Vol. 5. No. 2 R-12 September 2001
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

Learning New Languages: A Guide to Second Language Acquisition

Tom Scovel (2000)
Boston: Heinle & Heinle
Pp. 158.
ISBN: 0-8384-67-7 (paper)
US $21.56

This book, a volume in Heinle's new TeacherSource series, is intended for ESL/EFL teachers, for TESOL students, and for lay people who have an interest in the topic of learning languages. As the subtitle says, Learning New Languages: A Guide to Second Language Acquisition is a general introduction to the field of second language acquisition, but the organization of the book greatly differs from such standard texts as Rod Ellis's The Study of Second Language Acquisition and Diane Larsen-Freeman's and Michael's Long's An Introduction to Second Language Acquisition. In contrast to these books, Scovel incorporates insights from his own ESL teaching experiences, other teacher's experiences, as well as numerous accounts from various learners to augment his explanations. In addition, the book is built around Scovel's argument that "there are five major contexts in which languages are acquired and although they can be labeled with more academically impressive appellations, it probably more helpful to use simple and straightforward terminology" (p. 2-3), and he uses these five contexts as the titles and topics for each of the book's key chapters.

Scovel calls these five domains people, language, attention, cognition, and emotion. "Although it may not be immediately apparent, these particular categories have also been chosen because the acronym the labels spell out Place. This abbreviation refers to the five contexts where all language learning takes 'place' (p. 3).

Chapter two, 'People,' is a crisp introduction to the role social factors play in the learning of a second language and the various psychological models of human behavior that have been developed to explain language learning. Scovel touches on all the basic psychological models: the behavioral, innatist, and social interactionist models of first language acquisition, as well as the core social models: Schumann's acculturation, Acton's perceived social distance, and Giles's speech accommodation. Next he discusses the topics of language planning and Kachru's famous trinary categorization of 'World Englishes.' He then finishes the chapter with the controversial subject of bilingual education, noting that "In essence, the debate is between two different routes for assist-ing the non-English-speaking children of the many immigrants who come to America to acquire fluency in English" (p. 38). [-1-]

The third chapter, 'Languages,' is an analysis of how one's mother language influences the learning of a second language. Scovel discusses the topics of interference, intraference, interlanguage, and the distinction between mistakes and errors. He also discusses in some detail research that has been done on the fairly recent and frequently overlooked topic of avoidance. Avoidance is "the tendency for L2 learners not to use grammatical structures that would normally be used by native speakers in that context because those L2 structures contrast significantly with the grammar of their mother tongue" (p. 57). Because this avoidance results in few errors being made by learners in speech and writing, it is obviously difficult for SLA researchers to accurately measure this phenomenon. Scovel then slowly walks the reader through an important experiment that was done by Kleinmann which measured avoidance in Arabic and Spanish speakers, and gives a brief introduction to the importance of statistics in SLA research while explaining Kleinmann's results.

The next chapter, 'Attention,' is a detailed discussion of the psychological construct attention. He considers this concept to be the centerpiece of the entire learning process because it "frames our entire experience . . . it represents the gateway between the outside world of people and linguistic input, and the internal realm of thoughts and feelings, it is a construct that affects and is affected by almost every aspect of language learning" (pp. 71, 89). To emphasize this point, Scovel writes about the connections between attention and neuropsychology , memory, perception, linguistic input and form, as well as Tomlin and Villa's, as well as McLaughlin's attention models.

In chapter five, 'Cognition,' he asserts that "Cognition explains everything. Attention may be the center of the PLACE acronym, but the C for cognition accounts for all the other components that make up the model of SLA . . . for cognition defines, refines, and confines every aspect of our social, linguistic, attentional and emotional behavior" (p. 91). He then examines the cognitive roles of content and discourse schemata, differentiates between the commonly confused categories of processes, strategies, and styles, relying heavily upon learner's accounts to illustrate his points. Scovel then writes about memory, cognitive styles, language learning strategies, the critical period hypothesis and the relationship between age and SLA.

Chapter 6, 'Emotion,' explains how our emotions influence the way in which we learn languages. Topics covered include motivation, anxiety, and empathy, Scovel also briefly mentions other affective variables like extroversion and introversion, risk-taking, and self-esteem. His general conclusion about the place of emotions in SLA is that "we are still struggling to come to grips with it. The great irony is that they could very well end up being the most influential force in language acquisition, but SLA researchers have not even come close to demonstrating such a claim. A large part of the problem is the wide variety of constructs that are subsumed under the term 'emotions . . . More than any other topic covered in this book, affective variables are the area that SLA researchers understand the least" (p. 140).

The final chapter is a summing up of the main themes of the book. Scovel breaks these themes down to 7 general statements. Among the conclusions he makes are "Individual students differ from each other far more than any other single group of learners differs from another . . . .Students are always paying attention: the real question is, to What? . . . .Content and discourse schemata play a powerful role in shaping language learning behavior . . . .Emotions are neither good nor bad; they are simply a natural part of language acquisition" (pp. 144, 147, 148, 149).

All in all, this is an informative and handy general introduction to the complex field of SLA. Scovel's presentation is brisk, to the point, and generally well supported. Although the book is only 158 pages long, he covers all the basics. Each chapter has a good list of recommended readings and the book's general bibliography is comprehensive and suitable for the general reader. There is though one drawback to the book, a drawback which is not unique to Scovel's book, but unfortunately seems indigenous to many, if not most, popular or general guides to language learning, namely the penchant by authors to use homily or trite metaphors in order to try to explain complex learning processes. Scovel throughout uses them, from the first chapter where he compares understanding language learning to understanding human nutrition (p. 1-2), in chapter five he compares cognition to a refrigerator (p.116), in chapter four, he explains the difficulty of separating attention from variables like memory and perception to "a professor struggling down the hallway with an armful of term papers at the end of a week" (p. 89), and there are others. The point is that in many of these cases the metaphor used is not informative, too simplistic and ultimately distracting from what is being discussed.

Ronald Gray
Beijing Language and Culture University, Beijing, China.

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation..

Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page