Vol. 3. No. 1 R-9 November 1997
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Learning to Learn in a Second Language

Pauline Gibbons (1993)
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Pp. 122
ISBN 0-435-08785-1 (paper)
US $15.00

Learning to Learn in a Second Language presents an applied pedagogical perspective on the acquisition of a second language (L2) among children. The focus of the book is Australia, where immigrant children of diverse language backgrounds get their first exposure to the lingua franca, English, in the school setting.

The book is divided into 10 chapters. Chapter 1 introduces Gibbons' theoretical position on the nature of child L2 acquisition in the school setting. Chapter 2 ties her theoretical position on language acquisition to her argument in favor of a functional integration of language and cross-curriculum content in the type of school setting described in chapter 1. Chapters 3 to 9 present a variety of different pedagogical activities to help primary school teachers achieve the objectives established in chapters 1 and 2. Chapters 3 and 4 elaborate on the development, use, and assessment of the spoken language. Chapter 5 offers some practical suggestions for the integration of recently arrived children to the classroom community. Chapter 6 details the ways in which bilingual programs may be of benefit to L2 students (i.e., reliance on mother tongue is essential to enhance development of cognitive skills). Chapters 7 to 9 present pedagogical activities for reading, listening, and writing respectively. The final chapter presents a plea for the involvement of the outside community, both parents and minority language communities, in school activities.

Gibbons' theoretical position on the process of child L2 acquisition is unambiguous: "if you have sorted out the world in one language, it becomes much easier to sort it out in a second language" (p. 6). Moreover, Gibbons makes the assumption that bilinguals have advantages over monolinguals in terms of cognitive development: "greater capacity for lateral thinking and problem solving" (p. 2). As for possible drawbacks of learning two languages at the same time, Gibbons states that "where there is no threat to the first language, there appears to be no reason why other languages cannot also be learned at the same time" (p. 6). Such theoretical assertion leads Gibbons to argue in favor of the establishment of bilingual education programs which help children acquire a second language without replacing their mother language. Gibbons points out that the "situation for many bilingual children who have little mother tongue support is that once they start school their mother tongue is gradually replaced by English. Instead of adding on a language, they lose one" (p. 6). [-1-]

Gibbons' theoretical stance draws heavily on the Vygotskian perspective of cognitive and language development: "if there is a gap in a learner's language resources, then the thinking processes that are dependent on them will also be restricted" (p. 17). Along the lines of a Vygotskian approach to language development Gibbons emphasizes the power of talk: "talk allows children to think aloud, to formulate ideas, to set up and evaluate hypotheses and to reach tentative decisions in a context that is not restricted by the formal demands of written language" (p. 27). To substantiate her position Gibbons analyzes several excerpts from conversations of bilingual children during the completion of classroom tasks. For example, the excerpt presented on pages 27 and 28 is particularly interesting because it describes a situation similar to the one described by Swain and Lapkin (1995) in their analysis of English-speaking adolescents learning French. Gibbons (as do Swain & Lapkin, 1995) highlights that "knowledge is not simply a 'preformulated' product passed on from teacher [sic], but is being reconstructed by the two children during the course of the interaction" (p. 29). Hence, social interaction becomes the sine qua non of language development. According to Gibbons, this particular constraint of language/thought development is compounded by the fact that the language used in the classroom setting (i.e., the nonnative language) is different from the language used outside the classroom: "unlike the language of the playground, the language associated with school learning takes a long time to develop: it is frequently quite abstract, and there may be fewer concrete visual clues to support meaning" (p. 3). Gibbons argues that as a consequence children who do not speak English as their mother tongue can benefit from classroom instruction based on the integration of language and content. In line with the applied perspective offered by this book Gibbons presents a wide array of pedagogical activities which promote such a functional approach to language development (especially chapters 3 to 5 and chapters 7 to 9). The description of such language development activities constitutes one of the main strengths of Learning to Learn in a Second Language.

One of the few drawbacks of the book is the lack of explicit references to the previous literature that serves as background to Gibbons' theoretical stance. For example, Gibbons' reference to the notion of "comprehensible input," advanced by Krashen (1982), has not been explicitly attributed to Krashen (p. 17), nor is he listed in the bibliography. More troublesome is the absence of references to the vast literature on the role of motherese (both pro and con), especially in consideration of the fact that Gibbons argues strongly in favor of its role in language development (for alternative perspectives see Gleitman, Newport & Gleitman, 1984; Goldin-Meadow & Mylander, 1990; Newport, Gleitman & Gleitman, 1977; Pye, 1984). In fact, the reduced number of bibliographical references (contained in two pages) may not provide adequate information to convey to the reader the complexity of the topic of child L2 acquisition. On the other hand, Learning to Learn in a Second Language does not [-2-] attempt to be a comprehensive treatise on child L1/L2 development. Instead, Gibbons' main goal is the pedagogical application of a particular theoretical perspective (Vygotskian) which is rapidly gaining ground in the research literature on language and cognitive development (e.g., Lantolf & Appel, 1994; Swain & Lapkin, 1995; Wertsch, 1991). The cross-reference of Gibbons' argument with the extended literature on the topic of L1/L2 acquisition among school-age children may provide the reader with a more comprehensive panorama of the complexities of the field. Notwithstanding the above mentioned lack of theoretical analysis, Learning to Learn in a Second Language is a readable resource book which elementary bilingual teachers will find both insightful and practical.


Gleitman, L., Newport, M., & Gleitman, H. (1984). The current status of the motherese hypothesis. Journal of Child Language 11, 43-79.

Goldin-Meadow, S., & Mylander, C. (1990). Beyond the input given: The child's role in the acquisition of language. Language 66, 323-355.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. New York: Pergamon Press.

Lantolf, P., & Appel, G. (1994). Vygotskian Approaches to Second Language Research. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Newport, E., Gleitman, H., &. Gleitman, L. (1977). Mother, I'd rather do it myself: Some effects and non-effects of maternal speech style. In C. Snow and C. A. Ferguson (Eds.), Talking to Children: Language Input and Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pye, C. (1984). Quiché Mayan speech to children. Journal of Child Language 13, 85-100.

Swain, M., & Lapkin, S. (1995). Problems in output and the cognitive processes they generate: A step towards second language learning. Applied Linguistics 16, 371-391.

Wertsch, J. (1991). Voices of the Mind: A Sociocultural Approach to Mediated Action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rafael Salaberry
University of Minnesota

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Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work. [-3-]

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