Vol. 1. No. 3 R-17 March 1995
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Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course

Susan Gass and Larry Selinker (1994)
Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xvi + 357
ISBN 0-8058-0494-3 (paper); 0-8058-0493-5 (cloth)
US $34.50 (paper); $79.57 (cloth)

Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course (SLAIC) is a welcome addition to the growing number of introductory texts on second language acquisition. Gass and Selinker take a multidisciplinary approach to adult second language acquisition (SLA), in which insights and research material from several perspectives, primarily linguistics, psychology, and sociolinguistics, are linked to SLA research itself. Their book "attempts to bring together these disparate threads [and] to place them within a coherent framework" (p. xiv). Thus, although the authors do not specifically say so, their book is written from an integrative, applied linguistics point of view, such as that described in Kaplan & Grabe (1992).

Gass and Selinker state (p. xiii) that they designed SLAIC so that it can be used in an introductory course for undergraduate or graduate students, whether such students have had any background in linguistics or not. Their goal is to make the subject accessible to large numbers of students by presenting in an understandable way the complexities of the field through providing a clear review of the issues and pertinent literature in SLA, often in an inductive manner.

The eleven chapters in SLAIC cover most of the topics one would expect in an overview of SLA: the role of the native language, typological universals and Universal Grammar, interlanguage, variation, input and interaction, and individual factors. However, Gass and Selinker also include valuable material on other topics of importance in an introductory text, such as how SLA data is obtained and analyzed and the place of the lexicon. The book concludes with the authors' integrated view of SLA. A glossary, along with indexes covering both authors and subjects, is added after the list of references. One of the attractive features of the book is the "Points for Discussion" section at the end of each chapter. On the whole, Gass and Selinker have devised useful and challenging questions, situations, and problems, often based on actual second language data, to lead students, both individually and as a class, into further exploration of the material covered in the chapter.

In chapter 1, in the section on the nature of language, the authors briefly mention six areas of language which can be described systematically: phonology, syntax, morphology, the lexicon, semantics, and pragmatics. Missing, however, is any mention of discourse which, according to Grabe (1992), is "the most important area of research for applied linguistics" (p. 53), an area which "is now at the heart of applied linguistics research" (p. 56). Although [-1-] the notions of discourse function and discourse domain are mentioned briefly in the chapter on variation, and some reference to discourse is made in the discussion of input, comprehension, output, and interaction, discourse analysis and its importance in second language learning is given insufficient attention, given the extensive literature on the analysis of both conversation and a wide range of written materials.

Chapter 2 is a helpful transition between the introductory chapter and the specific content chapters to follow. Gass and Selinker lead the reader through the process of analyzing SLA data, pointing out that data can be ambiguous in their interpretation. Thus rather than thinking of solutions as right or wrong, the reader needs to consider arguments and proposed solutions as being better or worse. The authors then discuss how SLA data are collected, how the data are elicited, and the effect of one's theoretical position on one's research design. The final section of the chapter looks at other issues in the analysis of SLA data. This process of working through the elicitation, collection, and analysis of data, Gass and Selinker state, will help the reader do the problems and evaluate the research in the remainder of the book.

Gass and Selinker devote chapters 3 and 4 to a consideration of the role of the native language (NL) in SLA. In chapter 3, they examine earlier positions on the NL, critiquing both contrastive analysis and error analysis. In chapter 4, they look at the morpheme order studies and recent reactions to that body of research, which have led to a new perspective on the NL, particularly via studies of transfer and cross-linguistic influences.

Chapters 5 to 7 focus on how SLA has been influenced by three disciplines: linguistics (how to describe and explain the L2 system produced by learners), psychology (how to describe and explain the process by which learners create their L2 system, or interlanguage) and sociolinguistics (how to describe and explain the effect social factors have on the way learners vary their use of their L2 system). Chapter 5 covers issues related to universals and how they are dealt with within typological universals and Universal Grammar. Chapter 6 looks at how learners organize and use their developing knowledge of L2 and how learning new material has an effect on the structure of their interlanguage. Chapter 7 examines issues relating to the external variables which affect L2 production and to the communication strategies learners use.

The last section of chapter 7 mentions other disciplines which potentially can contribute to SLA studies. It also looks at ways in which SLA studies can have a return effect on the three major contributing disciplines. Again, this is very much an applied linguistics perspective in the sense put forward in Kaplan (1980) and the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics. Applied linguistics (in this case the subfield of SLA) does not merely consume theories generated by other disciplines but, according to [-2-] Gass and Selinker, also gives back to those disciplines crucial data and a broad, multidisciplinary perspective which may challenge or at least enhance, certain positions on language which those disciplines currently hold.

In chapter 8, Gass and Selinker discuss the nature of input and the factors which make it understandable and thus able to become intake, along with the role of output and negotiated interaction in SLA. This is a social interactionist view in which language and cognition develop within a social context. The authors reject Krashen's view that comprehensible input is the only causal factor in SLA, taking instead "[comprehended] linguistic input coupled with conversational interaction as the driving force of language development" (p. 215). Chapter 9 examines individual differences in SLA (e.g., age, aptitude, motivation). Gass and Selinker prefer to call these factors "nonlanguage influences" since they can have a societal rather than idiosyncratic basis. This is an extremely valuable chapter because the authors carefully examine each of these nonlanguage influences (NLIs) and show that research does not always support commonly held positions. The authors begin by looking at research traditions. They point out that linguistics has tended to minimize the role of aptitude while cognitive psychology has played down the role of attitudes and motivation. They note that SLA researchers coming out of these disciplines, particularly mainline linguistics, seem reluctant to explore these NLIs. Gass and Selinker look next at specific NLIs to see what effect they have on SLA. They accept social distance (acculturation) as a contributing but not a causal factor. Despite the differences in the rate and ultimate attainment of child and adult L2 learners, they note that there is as yet no consensus among researchers about the reasons why children are more able to reach native-like fluency than adults. Gass and Selinker see aptitude as "of crucial importance" (p. 247) but largely ignored in SLA research on differential success among L2 learners. The authors then deal with motivation and attitudes, noting some difficulties with Gardner's often-cited work (e.g., the Canadian setting may be atypical for the integrative-instrumental distinction, and self-report data may be unreliable for the study of motivation). Their sections covering the relationship between motivation and goals over time and between motivation and success are interesting but short. On personality factors in SLA, Gass and Selinker find no evidence of any traits able to predict success in learning an L2. Finally, on learning strategies, the authors consider the research to date as being merely preliminary.

Chapter 10 is a welcome addition to overviews of SLA. In it, the authors deal with the lexicon, an area which they consider to be neglected in SLA research because of its complexity. Nevertheless, they claim that the lexicon "may be the most important component for learners" (p. 270). In support of this claim, they point out that lexical errors are numerous and disruptive and that good lexical skills help learners to comprehend input and produce output, both of [-3-] which aid acquisition. Recent work by Hoey (1991) within a discourse framework should also be considered.

In their final chapter, Gass and Selinker try to pull together the various factors that influence second language learning, integrating "what is learned and what is not learned, as well as the contexts in which that learning and nonlearning take place" (p. 295). Much of the material in the chapter is based on Gass (1988). Gass and Selinker maintain that five levels are necessary to account for the way in which input is converted to output: (a) Apperceived input, (b) comprehended input, (c) intake, (d) integration, and (e) output (p. 298). Between or within these levels, there are a number of factors, or filters, which help or hinder language learners in their efforts to process the incoming material.

The authors conclude their book by pointing out that they have tried to present a dynamic and interactive view of second language acquisition which shows the diverse factors that have an impact on this complex and multifaceted process.

Two final comments. First, I question whether the book is really suitable for the broad range of students targeted by the authors: both undergraduates and graduates, with or without a background in linguistics. Those without a knowledge of linguistics, particularly undergraduates, will find some of the discussions technical and rather difficult. Others, for example language teachers or graduate students of TESOL whose program is not housed in a linguistics department, may find the book less accessible and less applicable to their needs than, say, Brown (1994). Second, readers will notice an occasional printing error and a few exercises that do not work particularly well. Nevertheless, Gass and Selinker are to be congratulated for having produced a stimulating, highly readable book which should become one of the standard introductory texts in the field of SLA.


Brown, H. D. (1994). Principles of language learning and teaching (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Gass, S. (1988). Integrating research areas: A framework for second language studies. Applied Linguistics, 9, 198-217.

Grabe, W. (1992). Applied linguistics and linguistics. In W. Grabe & R. Kaplan (Eds.), Introducing applied linguistics (pp. 35- 58). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Hoey, M. (1991). Patterns of lexis in text. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [-4-] Kaplan, R. (1980). On the scope of applied linguistics. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Kaplan, R. & Grabe, W. (1992). Introduction. In W. Grabe & R. Kaplan (Eds.), Introducing applied linguistics (pp. 1-9). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Herb Purnell
Biola University


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