Vol. 3. No. 4 R-11 January 1999
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The Generative Study of Second Language Acquisition

Suzanne Flynn, Gita Martohardjono & Wayne O'Neil (Eds.)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum (1998)
Pp. xiv + 366
ISBN 0-8058-1554-6 (paper)
US $39.95 (also available in cloth, $89.95)

It is important to judge The Generative Study of Second Language Acquisition for what it is, and not for what the title might lead you to believe it is. It is not a book linking Universal Grammar (UG) theory and language teaching (take a look at Flynn, 1991, 1992, 1994; Flynn & Martohardjono, 1995; and Martohardjono & Flynn, 1995 for this). It is not a general introduction to generative grammar and its relation to second language acquisition (SLA) (try Cook, 1988 for this). Nor is this a book addressed to teachers or one written in a style accessible for those without a firm background in generative linguistics.

Instead the book is written for those working in the field of generative linguistics, and the general aim of the book is to show how far researchers have progressed in using a UG framework for studying SLA and for determining what still needs to be done in the field. The editors do this by bringing together a collection of studies from some of the leading researchers in this area (originally presented at a conference held at MIT in January of 1993, "Recent Advances in the Generative Study of Language Acquisition," which would have been a more appropriate title for this book). For a perspective on the progression of this field, the studies in this book can be compared to studies in Linguistic Theory in Second Language Acquisition (Flynn & O'Neil, 1988), which contains papers from a similar conference held at MIT in 1985.

The book is organized into four sections, each of which contains three or four studies and a commentary, except for the last section, phonology, which, for unexplained reasons, has no commentary. Although each section has a certain theme (functional categories, constraints on Wh-movement, binding, and phonology), all of the studies address the basic question of whether second language (L2) learners have access to UG and if so to what extent.

For the uninitiated, UG theory says that all humans are born with a set of principles and parameters which inform babies what kinds of sounds and grammar are or are not possible in human language, thus making the babies' job of language learning much easier by cutting down the possibilities they have to entertain. Principles are general guidelines as to what is possible in a human language and what is not. For example, we humans use only a narrow range of the sounds we are capable of making or distinguishing; our UG seems to permit the use of only certain sounds for language. Principles [-1-] supposedly help babies decide what to pay attention to when learning language.

Parameters are sets of possibilities that one has to set for each language. For example, within UG, relative clauses have a certain order as to what can be relativised: a) subject, b) object, c) indirect object, d) object of preposition, e) genitive, f) object of comparison. All languages start with the first category and have subject relative clauses, while in some languages other kinds of relative clauses are possible. However, if one kind of relative clause is possible, all of the other kinds of relative clauses to the left must also be possible, i.e. there is no language where genitive relative clauses are possible but not object relative clauses. According to UG theory, when children learn languages, they do not learn each type of relative clause, but rather they simply have to set their parameter at the type of relative clause that is possible in their language that is farthest to the right.

Therefore, a UG-based analysis of SLA could be a boon for language teachers somewhere down the line. For example, it has been proposed that research could inform language teaching by identifying when the parameter settings for an L1 and an L2 are the same and when they are different. If the settings, for example for relative clauses, are the same, then teachers would not need to focus on this aspect of language (Flynn, 1994; Flynn & Martohardjono, 1995). However, this book only examines the fundamental role of UG in L2 learning in general; there are no studies on UG and instructed language learning.

While all of the studies agree that UG has at least some effect on SLA, there is no agreement as to how much difficulty learners still have acquiring L2 grammar if they have access to UG, or why they have difficulty. Many of the studies point out that because the theory of UG in SLA is well advanced, many more careful and precise studies are needed rather than still further theoretical clarification. However, several authors also point out that while explanations for the existence of UG in interlanguage abound, what is still needed is an explicit learning theory.

For those who are interested in developments in this field and are fluent in UG-speak, this is a solid book of studies well worth reading. The authors tackle the same basic question using a variety of methodologies and using different aspects of language. The book is noteworthy for including aspects that are rarely examined in the field of SLA, such as the acquisition of phonology and the acquisition of ESL by American Sign Language users. What I really like about the book is how it communicates the debate currently raging in the generative study of SLA. There is no false bravado that the definitive answer has been found. Rather, both in the studies and in the summaries, it is made clear not only what has been found, but the problems of the studies and what type of [-2-] research is still needed in this emerging field. My only criticisms of this book have to do with the title, which is somewhat misleading (it sounds more like an introductory book than a collection of studies), and the unexplained absence of a commentary on the phonology section and on the whole book.


Cook, V. (1988). Chomsky's Universal Grammar. Oxford: Blackwell.

Flynn, S. (1991). Theory, practice, and research: Strange or blissful bedfellows? In J. Alatis (Ed.). Georgetown University Roundtable on Languages and Linguistics 1990: Linguistics, language teaching and language acquisition (pp. 112-122). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Flynn, S. (1992). The relevance of linguistic theory for language pedagogy: Debunking the myths. In J. Alatis (Ed.). Georgetown University Roundtable on Languages and Linguistics 1991: Linguistics and language pedagogy: The state of the art (pp. 547-554). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Flynn, S. (1994). Marriage for life: Theory, research, and practice. In J. Alatis (Ed.). Georgetown University Roundtable on Languages and Linguistics 1993: Educational linguistics, crosscultural communication, and global interdependence (pp. 148-161). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Flynn, S. & Martohardjono, G. (1995). Toward theory-driven language pedagogy. In F. Eckman, D. Highland, P. Lee, J. Mileham & R. Weber (Eds.). Second language acquisition theory and pedagogy (pp. 45-59). Hove, UK: Erlbaum.

Flynn, S. & O"Neil, W. (1988). Linguistic theory in second language acquisition. Dordrecth: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Martohardjono, G. & Flynn, S. (1995). Language transfer: What do we really mean? In L. Eubank, L. Selinker, & M. Sharwood Smith (Eds.). The current state of interlanguage (pp. 205-217). Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Nat Bartels
Universitaet Leipzig

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