognition, innateness, language modularity and learning. The chapter concludes with notes about future research.

Part II: Methods

Peter I. De Costa, Wendy Li and Hima Rawal look into “Qualitative classroom methods” in Chapter 5. They first refer to the characteristics of classroom-based qualitative research (CBQR): social aspects of learning (i.e. identity, language socialisation) and features identified by classroom discourse analysis. Methodologies such as conversational analysis, narrative inquiry, case study, action research, ethnography and grounded theory are discussed. In each case, they make reference to an exemplar study and highlight the research questions, the framework, the methods, the participants to which the study was addressed and the findings.

In Chapter 6, Charlene Polio and Jongbong Lee review “Experimental studies in L2 classrooms”. Once they define experimental and classroom research, they briefly offer a historic overview of experimental research in language teaching environments (p. 140). Based on Gilmore’s (2011) quasi-experimental study, they highlight issues researchers should pay attention to (i.e. independent/dependent variables, validity). They provide a list of experimental classroom studies carried out during 2012-2017 and comment on the independent and the dependent variables as well as their research design.

In Chapter 7, “Action research: Developments, characteristics, and future directions”, Anne Burns first presents an overview of educational action research (AR) prior to focusing on its development in language education. The benefits for language teachers, when they act as action researchers, are sketched. AR may investigate the conditions under which research should be conducted in language teaching. It also looks into teacher identity and teacher needs as well as the processes action researchers undergo during their training. A crucial aspect of the field is its sustainability.

In Chapter 8, Nina Spada discusses “Classroom observation research”. Different approaches to observation research (OR) are presented (interaction analysis, discourse analysis, ethnography). She focuses on interaction analysis schemes (Flander’s interaction analysis categories, foreign language interaction system, the Colorado and the Pennsylvania projects), observation schemes (target language observation scheme (TALOS), communicative interaction (CI) system, communicative orientation of language teaching scheme (COLT)) and observation instruments (category and sign systems, rating scale). Observation researchers deal with reliability and validity issues as well as the units of their analyses. Studies based on TALOS, CI, COLT and the foci for observing communications used in settings (FOCUS), are discussed in detail. Finally, she refers to studies which are based on narrowly-focused observation systems and explore issues such as teachers’ reactions to student errors and L1 teachers’ use.

Leah Roberts reviews “Psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic methods” in Chapter 9. Self-paced reading sheds light on incremental processing and grammatical knowledge, while eye-tracking is used when examining reading ambiguity, grammatical and referential processing. On the other hand, neurolinguistic methods -such as the electroencephalogram (EEG), the event-related potential (ERP) technique and the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)- are used in studies on syntactic processing.

Part III: Skill Development

In Chapter 10, Jaemyung Goo discusses the role of “Interaction in L2 learning”. He first refers to the Interaction Hypothesis (Long, 1996) and to studies which show the benefits of negotiated interaction for L2 learning (i.e. for L2 comprehension and production, the value of input). It is shown that corrective feedback (CF)--explicit correction, recasts, repetitions, elicitations, clarification requests, metalinguistic feedback (Lyster and Ranta, 1997)--may contribute to L2 development. Interactions are influenced by factors, such as learners’ proficiency, structure and interlocutor target types, age, teaching experience, task complexity, as well as by cognitive factors, such as working memory in relation to task design and planning, language aptitude and anxiety, learners’ cognitive style, self-confidence and creativity. The chapter concludes with notes about the incorporation of interactions in task-based language learning (TBLL).

Dustin Crowther and Susan M. Gass discuss “Speaking” in L2 learning in Chapter 11. L2 speakers’ speaking skill in Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish were the lowest developed based on the findings of a database about oral proficiency. The authors highlight the role speaking plays in learners’ L2 development in conjunction with the feedback they receive. Global constructs (accentedness, comprehensibility, intelligibility), L2 speakers’ fluency (cognitive, utterance), communicative performance (grammatical, sociolinguistic, strategic, discourse), age, ethnic group affiliation, first language (L1), study abroad periods and willingness to communicate affect listeners’ perception of the L2 produced speech. Pedagogical interventions (i.e. explicit pronunciation instruction, speaking tasks) which may prove beneficial for the development of L2 oral skills are highlighted.

In Chapter 12, “Second language listening: Current ideas, current issues”, John Field briefly reviews the comprehension approach and current theories (i.e. skill-based and listener-based accounts) regarding L2 speakers’ listening development. L2 speakers face various challenges when developing their listening skills, e.g. form and speaker variability, phoneme features, word boundaries. Research has also been focused on listening strategies--whether strategies are related to successful listening development or whether training on listening strategies leads to listening proficiency. The use of videos and authentic material, vocabulary knowledge, phoneme perception, accent familiarity, double play of recordings and low-levels of listening anxiety contribute to the development of listening proficiency.

Elizabeth B. Bernhardt and Cici Malik Leffell explore “Contemporary perspectives on L2 upper-register text processing” in Chapter 13. They define advanced reading and provide a literature overview (1991 and beyond). Research topics mainly concern vocabulary knowledge, affective features, reading strategies, L1/L2 relationship, instruction. They note that limited attention is paid to L2 learners’ reading comprehension of advanced-level texts and discuss studies which and show how L2 learners can become “advanced-level readers” (p. 333), i.e. use of technology, direct instruction, extensive reading.

In Chapter 14, Rosa M. Manchón and Olena Vasylets discuss “Language learning through writing: Theoretical perspectives and empirical evidence”. Writing tasks contribute to L2 development, as writing and written CF have the following affordances: time availability to produce a written text, text visibility, problem-solving nature. Changes in L2 learners’ grammatical and explicit knowledge are expected as a result of writing activities. Evidence for the benefits of writing in L2 development comes from task modality, complexity, repetition and writing CF studies.

Part IV: Individual Differences

In Chapter 15, Zhisheng (Edward) Wen and Shaofeng Li explore “Working memory in L2 learning and processing”. They discuss the characteristics of working memory (WM) (e.g. its limited capacity), its structure and its relation to long-term memory. The rest of the chapter presents the findings of predictive and experimental studies; phonological WM plays a role in L2 vocabulary and grammar learning, whereas the executive WM component in L2 reading and speaking skills learning.
Gisela Granena discusses “Language aptitudes in L2 acquisition” in Chapter 16. She defines language aptitude (LA) and briefly reviews relevant theoretical treatments. She refers to studies which exemplify the role LA plays in naturalistic and instructed L2 learning. She shows how the aptitude-treatment interaction (Cronbach and Snow, 1977) can be applied to L2 teaching. The chapter concludes with remarks about future research.

In Chapter 17, “Language learner motivation: What motivates motivation researchers?”, Stephen Ryan defines motivation and links it to language learning (LL). He shows how different theoretical treatments to L2 motivation that have been proposed in the literature have shifted their focus in relation to the questions they address and the methodologies they adopt; from a social-psychological to a socio-educational perspective, from instructed classroom learning to learners’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and self-realisation, from quantitative to qualitative analyses. New areas of research include the ways LL processes are affected by motivation, language learner psychology and the relationship between motivation and student engagement (pp. 422-424).

In Chapter 18, “A new look at “age”: Young and old L2 learners”, Carmen Muñoz discusses the role of age in foreign LL. She reviews studies which investigate age effects in early foreign LL and in mid- and late adulthood. In the first case, late starters are more advantageous than early starters and foreign LL in instructed teaching environments is affected by various factors (i.e. cognitive abilities, class size, literacy, input). In the second case, and despite the limited amount of studies, age effects are also subject to factors, such as learners’ individual differences, attitudes and experiences, educational level, learning strategies, input, feedback and interaction. She notes that emphasis should be placed on longitudinal studies.

In Chapter 19, Ron Darvin and Bonny Norton examine the role “Identity” plays in LL. They refer to the “sociological construct of investment” (p. 453), i.e. speakers’ linguistic capital enables them to claim their positions in the community, something which further affects the amount of effort they put in the learning process. Technological advancements (e.g. instant messaging, online platforms) shape speakers’ identities and ideologies through globalisation. According to Darvin and Norton’s (2015) model of investment, investment is found “at the intersection of identity, capital and ideology” (p. 457). Research on language learners’ identities can be now based on electronic corpora, collections of texts, online and offline learners’ digital practices. The chapter concludes with notes on the challenges when conducting research in this field.

Part V: Pedagogical Interventions and Approaches

Alessandro Benati and John W. Schwieter discuss “Pedagogical interventions to L2 grammar instruction” in Chapter 20. They sketch theoretical treatments (i.e. monitor theory, universal grammar, processability theory, input processing, skill-learning, interaction hypothesis, sociocultural theory) prior to presenting various teaching methods (e.g. grammar-translation, direct, audio-lingual, total physical response, communicative language teaching, content/task-based instruction, focus-on-form, present-practice-produce). Pedagogical interventions for grammar instruction are highlighted: focus on form, input orientated (processing instruction, input enhancement, discourse approach), grammar orientated, interaction orientated, CF (recasts, clarification requests, metalinguistic feedback, direct elicitation), output orientated (dictogloss, jigsaw/structured-output tasks)).

Michael H. Long, Jiyong Lee, and Kyoko Kobayashi Hillman focus on “Task-based language learning” in Chapter 21. Problems related to grammar-based language teaching are first discussed (i.e. issues related to input, interaction and output quality, learnability, quantity of practice and intentional learning). Following they move onto a sketch of the six stages of the successful implementation of TBLL and teaching: needs analysis, syllabus design, task-based materials, methodological principles and procedures, task-based assessment and evaluation.

In Chapter 22, Roger Gilabert and Joan Castellví discuss “Task and syllabus design for morphological complex languages”. General remarks on the morphological system in Russian and the teaching approaches that have been followed so far are first offered. They show how linguistic difficulty (LD) -in the sense of structural and cognitive complexity- can be tackled in TBLL models. They claim that LD in such approaches may contribute to task and syllabus design. Reference is made to a task used in a Russian learning class in which LD is related to conceptual demands, cognitive load, the features students need to acquire and the sequence these features appear in. LD is greater at lower language levels. Recommendations for task and syllabus design when teaching Russian are provided: needs analysis for task selection, targeting grammatical forms, balancing complexity and LD in the tasks designed, designing different focus on form tasks and paying attention to the sequencing of tasks.

David Little’s discussion on “Proficiency guidelines and frameworks” in Chapter 34 focuses on the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages proficiency guidelines (ACTFL PG) and the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CERF). The origin and the purpose of each framework are discussed. The approach they take on language use as means to master proficiency as well as the frameworks’ impact on assessment, curricula and pedagogy is examined.

Carol A. Chapelle discusses “Technology-mediated language learning” (TMLL) in Chapter 24. Technology-mediated tasks are used for grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, listening, speaking and culture learning. They include various activities, from meaning-based and form-focused to data-driven, telecollaboration, mobile learning and digital gaming. Research on the field evaluates the learning outcomes and processes as well as the quality of TMLL. Distance learning (DL) -including the factors which result in successful learning, DL features, DL student strategies- and the use of learner-initiated technology in informal learning environments (i.e. learners’ choices, social media, what is actually learnt) are issues under current investigation. The notion of
langua-technocultural competence” (Sauro and Chapelle, 2017) refers to the capabilities one should have/develop in order to identify technologies which will enable him/her to communicate successfully with diverse interlocutors.

In Chapter 25, Hossein Nassaji and Eva Kartchava look at “Content-based L2 teaching” (CBLT). CBLT models are classified on the basis of whether they are language or context-driven and whether they are applied to L2/foreign language or minority/majority language environments. The origins of CBLT are explored (immersion programmes in Canada, the former Soviet Union, Europe and submersion and Sheltered Content Instruction). The advantages (i.e. student motivation, communicative fluency, receptive skills) and disadvantages (e.g. productive skills, mastering grammatical features) of CBLT are explored, prior to referring to studies about focus on form in CBLT (form-focused instruction, textual enhancement, structure-based communicative tasks, functional grammar effects, student/teacher interaction, feedback). The chapter concludes with remarks about future developments.

In Chapter 26, Graham Crookes explores “Conceptions of L2 learning in critical language pedagogy” by referring to fundamental concepts in critical social science theory and critical psychology. He shows how critical language pedagogy (CLP) has been developed in English as a foreign/second language over the years. He presents current views about CLP as far as second language and second language learning are concerned and explains how CLP differs from other approaches. Directions for future research are also offered.

Part VI: Content and Environment

Christine Hélot and Ofelia García examine “Bilingual education and policy” in Chapter 27. They first present the ways in which bilingual education (BE) may be seen --depending on different ideologies and policies-- and identify BE language categories (i.e. dominant, immigrant, indigenous, sign), BE type learners and BE models (e.g. transitional, developmental, immersion, content and language integrated learning, strong/weak forms of BE, additive/subtractive bilingualism). Different programmes exist and different language practices are applied. Dominant languages, though, receive greater attention, something that affects minoritised speaker communities. Toward this end, translanguaging is explored.

In Chapter 28, “Heritage language instruction”, Kim Potowski and Sarah J. Shin define heritage languages (HL) and heritage speakers. They also discuss the linguistic diversity of HL across the world and explain why their promotion is important; national language capacity increase, language competent society, employees’ effective communication in international work environments, language teaching methods/material improvement. The linguistic, cultural and academic differences between HL learners and second/foreign language learners are explored. Finally, they discuss where HL learners may learn their languages (elementary/secondary schools, universities, community-based schools) in Europe and the United States and they refer to the resources for (HL) instructors.

“Minority languages at home and abroad: Education and acculturation” are explored by Aline Ferreira, Viola G. Miglio, and John W. Schwieter in Chapter 29. They describe the linguistic situation of minority languages (ML) in the U.S., mainly in California, Canada (e.g. Spanish and Chinese HL speakers abroad) and Spain (Basque, Catalan, Calician as ML in the country). A language’s prestige is mostly affected by socio-economic and historic factors. Acculturation is a key factor for the maintenance of HL. Linguistic language policies (i.e. a language’s legal protection, public use, use in education), speakers’ attitudes and beliefs further contribute to language normalisation.

In Chapter 30, Jane Jackson and John W. Schwieter explore “Study abroad and immersion”. They first refer to the different terminology used in the US and in Europe and sketch the historical development of study abroad programmes (SAP). A programme’s characteristics (i.e. duration, student/faculty international exchanges, instructor-led, housing arrangements, technology use for communication purposes), environmental factors (e.g. inequality, newcomers’ status, host receptivity, social capital) and individual differences (social agency, aspirations, expectations, cognitive and processing effects, language and intercultural attitudes, motivation, investment, self-efficacy, self-confidence, communication willingness, language and intercultural anxiety) all affect the quality of intercultural learning outcomes. Consequently, research should investigate all phases of a SAP: pre-sojourn, sojourn, post-sojourn.

In Chapter 31, “Teacher education: Past, present, and future”, Peter Swanson offers a historical overview of teacher education in the U.S. and sketches the development, benefits and criticisms of high-quality teacher preparation. Teacher attributes, effectiveness, knowledge and outcomes have shaped educational reform. The exceptional Finnish teacher education system is also discussed. The chapter concludes with thoughts about the future of teacher education in the U.S.

Part VII: Moving Forward

Susan M. Gass explores “Future directions in language learning and teaching” in Chapter 32. She offers a historical overview of LL and teaching which aims to highlight the relationship between the two. It also shows how SLA has been developed as a field and finally how this gap between teaching and learning is now almost merged. Research emphasis has been placed on formal approaches to SLA, psycholinguistic, sociocultural and interactionist, on the individual differences and methodology. Instructed SLA, which connects SLA to language pedagogy, is currently put forward.


The volume approaches SLA from various perspectives; from theoretical and pedagogical approaches and methodological treatments to skills development, individual differences as well as context and environmental factors which affect and contribute to LL. Each chapter familiarises readers with the key concepts, offers literature overviews and relevant research findings and highlights topics for future research. In each case, implications for teaching are highlighted. The research studies referenced provide useful pedagogical insights and, consequently, links SLA to teaching. The volume is useful source of reference to second language researchers, educators and (postgraduate) students. Typo: p. 283, section 12.1, “section 12.3 examines…” should read as “Section 12.3 examines”.


Cronback, L. and Snow, R. (1977). Aptitudes and instructional methods: A handbook for research on interactions. New York: Irvington.

Darvin, R. and Norton, B. (2015). “Identity and a model of investment in applied linguistics”. Annual review of applied linguistics, 35: 36-56.

Gilmore, A. (2011). “Getting real in the language classroom: Developing Japanese students’ communicative competence with authentic materials”. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. Nottingham University.

Long, M. H. (1996). “The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition”. In W. Richie and T. K. Bhatia (Eds.), Handbook of second language acquisition. New York: Academic Press. pp. 413-468.

Lyster, R. and Ranta, L. (1997). “Corrective feedback and learner uptake: Negotiation of form in communicative classrooms”. Studies in second language acquisition 19: 37-66.

Sauro, S. and Chapelle, C. A. (2017). “Toward langa-technocultural competence”. In C. A. Chapelle and S. Sauro (Eds.), The handbook of technology and second language teaching and learning. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 184-201.
Alexandra Galani is a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Primary Education at the University of Ioannina (Greece). Her main research interests are in morphology, its interfaces and language acquisition.

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