Vol. 5. No. 3 R-13 December 2001
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Second Language Acquisition Processes in the Classroom: Learning Japanese

Amy Snyder Ohta (2001)
Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers
Pp. xviii + 298
ISBN 0-8058-3801-5 (paper)
US $34.50

One of the biggest methodological problems in studying SLA processes has been that of knowing what actually is going on in the mind of a learner while learning a second language, for unfortunately many of the affective and cognitive components involved in second language learning are not observable in language behavior. Methods like elicited language use techniques using spoken and written tasks, role playing, self-reports using questionnaires and interviews have been employed in attempts to solve this problem, but all of these approaches have been criticized over questions about the validity and reliability of the data they have yield.

In Second Language Acquisition Processes in the Classroom: Learning Japanese, Amy Snyder Ohta of the University of Washington, argues that the study of the private speech of learners is one concrete way of solving this problem of access. Her book is the result of a year longitudinal case study she conducted in 1996 and 1997 of the private speech of seven adults learning Japanese in their foreign language classroom at the University of Washington. The book is intended both for "researchers interested in second or foreign language (L2) development, as well as for those who work to promote L2 learning--language teachers" (p. xiii).

Ohta claims that "Private speech has particular potential as a data source because it provides a window into the mind as it works on the cognitive, intimately social interactive problems presented by learning language...The paramount understanding is that private speech is not only a frequent feature of L 2 classroom activity, but evidences SLA in process " (pp. 12, 65). She compares private speech to "a moving picture of language acquisition in process" (p. 34). Ohta defines private speech as 'Oral language uttered not for communicative interaction with another, but for dialogue with the self" (p. 14), in another words, private speech serves as an intermediary between social and inner speech.

The book is divided into six chapters. In each chapter, "the reader is invited to look at SLA processes from a perspective that is grounded in an understanding of social interaction as a key locus of language development from the beginning adult learner (p. xvii)."

Chapter one, 'From social tool to cognitive resource: Foreign language development as a process of dynamic internalization,' sets the theoretical framework used in the analysis of her data. Ohta relies on a learner centered social cognitive framework based on the socio- historical school of psychology and is primarily interested in the question of how interactional styles develop. In this chapter she discusses the concepts of interactional routines, assisted performance, functional systems, and the zone of proximal development (ZPD). ZPD is a concept which originated from the famous Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky, Ohta has updated it to describe classroom SLA. She defines this social interactive construct "as the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by individual linguistic production, and the level of potential development as determined through language produced collaboratively with a teacher or peer" (p. 9). This concept is important because it directly relates to interactional styles.

The chapter also presents an overview of the methodology that was used in the data collection for her longitudinal case study. The data was collected over one academic year, "by miking and audio recording the interactions of student volunteers as they participated in their language classes...Data was collected by video and audio taping the classes of these learners about three times a quarterâThirty-four classroom hours of data were transcribed for analysis using conventions from Conversation Analysis (CA)" (pp. 23, 25, 26). Ohta claims that her study was unique because past studies of private speech did not examine the role of private speech in the classroom learning of a foreign language or how precisely private speech is used by learners in a classroom. [-1-]

Chapter two, 'Private speech: A window on classroom foreign Language acquisition,' is a discussion of the mental processes involved in language learning. A review of prior research on private language is given and its role in cognitive development is discussed. From her project's findings, Ohta concludes "private speech to be a creative locus of linguistic manipulation and hypothesis testing, a covert social space in which learners actively involve themselves in language lessons when they are not the focus of teacher attention" (p. 30).

In the third chapter, 'Peer interactive tasks and assisted performance in classroom language learning,' Ohta moves "outward from private speech, an intrapsychological speech form, to interpsychological speech--social interaction as it occurs in the context of peer interactive tasks. It is through social interaction that the ZPD is formed" (p. 73). She then discusses the role that social interaction and assisted performance plays in language learning, the relation- ship between working memory and selective attention in this interaction, the various ways assisted performance works, and the roles prompting, co-construction, and language play, perform. Based on a detailed analysis of her data, she infers "that time and again, learners both utilize and provide developmentally appropriate assistance to their peers" (p. 124). She breaks down the benefits of peer L 2 interactive tasks into five areas: general development, vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and interactional style.

Chapter four, 'A learner-centered analysis of corrective feedback as a resource in foreign language development,' is a study of how corrective feedback works in several types of classroom settings, how it influences learners over time, and the effect of peer learning and teacher settings. In this chapter, Ohta defines and classifies corrective feedback, looks at recasts and incidental recasts, and the relevance of private speech to feedback. Based on the data collected in her study, she concludes that corrective feedback is over time useful to classroom students. Her data also reveals "that learners have opportunities to receive corrective feedback related to their utterances that are not audible to the teacher (nor to researchers using a central microphone to collect data), in private speech and choral responses" (p. 177). It also indicates that learners utilize corrective feedback that is addressed to other students and that feedback is both flexible and adaptable "in different classroom settings with different learners" (p. 177).

The next chapter, 'The development of interactional style in first-year classroom: learning to listen in Japanese,' examines the topic of interactional competence by focusing on how learners acquire this ability while studying Japanese. Here, Ohta discusses what makes a good listener in Japanese, and looks in detail at the ways four learners from her case study used listener responses. She then proposes a six staged developmental model for L 2 listener responses.

The final chapter, 'From task to activity: relating task design and implementation to language use in peer interaction,' is an attempt to explain the relationship between 'task' and activity' from a teacher perspective. The question under consideration being "how is what students are asked to do in the classroom (the 'task'), related to what students actually do in their interaction with each other (the 'activity')? In order to adequately answer this question, Ohta poses and answers in detail, relying upon transcripts from her study, a series of questions concerning how tasks are designed and put into practice. These questions include:

Ohta intends these questions "to provide a bridge to the realities of classroom practice in the increasingly task based world of language teaching methodology" (p. xvii). Her conclusion stresses the point that different learners do the same tasks differently because of individual abilities, interests, and understanding of the tasks. The implications of this for teachers are "that beginners need a great deal of support in order to be successful at peer learning tasks. Some of the support they need comes from peers, but much comes from task design and implementation, support provided by teachers. This support involves integrating tasks into lessons so that they flow logically from the instructional sequence. It is not sufficient for a teacher to simply tell beginning students how to do a task, or what form and/or vocabulary they should use. Rather, productive peer interaction was characterized by a great deal of pre-task work" (p. 269).

Ohta cautions teachers about idealizing communicative tasks as the goal of instruction in the case of students in the first couple years who are studying languages like Japanese, because of the learner's "rather fragile grip on their L 2 resources. They are dependent on teachers to provide structuring and preparation for tasks in order for them to participate productively" (p. 269). She also emphasizes the importance of learner and contextual variables on task performance.

By presenting a case study of the role of private speech in the acquisition of a foreign language in adults in a foreign language classroom setting, Ohta gives us a study that is refreshingly novel in both the topic covered and the methodological techniques used. Her book is clearly written, well thought out, rigorous, and full of interesting implications for viewing second language learning. In the final chapter of the book, she writes that "the research reported here shows the richness and variety of L 2 learning processes realized; examination of learning processes as they occur in a particular social interactive setting reveals their complexity. This complexity, however, can be understood in a principled way through use of a sociocognitive theoretical framework" (p. 270). All in all, she makes a good case for this assertion.

One slight drawback to the book was that while Ohta mentioned that there was further need for longitudinal, socially situated studies like hers, she neglected to offer concrete suggestions on how her case study model might be replicated with non-Western students in countries other than the U.S.

Ronald Gray
Beijing Language and Culture University Beijing, China

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