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The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition


Edited by Julia Herschensohn & Martha Young-Scholten


Cambridge Handbooks in Language and Linguistics Series

Cambridge: University Press, 2013

Hardcover. xv + 823 pages. ISBN 978-1107007710. £95.00


Reviewed by Patti Spinner

Michigan State University


This volume, edited by Julia Herschensohn and Martha Young-Scholten, is a comprehensive collection of essays on issues relating to second language acquisition (SLA). There are 31 chapters divided into six sections, with an introduction to the volume and to each section. The most striking feature of the volume is the multiplicity of viewpoints and approaches that it covers; the volume reaches beyond second language acquisition and includes a variety of issues in related fields, including computer mediated communication, third language acquisition, literacy, and other issues that are often under-represented. Each chapter is written by an expert in the area, with contributions from an impressive set of researchers.

The first section, “Theory and Practice,” is intended to serve as background and theoretical underpinning for the rest of the book. It includes a clear and succinct history of the field of second language acquisition by Margaret Thomas, a review of theoretical approaches to SLA by Florence Myles, and a discussion of research methodologies and how they relate to different positions by Melinda Whong and Clare Wright. There is also an interesting and provocative chapter by Jan Koster critiquing Chomskyan linguistics and suggesting that language is a part of shared culture rather than simply a property of individuals.

The second and third sections deal with some classic SLA issues; they cover what Herschensohn and Young-Scholten refer to a bit playfully as “internal ingredients” and “external ingredients”. The second section contains chapters on first language influence, cognitive mechanisms involved in acquisition, and issues relating to Universal Grammar and language acquisition. There is also a chapter that deals with a large range of factors that can account for individual differences in language acquisition, including cognitive, affective, or personality differences, strategy use, and more. An interesting and useful addition to this volume is the chapter on alphabetical literacy and adult SLA, an understudied topic that is increasingly being acknowledged as a critical factor in SLA.

The third chapter focuses on ways in which social interactions can influence second language acquisition, including input, output and interaction, second language identity construction, L2 acquisition as socialization, and variation. Interestingly, there is also a chapter that discusses the various opportunities that exist (and are being developed) for electronic interaction; it also includes a discussion of corpus-based approaches to SLA.

The fourth section is titled “Biological Factors.” It largely deals with age-related issues as well as neurological factors in SLA. Three chapters deal with how the age of the learner might affect the acquisition of language: Herschensohn’s chapter on age-related effects, including a discussion of a critical or sensitive period for language acquisition; Haznedar and Gavruseva’s chapter on childhood second language acquisition; and Montrul’s chapter on incomplete first language acquisition, often referred to loosely as heritage language acquisition. There is also a chapter on psycholinguistic processing in early and late bilinguals that covers a number of neurolinguistic methodologies and their findings, and a chapter exploring affective factors, such as motivation or anxiety, from a neurobiological perspective. This section also includes (perhaps a less perfect fit) a chapter that thoroughly outlines current research in third language acquisition.

The chapters in the fifth section focus on the linguistic systems of language learners. Each chapter deals with a particular linguistic domain: the lexicon, morphosyntax, semantics, discourse and pragmatics, and phonology and speech. These useful chapters nicely summarize some of the most widely-studied issues and current debates in these areas. Commonly misunderstood terms are clarified, methodologies are outlined, and examples are given for phenomena observed in learner data.

Finally, the sixth section builds on the previous chapters and covers what Herschensohn and Young-Scholten argue is an under-researched area in SLA: models of second language development or transition. That is, how does the learner develop from one stage to the next? The first chapter discusses how change might occur in language learners’ mental grammars. A number of different approaches are presented, with a focus on Sharwood Smith and Truscott’s MOGUL framework. In their chapter, Vainikka and Young-Scholten provide an overview of research on paths of development in second language acquisition, including their Organic Grammar theory. There are also chapters that discuss learner development from an emergentist (non-nativist) viewpoint and a sociocultural viewpoint. Additionally, one chapter focuses on how research on input and input processing can provide insight into language development. The last chapter deals, appropriately, with a discussion of the characteristics of adult second language learners’ linguistic systems when they have reached the endstate of learning (ultimate attainment).

As this brief outline of the contents demonstrates, the Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition is an impressive compilation of work from different authors with a variety of perspectives. Primarily, this text will serve as a reference for researchers and students in second language acquisition. It will also be a useful text to have on hand for those who instruct courses in second language acquisition. Because the contributors have taken care to include the most recent issues and discoveries in second language studies, this handbook should stay relevant for many years. I am certain that it will frequently be taken down for use from my own bookshelf.


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