Second language acquisition

Second language acquisition

ELSEVIER Lingua 111 (2001) 895-898 Book review Rod Ellis, Second language acquisition. Oxford, Oxford University Pr...

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111 (2001)


Book review Rod Ellis, Second language acquisition. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998 (2nd impression). Reviewed by Eva Ndfiez-Mendez, Hope College, 263 College Ave., Holland, MI 49423, USA. The purpose of Second language acquisition is to provide a larger view of theoretical issues concerning second language learning (that is to say, the study of the way in which people learn a language other than their mother tongue). This book helps the novice ease his way through the sometimes quite daunting path of studying linguistics. It is considered a transitional text from an initiation into the discipline to an understanding of complex ideas. It prepares the conceptual ground for further scrutiny in the field. The text’s organization is clear and sensible, structured in four sections, which could be read independently according to the reader’s interest and need. The book is designed to be flexible in use; each chapter is separate and self-contained. The first part is Survey, a summary of theoretical issues concerning principles, basic notions and key concepts to the acquisition of a second language. The explanation and description of these issues is clear and comprehensible. What are second language acquisition and its goals ? What is an error and how to approach error analysis? Interlanguage, transfer of first language, the role of consciousness, universal grammar and access to it, critical period hypothesis, markedness and motivation are some of the topics described and clarified in this part. The author opens this section with an introduction to second language acquisition, defining and describing its aims. This is, in my opinion, the best chapter in the book as it lays the foundations on which the rest of the text builds up. Ellis also shows two case studies, one of an adult learner learning English in surroundings versus two children learning English in a classroom. The next chapter focuses on error analysis and evaluation. It shows the U-shaped course of development in acquiring a foreign language. Initially learners may display a high level of accuracy only to regress later before finally performing in accordance with the target language norms. Sometimes second language learners, particularly children, undergo a silent period, that is, they do not attempt to say anything to begin with, although they are learning through listening and reading. The silent period serves as a preparation for later production. Ellis points out that errors are systematic and they reflect the stage of development 0378-2166/01/$ - see front matter PII: SOO24-3841(00100052-8

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Book review I Lingua 1 I1 (2001) 895-898

of the learner. Many learners stop developing while still short of target-language competence. Linguists refer to this process as ‘fossilization’. Chapter three focuses on Selinker’s notion of ‘interlanguage’ as a transitional linguist system that draws on the learner’s first language however this system differentiates itself from the mother tongue and the target language. The following four chapters continue with the concept of interlanguage applied to social, discourse, psycholinguistics and linguistic aspects. Social factors are important as they determine the input that learners use to construct their interlanguage, provide different registers or ‘styles’ and shape learners’ interaction with native speakers to speak and learn a second language. Ellis underlines Schumann’s definition of a ‘pidgin’ as a simple contact language used among speakers who have no common language. Pidginization results when learners fail to adapt to a new culture, and therefore to a new language. Discourse aspects are studied from the ‘input, output’ point of view. Discourse may contribute to second language acquisition through the modified input that comes in foreigner talk, from the negotiation of meaning, through scaffolding and through comprehensible input (Krashen’s hypothesis) and output. Psycholinguistic aspects involve the study of mental structures and processes in the acquisition and use of language. In this section, Ellis studies some issues such as first language transfer - the influence that the mother tongue exerts over the acquisition of the second language - and the role of consciousness. When children acquire their first language they do so without conscious effort, in contrast, adult learners of a second language have to work hard and to study the language consciously to succeed. Linguistic aspects of interlanguage relate to the way the nature of language influence development. The author analyzes concepts as Chomky’s ‘universal grammar’, the critical period hypothesis - period beyond which language acquisition is difficult and incomplete -, markedness - some structures are more natural and basic than others and therefore less marked -, and access or not to UG in the acquisition process. The last two chapters in Section I deal with individual factors and with instruction in the acquisition process. There are individual differences such as language aptitude, motivation and learning strategies that affect positively or negatively in the learning of another language. The author examines whether it is possible to teach a second language. He believes that direct instruction can help. It can enhance accuracy and accelerate learners progress, however, the instruction is neither always successful nor durable. Ellis emphasizes that his study offers a variety of perspectives about second language learning and not a general model; as there is no single theory that adequately cover the range of hypothesis that this discipline has addressed. In fact, there is a considerable disagreement among linguists whether to have a single framework (at least, some principled selection among the positions on offer) or multiple theories. He metaphorically admits both, “we can ‘cull’ theories or we can let all the flowers grow” (p. 89) although he feels himself impelled to accept various perspectives. The amount of explanations provided in SLA reflects the different purposes of researchers. Some are concerned with language pedagogy and teaching strategies. Others are more interested in linguistics and the nature of language. Still others are involved with the sociology of multilinguism and how social context affects and are

Book review I Lingua III (2001) 895-898


affected by language. For this reason, Ellis believes that SLA will continue to offer multiple views in theoretical matters. The Survey is written to be readable, to evaluate ideas, to stimulate thought in such a way that, although simple and uncluttered in form, it is critically challenging. In part two, Readings, the author includes texts from the specialist literature. In total, they are twenty-four readings divided in ten chapters. This section is quite different from the first one, the Survey, as the main purpose of Readings is to provide the reader with authentic materials extracted from other works in the field. For every text, Ellis presents specific bibliographical information, a brief summary and, at the end, questions related to basic points in the fragment, which also interpolate with other issues discussed in the Survey. In this way, the reader becomes familiar first with linguistic terms and second with texts that usually are not so readily accessible. This part becomes a necessary transition for those that want to pursue the discipline of second language acquisition. Authors such as Pit Corder, Kevin Gregg, Tarone, Schumann, Krashen, Michael Long, Eric Kellerman, Lydia White, and Richard Schmidt are quoted briefly to encourage critical reading. For instance, Corder’s fragment questions the difference between ‘error’ and ‘mistake’, being the first systematic and the latter unsystematic (1981: 10). Krashen’s view argues that acquisition takes place only by receiving ‘comprehensible imput’ (1985: 2-3). Long’s perspective suggests that there are critical or sensitive periods for learning a second language (1990: 273-274). White (1990: 127-128) considers how the universal grammar is still accessible to the second language learner. Kellerman (1983: 113-l 14) examines language transfer based on ‘closeness’ and ‘distance’ of Ll and L2 and the ‘markedness’ of a structure. The idea of section two is to initiate readers in understanding the basic points of literature in second language acquisition. Ellis focuses on references in part three. He gives a concise selection of books and articles in the discipline for further reading. He does not only contribute with bibliographical information but also with accompanying comments, which deal with the issues discussed in every chapter of the survey. Although this section is brief (62 references), it is extremely useful and practical as references are classified according to their difficulty into introductory level, more advanced and more specialized and demanding. The book concludes with section four, the glossary. This part explains terms used in a special or technical sense in the discipline of second language acquisition. Their meanings are made clear in the Survey and in the other sections of the text but are again illustrated at the end, as a useful index. Those expressions that appear in the Survey are written in bold and then, followed by the page number. This index is an incredible help for the novice in the field. Rod Ellis succeeds in his aim of helping to provide access to specialist knowledge and promote an awareness of the significance of second language acquisition in a clear and explicit way. This book is not only helpful for students of linguistics but also for people with interests in the second language learning process without being academically engaged in applied linguistics per se. Such readers may discover the importance of understanding language for their own practical pursoses or for making them aware of phenomena, which appear central in their everyday lives. From a


Book review I Lingua

111 (2001) 895-898

different perspective, assuming the role of the devil’s advocate, I would say that this book could result simplistic for those who are already initiated or experts in this discipline. The text is neither lengthy nor too technical. It does not provide specific features and concrete details. Those linguists looking for specialized scrutiny of specific issues in SLA will be disappointed. It does not reveal anything new in the field, but gives a large-scale view of different areas in second language acquisition. Having said that, we must not forget that this work is meant to serve as an introduction not as a close study. In my opinion, what make the text important and valuable are its accessibility to people other than linguists, and its meticulous analysis of the essentials of this rapidly expanding discipline. Therefore, this book becomes an excellent tool for acquiring knowledge in SLA.

References Corder, S. Pit, 1981. Error analysis and interlanguage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kellerman, Eric, 1983. ‘Now you see it, now you don’t’. In: S. Class and L. Selinker (eds.), Language transfer in language learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. Krashen, Stephen, 1985. The input hypothesis. New York: Longman. Long, Michael. 1990. Maturational constraints on language development. In: Studies in Second Language Acquisition 12, 213-214. White, Lydia, 1990. Second language acquisition and universal grammar. In: Studies in Second Language Acquisition 12, 127-128.