Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Contemporary Approaches to Second Language Acquisition


Edited by María del Pilar García Mayo, María Junkal Gutierrez Mangado & María Martinez Adrían


AILA Applied Linguistics Series, Volume 9

Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2013

Hardcover. xiii + 265 p. ISBN 978-9027205254. €95.00 / $143.00


Reviewed by Claire Tardieu

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris


Contemporary Approaches to Second Language Acquisition (SLA) edited by María del Pilar García Mayo, María Junkal Gutierrez Mangado and María Martinez Adrían from Universidad del Pais Vasco (UPV/EHU) with a foreword by Florence Myles, is an ambitious volume that seeks to circumscribe the vast field of SLA research and to provide reflections and situated illustrations of the old and new theories. The purpose of the book also lies in the attempt to browse complementary approaches that do not usually gain attention. So, it is finally wide-ranging in terms of coverage, including linguistic, cognitive, social and pedagogical dimensions. It must be added that the 22 contributors belong to a significant range of universities from all over the world (Spain, United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, USA, Chile), and that the homage paid to the late Teresa Pica through this collective achievement is all the more valuable.

In the first chapter, Roumyana Slabakova revisits the generative framework of SLA and coins the “bottleneck hypothesis” to account for “the processing of functional morphology versus syntax across adult native speakers, children and L2 speakers”. Several studies are mentioned to support the idea that both the quantity and the quality of the input received by the learners play a significant part in the very process of language learning. She draws the conclusion that what is difficult for L2 learners is also difficult for low-educated native speakers, which corroborates the fact that one cannot equate a C2 level as described in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) with a “native” or “near-native” proficiency level. Slabakova continues to examine L1-L2 situations on specific issues such as the syntax-semantics interfaces, the syntax discourse interface, and the semantic-pragmatics interface. She comes to the conclusion that morphology is the bottleneck of acquisition and that the contemporary language teaching policies should not exclude focus on form but on the contrary keep helping the learner to build “a mental grammar of the target language” [25]. This position is all the more striking because it is distinctly at variance with the current communicative or action-oriented paradigm and rather in keeping with that of the French psycholinguists Chini and Goutéraux (2011).

In Chapter 2, Ana Llinares explores the role of Systemic Functional linguistics (SFL) in second/foreign language acquisition. She summarizes the three main approaches: generative linguistics, psycholinguistics/cognitive models, and contextual/social models (Lantolf, 2000). Her purpose is clearly to enhance the positive contribution of SFL (Halliday, 2004) although this model is often under-represented in SLA literature. She quotes the three metafunctions conveyed by an adult’s language: the ideational function (to represent reality), the interpersonal metafunction (to establish relations) and the textual metafunction to relate ideas in a text. Then she refers to several studies relying on SFL (EFL at primary school level, EFL writing development in secondary schools, and an application of SFL to a CLIL context) [32]. Llinares raises the right questions such as: is the classroom an appropriate context for early language learning? A quasi-experimental study was carried out to see whether the use of the mathetic function – to express personal opinions and feelings (Halliday, 1975) depended on the quantity of exposure to the L2. Different research questions were posed. The main contribution of this chapter is to highlight the potential of SFL in different learning contexts and to advocate the need to combine several theories and methodologies.  

In Chapter 3, “From input, output and comprehension to negotiation, evidence, and attention”, Teresa Pica successively refers to Krashen’s comprehensible input (1981), Long (1981), Gass & Varonis (1985), and Swain’s comprehensible output (1985) to remind us of the historical background of the contemporary studies on interaction and SLA. She calls forth such far-reaching concepts as positive and negative evidence, enhanced input (Long, 1996), negotiation of form (Lyster, 1998), noticing the gap (Schmidt & Frota, 1986), positive and negative feedback (Lyster & Ranta, 1997). She highlights some major theoretical constructs while integrating them in a task-based learning framework.

In Chapter 4, Lyster & Sato focus on “Skill acquisition theory and the role of practice in L2 development”. Their purpose is to give evidence that contextualized oral practice combined with appropriate feedback enhances L2 learning, the initial assumption being that L2 learning “entails a gradual transition from effortful use to more automatic use of the target language, brought about through practice and feedback in meaningful contexts.” One interesting point is that according to them, automaticity does not solely relate to speed, but also to the last stage of a whole process of automatization. Hence the necessity to create appropriate learning activities. Another seminal contribution of this chapter lies in the attempt to compare the effects of language practice with and without feedback through reviewing several recent classroom studies, among which Sato and Lyster’s (2012) about production practice in tandem. They conclude that the Skill Acquisition Theory “provides a particularly useful way of understanding L2 development in contexts of instructed SLA because of the way it explains the role of practice and its inextricable link with feedback.”[85]

Alessandro Benatti’s Chapter 5 relies on “the Input processing Theory in second language acquisition” which consists of “two sub-processes: making form-meaning connections and parsing.” The first process implies that the learners tend to connect forms and meanings while parsing designates the mapping of the syntactic structure in order to understand and recognize the the subject and the object in a sentence. He then refers to Van Patten’s 1996 Input Processing Theory (IP theory) and his revised framework (2004), defining six preferred processing principles and sub-principles including “the primacy of meaning principle” and “the first noun principle”. According to him, grammar instruction  should be “more meaning-based and tied to input and communication. The French official texts tried to operate such a shift in the 2002 instructions to teachers, which promoted a stronger connection between communicative activities and grammatical reflection. Even though IP theory cannot account for all the aspects of L2 learning, it does provide valuable information about “what L2 learners do with input” [108].

Chapter 6 by Gisela Hâkanson explores the “Processability theory” (PT) through “explaining developmental sequences”. She builds on Levelt’s model of speech production (1989) and on a large body of observations showing evidence that “L2 learners create their own versions of the target language, and that they approach the target in a series of stages in the interlanguage continuum.” The theory thus implies that a learner’s progress in the target language should be assessed according to theirown achievements. It also provides a useful explanation of “the order in which the morpho-syntactic phenomena emerge in the learner’s production” [112]. Hâkanson then describes the different stages using the “emergence criterion” (Meisel & al. (1981) – “an important marker in the acquisition process” [114]. Overgeneralizations are thus seen as “good indicators of processability” [115]. She then reports on cross-linguistic validity (English, Italian, Japanese and Swedish) and empirical evidence. For instance, some studies have shown the discrepancy between declarative and procedural knowledge (students performing differently in written production tasks and grammatical judgment tasks). She finally reports on studies about Developmentally Moderated Transfer Hypothesis (DMTH). In her 2002 study involving 20 Swedish students learning German and focusing on the subject-verb inversion which is a common feature of the two languages, Hâkanson & al. found out that the Full Transfer/Full Access hypothesis didn’t work. Finally she mentions the possibility to take developmental stages as a basis for measuring L2 learning profiling [121], which is particularly adapted to bilingual development.

In Chapter 7, Gabriela Adela Gánem-Gutiérrez discusses “Sociocultural Theory and second language development – Theoretical foundations and insights from research”. In this theory, language development is seen as “the ability to increasingly take part in social activity”. Such a conception has its roots in Vygotsky’s socioconstructivism. More recently, Lantolf & Thorne (2006) have developed the concept of mediation, at the core of all form of human development including language. They define mediation as “the process through which humans deploy culturally constructed artifacts, concepts, and activities to regulate (i.e. gain voluntary control over and transform) the material world or their own and each other’s social and mental activity” (2006: 79) [130]. Another core concept is praxis, that is “the dialectical [bidirectional] unity of theory and practical activity as an instrument of change” (Lantolf & Beckett, 2009: 459) [130]. From a SCT perspective, knowledge is not seen as an entity but as what is co-constructed in a specific context. The author also takes advantage of Vygotsky’s emphasis on concepts seen as cognitive tools. She refers to several studies which show that when dealing with motion verbs, advanced L2 learners tend to encode manner in a gesture instead of through semantic and syntactic structures. If one refers to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD), one can understand that the ZPD cannot be defined externally as a pure piece of knowledge but rather as being “at the crux of pedagogical and methodological considerations regarding learning and development” [135]. She insists on the role of verbalization or ‘languaging’ as self-explanation. Even more interestingly, from a teacher training perspective, the ZPD conceptual tool can entail a change in teaching and assessing methods. Dynamic Assessment (DA) consists of measuring the difference between the performances achieved at the beginning and then at the end of the activity (Poehner, 2008).

Chapter 8 focuses on “Investigating L2 spoken syntax, a usage-based perspective” (Regina Weinert, María Basterrechez and María del Pilar García Mayo). The authors account for the principles involved in qualitative research about native spoken syntax and the usage-based as well as the cognitive language models. It is true that there is a strong bias in Western societies in favor of written language (Linnell, 2005), especially in the context of second language learning. In the first part, an overview of native spoken language is provided, then usage-based and cognitive language models are evoked: a usage-based approach to grammar is thus characterized by innateness, constructions shaped by usage, a maximalist approach (accommodating the particular as well as the general), “no sharp division between grammar and lexicon”. Then they give examples of spoken interactions in which some forms tend to become formulaic such as “there’s biscuits in the tin” or “if you’d like to…” They then continue with two methodological challenges: “how to transcribe spoken data, and how to segment it” [160] – considering the difference between sentence and clause. Even if “the core of syntactic units can be identified in spoken language, their boundaries and their combinations are a challenge in the analysis of spoken language” [160]. One has to take into account pauses and prosodic features, for instance. Still, there is a large discrepancy between the findings about spoken language and course materials. The authors come to the conclusion that “going straight from corpus to classroom” is certainly helpful but that full benefit can be gained from a thorough reflection on usage.

In Chapter 9: “Connectionist models of second language acquisition”, Ping Li and Xiaowei Zhao intend to explore the implications of these models in second language acquisition. The theory they rely on known as connectionism or Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP) advocates that “learning, representation, and processing are parallel, distributed, and interactive in nature” [178]. By contrast, computers operate on serial processes. This theory leads to the idea of emergentism to represent the way thoughts emerge from parallel interactions. The authors distinguish two different types of algorithms to adjust weights to achieve learning which can apply to language learning: “supervised and unsupervised learning”, both involving an input-to-output mapping and fine-tuning adjustments. Lexical entries can be represented as “localist” or “distributed” representations. “For example, one can use either localist phonological representation of words (one word, one unit), or distributed representation based on articulatory features or phonemes for a word” [182]. Distributed representations can be divided into two categories: feature-based and corpus-based. Connectionism has also inspired some interactionist theories such as the Competition Model (CM) developed by Bates and MacWhinney (1982) “to provide a mechanist account of language acquisition” [183]. These models have also focused on language attrition (forgetting) especially for bilinguals who lose their skills in one language. In another section, the authors discuss about a scalable connectionist model of bilingual language learning: DevLex-II (Developmental Lexicon II). The authors use Chinese and English simulation material such as the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories (CDI), the CHILDES database (MacWhinney, 2000), the WordNet database (Miller, 1990) for English and the HowNet database for Chinese. And they demonstrate that “the relative onset time of L2 versus L1 plays an important role in modulating the overall representational structure of the L2” [190]. Thus, computational models seem to allow manipulations in a flexible way. In the end, one should not forget that “computational models need both be informed by empirical data and to inform empirical studies” [195].

Chapter 10: “Dynamic Systems Theory (DST) as a comprehensive theory of second language development” by Kees de Bot, Wander Lowie, Steven L. Thorne and Marjolijn Verspoor, can already be seen as a concluding chapter. It refers to the theories framing previous contributions such as sociological approaches to development, cognitive, emergent and distributed theories. The authors clearly want to explain and enhance the DST among all others and argue that it is particularly relevant in Second Language Development (SLD). In fact, DST appears like the “missing link” between “theories that focus on “cognitive processes” and theories that start from “the context of learning” [200]. This is rather in keeping with Bertin, Gravé, Narcy-Combes (2009) who draw on emergentism to create all-inclusive models. The authors also refer to Herdina and Jessner who argue that a dynamic SLD model should also take into account multilingualism. “Dynamic systems take time as a core issue” [201]. They then quote recurrent patterns such as the ontogenetic/phylogenetic pattern (Haeckel, 1866) or the regression hypothesis (Jakobson, 1941). Here, in an analogy to space fractals, they suggest that “DST provides an overarching framework through which to view commensurable SLD theories or approaches that range from global to more detailed levels of analysis” [202]. Thus they emphasize the importance of both spatial and temporal dynamics in the study of SLD. Still, is it possible to connect DST and the Vygostskynian socio-constructivism or the so-called cultural-historical/sociocultural approaches to human development?

According to them, “humans are open systems and development arises as a function of interaction within complex, historically formed, and dynamically changing social, symbolic, and material ecologies” [205].Then while looking for a language theory in keeping with DST, they suggest that, contrary to what is assumed by the Universal Grammar theory, “structure emerges from process, and not the other way round” (Hopper, 1998) [208]. They finally explain in what ways the Cognitive Linguistic theory (Langacker, 2008) seems very much in line with DST. “In emergent grammar there is no such thing as an abstract grammar in the mind” [209]. The regular patterns found in language are therefore the result of language use and are actually nothing but conventions established through time (Evans & Levinson, 2009)[209]. Then they discuss the notion of “endstate of L2 development” versus “steady state”, fossilization (Selinker, 1972) versus “plateaus” (Selinker & Lakshmanan, 1992: 212), words as mental objects versus words as “operators on mental states” (Elman, 2011: 22). They mention Spoelman and Verspoor‘s 2010 study reporting that noun phrase complexity and sentence complexity were shown to alternate in their development [215]. According to the authors, DST is in line with what was coined as “middle level SLD theories” by Littlewood (2004), which means “theories that attend to different levels of granularity and different time scales” [216].

In Chapter 11, “Electrophysiology of second language processing, The past, present and future”, Laura Sabourin, Christie Brien and Marie-Claude Tremblay review the past and present contributions from “event-related brain potential” (ERP) research to the field of second language development seen as L2 processing. ERPs are based “on the online electroencephalography which is then time-locked to specific events” such as linguistic events for that matter. ERPs can tell us precisely when some aspects of language are processed and they can also account for the qualitative or quantitative differences in the way they are processed. And they are more reliable than behavioral testing methods. The authors report on various sound analysis experiments focusing on the detection of native and non-native contrasts and they conclude that variations in this field could be due to the fact that “they are discriminated at a different level of sound-processing” [227] (the response elicited by a non-native contrast may signal acoustic discrimination only). This could explain why it is so difficult for a L2 learner to speak with a native accent. ERPs have also been used to test bilingual lexical organization (how the lexicons are linked). The authors also tackle the Critical Hypothesis issue and further investigate the effect of proficiency on sentence processing. They finally agree to think that ERP research must develop in order to shed light not only on how the neuronal networks for L2 processing are organized but also to draw significant and coherent conclusions.

In the afterword, “On multiplicity and mutual exclusivity, the case for different SLA theories”, Jason Rothman and Bill Van Patten try to answer several seminal questions such as “If SLA is a singular entity, why are there so many theories?” Or “To what extent are the various theories and frameworks in the present volume in competition”? Of course, SLA is not a singular entity and if one considers physics, general relativity works with forces at the macro scale whereas quantum theory works at the micro level. In other words, theories do not focus on the same phenomena. Then the authors classify the various theories according to how they conceptualize language: language as a mental construct; language as a socially mediated construct, rooted in communication; language as a hybrid mental/social-communicative construct; language not specified.

Of course, “there are mutually exclusive positions in SLA theorizing” [251]. Still, this may not be entirely true, since a theory may account for a part and not for the whole of linguistics. For instance, a generative approach may be more effective to account for the acquisition of syntax while connectionism should be preferred for lexical and morphological acquisition. The authors seem to consider that such a pluralistic position is in keeping with the complexity of SLA and does not really endanger any of the theories. Thus, in this final part, they seem to provide the readers with ‘keys’ to a better understanding of the general attempt across the various chapters.

Reading this book is quite an experience in itself. Although this overview may not be fully exhaustive, the huge amount of references to past and current experiments and theories certainly brings a seminal contribution to the field of SLA (‘second’ meaning ‘non primary’). Any researcher involved in the field should indeed find great inspiration in it. One last remark: it may be advisable to read the afterword first.


Cercles © 2014

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.