September 2001 — Volume 5, Number 2
Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course, Second edition
Susan M. Gass & Larry Selinker (2001)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xvi + 488
ISBN 0-8058-3527-X (alk. paper), 0-8058-3528-8 (pbk.; alk. paper)
US $39.95, cloth, US $79.95
Second Language Acquisition: An introductory course (Second edition), by Susan M. Gass and Larry Selinker, is a reader-friendly textbook with the goal of giving an overview of its small but dynamic field. It will be most often used by students of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) in M.A. and Ph.D. programs worldwide (along with the first edition, and the workbooks that have been developed to accompany them, which still have a faithful following), but the book would be of use to any ESL/EFL teacher who wants to keep up with developments in the field, and stay informed about the theories that predominate in it.
The book defines and gives an overview of the field, being careful to point out differences between first and second language acquisition, and classifying approaches to SLA (psychological, linguistic, and psycholinguistic). It carefully reviews prominent theories of SLA, including Universal Grammar (and various models within it), Krashen’s Monitor model (and various critiques of it), and, briefly, the Competition model and Connectionism. The Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis is also considered, in the Historical Overview chapter, and a new chapter on Child Language Acquisition (both first and second) outlines the roots of the interlanguage hypothesis while also examining the differences between child and adult SLA. It reviews the role of the classroom in SLA (another new chapter) and the Focus on Form movement; it reviews nonlanguage factors that can influence acquisition, such as personality factors and motivation; and it reviews the role of the lexicon and research that focuses on the way we represent words when learning second languages. Overall, it seems to pay more attention to the concerns of teachers than the first edition; it accomplishes its goal of representing its field well; and it provides insight into both changes in the field and changes in the ongoing dialogue between researchers and teachers.
Although the authors make it clear that the field is to be distinguished from pedagogy (“Second language acquisition is not about pedagogy unless the pedagogy affects the course of acquisition,” p. 2), their attitude belies the important and interconnected relationship of the two. It may have been important to the authors, given their purpose, to separate the study of acquisition from attention to pedagogy and how ESL/EFL teachers, for example, could be best advised to develop their craft, but as a language teacher, I was somewhat put off by the above remark, and would further point out that the lack of communication between the two fields has not helped either one. Teachers work in ongoing laboratories of acquisition; for SLA theorists, lack of communication with language teachers denies them the results of this work, and ensures that the value of their work is minimized; as for teachers, their understanding or misunderstanding of SLA theories strongly affects a vast world of language learners, for better or worse, every day. [-1-]
I am encouraged, therefore, that the second edition more carefully lays out the development of interlanguage theory, which has vast implications for the field of pedagogy, in that it focuses the teacher’s attention on the developing rule system of the learner, which may or may not be derived from the learner’s first language, rather than on L1 “interference,” which had previously been considered as a problem to be combatted and eliminated. It’s worth pointing out that the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis, relegated to the dustbin of history in this book and many others, is still going strong in large numbers of classrooms where languages are taught worldwide; this paradigm shift is of no small consequence to teachers, who are in perhaps the best position to put into practice a change of focus, and notice the results of this change directly. The outline of this shift is in the chapter on Child Language Acquisition, still somewhat buried from the perspective of the casual observer, perhaps, but still more prominent than previously.
The theories of Krashen, interpretation and misinterpretation of which predominate in another wide swath of the ESL/EFL world, are held in disdain by the authors (as they are in the field in general), albeit here in a somewhat understated form (“There is reason to be skeptical of the substance of these hypotheses and the power attributed to them,” p. 206). Here again the conversation between researchers and teachers is somewhat indirect, which is better, of course, than non-existent. The authors patiently show arguments against each of Krashen’s famous hypotheses: the Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis, the Natural Order Hypothesis, the Monitor Hypothesis, the Input Hypothesis, and the Affective Filter Hypothesis. I get the sense that the field of SLA, and the authors’ representation of it, is reacting in exasperation to the stubborn and overwhelming popularity of Krashen and his theories, which somehow spoke directly to teachers in the trenches, so to speak, of language acquisition. While some of his theories may be maddeningly vague, or easily disprovable, Krashenism, by most accounts, is still in full flower, with profound consequences for millions of students. And it seems that the field of SLA, while giving his theories more attention, is still somehow only chipping away at the edges of them.
On the other end of the spectrum is Universal Grammar, which has had very little resonance with teachers over the years, yet still holds strong in the field of SLA. I can’t criticize the authors in their presentation, as they lay it out as accurately as one could expect; in fact, their presentation points out quite clearly what I find most flawed about it. The authors borrowed a metaphor (from V. Cook, p. 169) that made me laugh. In this passage, the “universals” and “parameters” of languages that Universal Grammarians are often preoccupied with defining are compared to universals and parameters of driving; a universal, for example, being the expectation that in any given country all drivers will be restricted to driving in one direction on the same side of the road; this being an innate or given part of driving. Parameters, on the other hand, are restrictions within each country that establish which side drivers will use in that country; a parameter may have ‘values,’ in this case, left or right, which are particular to that country alone, and are changed only with great difficulty.
I laughed, at first, because I could immediately think of several places in which I could picture V. Cook trying to drive, or trying to explain away an accident. I also pictured places with roads but no other cars, and wondered if people’s innate sense of restriction prevented them, for example, from driving on these roads without an innate sense of restriction tending to make them feel like staying to one side of the road. I myself suspect that there are as few universals in the world’s languages as there are universals in the world’s driving customs; I find it hard to believe that restrictions in our perception are innate, much less findable or quantifiable, given our present knowledge of the brain. But that’s not the problem; the problem is that in getting drawn into endless disputes about what is or is not a language universal, what restrictions one has access to, so to speak, one argues at a level that is irrelevant to more urgent problems at hand, and fundamentally useless to people who need a clear and organized picture of those problems. The insistence on “innate” language universals, and the twenty-year search that accompanied it, may have helped SLA researchers feel like part of a larger theoretical argument, but it did very little, in my opinion, to help teachers or others understand the active processes of acquisition that they are dealing with every day. [-2-]
Ironically, teachers confront language and human universals every time they help students express themselves in a target language, or explain what appears to students to be inexplicable characteristic of a target language. Even if they were Krashen devotees, and believed that explaining the language was entirely unnecessary, they would, in the process of communicating, be constantly building from, and becoming aware of, what is universal between people of different languages. So they would be in a unique position to inform the entire discussion, if they were able or willing to contribute to it. And teachers would be the first to point out that one doesn’t have to bring in the topic of innateness, let alone develop an entire jargon (beyond the one they are already using to communicate to students) to discuss fundamental differences in the ways people use languages to perceive and classify the real world. Universal grammarians’ framing of the argument in terms of innateness, I would argue, has tended to exclude the very people who might have added most to the discussion.
The authors, I should reiterate, have merely introduced and described the field of SLA, and of course should not be held responsible for the movement of an entire discipline, one way or the other. Their description of the field is accurate, fair, and comprehensive, and their second edition comes back toward the world of pedagogy in ways that will help students and newcomers put the entire discussion in better perspective. I strongly recommend the book as a starting point in understanding the field and its various frameworks for understanding second language acquisition. The authors do take the different approaches and make them accessible. And the field itself continues to grow, be fascinating, and show dynamic tendencies toward change in positive directions. Language teachers should take notice, since all teaching, from ESL/EFL to driver’s education, should be informed by theory, and the lines of communication should be opening, not closing.
So. Illinois University-Carbondale
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