The study of second language acquisition

The study of second language acquisition

540 REVIEWS System, Vol. 23, No. 4, pp. 540-547, 1995 Elsevier Science Lid Printed in Great Britain ELLIS, ROD The Study of Second Language Acquisi...

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540

REVIEWS

System, Vol. 23, No. 4, pp. 540-547, 1995 Elsevier Science Lid Printed in Great Britain

ELLIS, ROD The Study of Second Language Acquisition, Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 824 (Oxford Applied Linguistics Series). Readers acquainted with Ellis's previous books on Second Language Acquisition (SLA) Studies (Ellis 1984, 1985, 1990) will possibly be as surprised as this reviewer was to discover that yet another one has appeared. Surprise may indeed give way to amazement, when the length of this new work is considered. Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991) may have impressed you with its 398 pages, and something like 1200 references (and all this in an 'Introduction' !), but we now have roughly 1650 references scattered throughout 824 pages of text! This reviewer suspects that this way madness lies. This extensive text is intended as an introduction for students of SLA and for foreign language teachers or trainees, and intended further as a reference work for workers in the field (p. 3). The book is therefore aimed at a wide audience. In general, this review will suggest that not all three sets of readers are likely to be satisfied--indeed I suspect no volume could please these different addressees. Readers familiar with Ellis's previous overviews will not be surprised to be told that this new opus is explicitly structured, covers an impressive range of material, and has been well-designed for use with students. There are selected references at the end of each chapter, convenient summaries and introductions inside each major section and concise tabular presentations of the results of empirical studies on specific topics. There is also a glossary. In short, this is a highly impressive achievement, the amount of material covered is indeed phenomenal, and the book seems likely to set a landmark for future writers on SLA. The basic question I will nonetheless raise in this review is to what extent does more necessarily mean better for students. But first we should gallop through the contents. The length of this book is partly a reflection of the interesting fact that the domain covered by the term Second Language Acquisition Studies is constantly expanding. Ellis in this book handles inter alia Contrastive Analysis, Interlanguage studies, much (but by no means all) classroom-based research (including some research into foreign language classrooms !), work on communicative strategies and other aspects of language use, and this is rather new in books offering an overview of SLA studies--pragmatic work on language functions, speech act realisation, and so on. Where, one is tempted to ask, does it all end? Is this a take-over bid? On the one hand, one is grateful that Ellis does not espouse what I call the 'straight and narrow' view of SLA. Thus, if one is really interested in understanding how persons develop skills in languages not accessible from birth, then it is indeed necessary to take a broader perspective than that offered by Principles and Parameter theory (Gass, 1993 and Schachter, 1993 apparently follow the straight and narrow, though more and more people are falling by the wayside these days). On the other hand, if the term Second Language Acquisition is to mean anything, then it would be nice to know what it means. Currently, of course, the term means many different things to many different people, as Ellis says (p. 15). His own understanding is, as I have already intimated, rather catholic. He subsumes foreign language learning under Second Language Acquisition without qualms and, without differentiation, decides to distinguish between 'instructed' and 'naturalistic' SLA in terms of setting, but not in terms of process, and thus decides to use 'acquisition' and 'learning' interchangeably. Widdowson's

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usage versus use distinction is then introduced tO bring in aspects of learners' actual L2 behaviour. Thus, SLA now covers the study of second and foreign languages being learnt, acquired or simply used. Having set up such broad boundary-markers, the author then claims on page 15 that "the goal of SLA is the description and explanation of the learner's linguistic or communicative competence" (note that 'or', and ask further what 'explanation' means). As regards the relevance of SLA for language teaching, Ellis adopts the position that language teachers need to be familiar with SLA research, that the relationship between the two is indirect and that "SLA research has its own agenda and is best treated as another source discipline". As somebody concerned with "Sprachlehrforschung" (language teaching and learning research), it does seem to me that if SLA wishes to cover all the ground mapped out by Ellis in this book, then the role of teaching is totally under-represented in the research agenda. Further, to talk of the need to "apply" the results of SLA research and of their "obvious relevance to the practice of language teaching" (p. 5) is too simplistic. The days of 'application' and 'obvious relevance' of 'source' disciplines are surely long since past. My plea here is not of course that SLA get into the business of didactic prescription, but that the role of teaching and the possibility of promulgating changes in didactic principles and strategies (and justifying change in educational planning and policy) be built into the research agenda itself. Alternatively, of course, one can define the domain and goals of SLA more narrowly. This criticism is not of course aimed exclusively or indeed specifically at Ellis. It will, however, be interesting to see whether the creeping expansion of the domain covered by the term Second Language Acquisition will in the future come to embrace the roles of teaching strategy and curriculum choice more explicitly. The structure of the book suggests the type of model of L2 language learning familiar for example in Ellis (1985: p. 276), or Spolsky (1989: p. 28). Such models essentially see learning outcomes as a function of social settings, external conditions, and internal psychological sets and mechanisms. In the version implicit in the organisation of this book, social factors, input and interaction constitute 'external' factors. These factors then impinge on various 'internal' factors, which may be more or less universally-based (various categories of cognition and perception are common to all learners), or individually-based (some learners are more 'intelligent' or 'extrovert' than others). This 'impingement' concerns both how far and under which circumstances social factors have clear effects, and how input and/or interaction is worked on 'internally', producing learning gains (or losses). Additionally, Ellis distinguishes between studies purporting to describe SLA, and those seeking to explain it. This allows an early section on features of interlanguage to be included. The actual smacture of the book is presented by the author very clearly, and expanded in some detail in the first of seven 'Parts', each 'Part' containing anything from one to four distinct chapters. These Parts are as follows: Part 1: Background. Part 2: The description of learner language (error analysis, developmental sequencing, variability, pragmatic features). Part 3: 'External' factors (i.e. 'social factors', input, 'interaction'. Part 4: 'Universal' internal factors, i.e. learner-internal processes, which characterise or maybe determine learning (Transfer, cognitive processes in general, Principles and Parameters). This Part details various SLA models, including one or two not referred to in Ellis (1987), Ellis ( 1991), or indeed Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991).

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Part 5: Specific psychological factors, whereby different learners exhibit differing kinds and degrees of learning success. Part 6: Classroom SLA. Part 7: Conclusion. The very brief chapter constituting this section is entitled "Data, theory, and applications". While these divisions are consistent with the 'broad model' I sketched above, the result is not as clear as it might have been. How valid for example is the description/explanation distinction, and is it useful to try and keep these two goals apart? Ellis himself points out (see, e.g.p. 58) that contrastive analyses and analyses of learner errors were/are not carried out in a theoretical vacuum. The whole point was to discover something about the processes and mechanisms of learning via a characterisation of learner language. In other words, the "description" was intended to point to an "explanation". Further, although Chapter 3 of the book belongs to Part 2, and is therefore concerned with descriptions of learner language, the author moves backwards and forwards between empirical description and theoretical interpretation when discussing 'developmental patterns' (see pp. 80 et seq). So mentalist and cognitive processing models of language acquisition are in fact introduced in this chapter, differing learning strategies are futher specified, and the work of, for example, Slobin is mentioned en passant. So the distinction between description and explanation is less than elucidating. Possibly, Ellis felt obliged to organise the material for this new book on different lines from those adopted in his earlier work. This shows originality, but the results are in my opinion not always an improvement. For example, under 'social factors' in Chapter 6 (belonging to Part 3), the extensive work on attitudes is discussed, though motivation is only handled in connection with Gardner's (1985) model. Are attitudes and motivation 'social' or 'psychological'? Ellis himself points out (p. 197) that 'social factors' probably do not influence learning success directly--in his terms their effect is 'mediated' by variables such as attitude. Indeed it makes sense to suggest that social factors may influence attitude, that attitude may influence or contribute to motivation and that motivation may affect learning outcomes. In other words, social factors influence learning outcomes via their psychological correlates or consequences. Actually, of course, there is much more to it than this, as "social factors" determine for example whether children (and others) are encouraged to learn a foreign/second language inside or outside of educational institutions, or not, and so on, but such issues are not (at this point in time) the concern of SLA aficionados. So on the author's own argumentation, attitudes both are and are not "external" factors. The 'social factors' that are handled in Part 3 are in fact rather a mixed bag, as the variables age and sex are included. Exactly how one's sex or age is socially determined is perhaps unclear. Of course, there are different ways of splitting up this whole complex. In Ellis (1985), attitude, age and various personality factors were grouped together in Chapter 5 as 'individual learner differences'. Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991) take a similar line in their sixth chapter, called 'Explanations for differential success among second language learners.' A further possibility would be of course to handle age, sex and UG together as biological factors. I am not seeking to advocate a particular division here, but suggesting that the external/internal distinction, together with the social/psychological distinction (as interpreted by Ellis in this book) require careful qualification if confusion is not to result for the student reader. Ellis is, of course, aware of these problems, but it is the structure of the book which makes qualification and explanation constantly necessary.

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I think we can validly expect from a work of this kind that technical terms be introduced early, and that definitions be readily accessible. I think, further, that we are justified in expecting that an introductory text of over 800 pages should be self-contained, and not expect, for example, that relevant linguistic or psychological background information be obtained elsewhere. While Ellis does not explicitly or implicitly expect background knowledge, the way background knowledge is presented in the book is open to criticism. It seems to me in fact that at times Ellis sacrifices introductory clarity for technical detail--for the student reader bewilderment may result. A truly hairy case where background information is required, and technical terms abound, is of course UG. We already establish contact with various relevant aspects of UG on p. 33 (we get an introduction to behaviourism incidentally some 260 pages later, which from an historical perspective seems odd!). UG is in fact introduced under the heading "Linguistic universals and second language acquisition". This might well cause eyebrow-raising, given the obvious student query whether universal granunar and linguistic universals are related or indeed identical. In other words, why introduce two highly complex concepts together? The introduction to UG offered here takes up less than two pages, moreover, and--inevitably considering this compression--is rather overwhelming for anyone not already familiar with the content. The term 'mentalist' occurs here for the first time in the book; the term 'marked' crops up as well. Principles and parameters are introduced, as is the logical problem of language acquisition, and the projection hypothesis. The relevance of such theoretical constructs for SLA is also elaborated. In short, the text is far too dense. Consider further the terms marked and unmarked. Inside this section on linguistic universals, we read on p. 35 that learners may "opt for parameters that are less marked before those that are more marked". The formulation seems imprecise--surely we are dealing with parameter settings here, and not with parameters. Moreover, the unitiated reader might well ask whether all learners do this, and if so why. But how are we to interpret the term "marked" here'? Well, there is a footnote attached in the text, which makes the issue more confusing, as it refers to the roles of positive and/or negative evidence in changing parameter settings. So we consult the index. We discover that the terms "marked" and "unmarked" first occur on p. 25 of the book (this information tallies with my non-computerised perceptions). The discussion on p. 25 concerns however, which variety of L2 is used by learners in which settings, a quite irrelevant use of the terms 'marked' and 'unmarked', which, in my opinion, could well have been avoided in an introductory work of this kind. The index then sends us to pp. 29-30, where we meet markedness in the context of transferability. So here we are concerned with different features of one and the same language, and the relevant interpretation says that 'OLD' is unmarked relative to 'YOUNG', as the neutral question is 'How old is she?', and not 'How young is she?'. This is not much help, then, in understanding how learners may opt initially for unmarked parameters. The index sends us on further to typological universals (c. page 420), or Universal Grammar (p. 432 et seq). The Markedness Differential Hypothesis has a separate entry in the index, and then "marked parameters" is listed as an entry, with a reference to our starting point. Help! Well, we consult the Glossary. Here we read that various definitions of markedness exist, and that the basic idea is that some linguistic structures are "special" or "less natural" than others. A Kellerman-type example is then given, which is again not much help. So the term occurs on p. 35 unglossed, with a meaning quite distinct from the two different occasions of its use up to this point, and the reader is given no easy access to clarification. It seems likely that student readers will be completely lost as what 'opting for marked parameters' might mean (and they will not be alone). I believe such problems arise in part because of the book's structure, and partly because of the different goals it tries to achieve, reflected in the length and breadth of coverage it gives. Let me try to explain and illustrate this second point.

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It can be argued that in a reference work for professionals working in SLA, the more studies mentioned, the better. For an introductory text, however, it can also be argued that the fewer studies mentioned the better. There is on the most trivial level then a tension between breadth of coverage, and clarity of focus. Essentially, we are faced with the problem here that the novice reader, and the SLA researcher may well want different things out of an overview of the field, but Ellis wants to satisfy both sets of readers. Concerning the handling of individual studies, there is also a tension between depth of treatment, and breadth of coverage. In other words, do you deal with a few studies reasonably fully, or with a large number in less detail? The problem is clear. If one wishes to refer to a large number of empirical studies on a particular topic (or on a set of topics that can be related one to another), a direct comparison between the studies mentioned may well require really detailed argument and exposition, and this may swamp the reader with detail. If such detailed exposition is avoided, the treatment of individual studies may be rather superficial, if not inaccurate. Of course, avoiding this type of impasse is precisely what Ellis is rather good at. But it seems to me that in this volume the breadth of material being handled begins to get the upper hand, such that precision of treatment and clarity of generalisation lose out on occasion. Let me take two areas for illustrative purposes. Consider the brief section dealing with the acquisition of pronouns (pp. 96-99). This section occurs in Chapter 3 ("Developmental patterns: order and sequence"), which belongs to Part 3 ("The description of learner language"). The general goal of the section is then to ask whether developmental patterns can be discerned in the way learners acquire pronouns. After some general remarks, Ellis refers to Felix and Hahn (1985). A first observation made is that in naturalistic acquisition, nearly all studies provide evidence that pronouns are frequently omitted. This is certainly empirically sound, but seems to mean no more than the claim that most people learning to ride a bicycle cannot, initially, ride a bicycle. In my experience with students and trainee teachers, such empirical 'findings' do not go down too well. In other words, the observation that "learners are initially likely to produce utterances with no pronouns" (p. 96) seems trivial. More importantly, even after carefully re-reading the study of Felix and Hahn, I find it difficult to substantiate the claims Ellis makes concerning this article. We read for example following Felix & Hahn--that learners usually begin by distinguishing the feature person and that T and 'me' may be used interchangeably. But Felix and Hahn's study in fact sets up an acquisition hierarchy: case >number> person> gender, which seems totally to contradict both claims. Ellis goes on to propose that a table extracted from Lightbown and Spada (1990) and given on p. 97 (and unhappily containing what must be a false sentence, and further an instance of the "correct use of possessive pronouns with all nouns", which is in fact starred), evidences a "similar sequence of acquisition" to that found in Felix and Hahn. Unfortunately I can see no similarity whatsoever. Of the five stages posited in the table, only one (stage 2) is found in Ellis's account of Felix and Hahn, and I cannot in fact find even this stage mentioned in the original article. An issue that in my opinion might have been mentioned here is the methodology of the Felix and Hahn study. Ellis is justifiably cautious regarding the methodology of for example Dulay & Burt in their morpheme studies, but fails to point out that the methodology of Felix and Hahn is similarly suspect (as Felix and Hahn practically concede themselves on p. 233).

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We move on then to Ricardo (Butterworth and Hatch, 1978), whose pronominal behaviour seems rather idiosyncratic. We read for example that he 'failed to distinguish personal and possessive pronouns' (p. 97). Well, Felix and Hahn explicitly say for their subjects that "Students obviously master the difference between personal and possessive pronouns without major difficulties" (Felix & Hahn, 1985; 233). More data is brought into the discussion, till we have a pot-pourri, covering L1 acquisition, naturalistic and instructed SLA, radically different data-gathering techniques, and an interesting, but scarcely coherent range of results. Ellis claims in summary, however, that what these different studies have in common is 'striking', and that 'learners of different languages have similar problems with pronouns, and solve them in similar ways' (p. 98). There is further "strong evidence of 'universal' patterns of acquisition" (p. 99). Such conclusions are in my opinion, simply not warranted on the basis of the evidence provided. The mass of data offered could well have been reduced considerably, and discussed in more detail. Students will, for example, have read in Chapter 2 that convergence or divergence between L1 and L2 structures is not in itself evidence of transfer. What then will they make of the following bare claim: "In the case of the Chinese learners, the lack of use of object pronouns is attributable to transfer, as object pronouns are not obligatory in Chinese" (p. 97). Take as a second illustration of some of the problems associated with a book of this size and scope, the section on language transfer (Chapter 8). Firstly, however, let us applaud the fact that a book on SLA has a chapter on this topic. It is in this chapter that Behaviourism is introduced, though the term has occurred in the text quite a few times already. Well, inevitably, half a page of exposition does not get us very far. Thus, having learnt all about behaviourism, we read a page later of "the dangers of extrapolating from laboratory studies of animal behaviour", but have no grounds for knowing that many of the tenets of behaviourism in fact derived from such studies. Dakin (1973) is used as a source for the relevance of behaviourism for language teaching, but what is culled from there is available in Rivers 1964, such that it would seem preferable to refer students to the earlier source. Negative transfer is handled via the useful table on p. 302, but nothing is concluded from the total conflicting results contained therein. The following section on facilitation details two studies by Gass which provide no evidence for facilitation at all, as far as I can see. Further, the whole section fails to ask whether facilitation is simply the absence of negative transfer. In other words, if you compare learners who 'know' L2 feature X via their L1 with learners who don't, but have some some other rule Y in their L1, then the fact that the second group has greater learning problems may in principle be accounted for by reference to negative transfer. However, I would have thought that you cannot, at the same time, argue that the first group is enjoying positive transfer. If you do wish to argue so, then you certainly do not need any special studies to establish facilitation. All the studies detailed in the section on facilitation fall however into this logical trap. The sections on avoidance and over-representation are detailed, but reduction and avoidance strategies are not mentioned, though there seems to be an over-lap between such strategies and the phenomena discussed here. Nor is the question raised as to whether under-representation and over-representation are in fact conversely related. As I understand Levenston (1971), they a r e - we are handling cases in which more than one linguistic token is available in L2 for expressing one pragmatic or semantic category--such that if you use expression X too little (relative to some norm), you necessarily compensate by using some other expression or expressions too much. The data that Ellis brings forward seems to be of a completely different order.

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In this chapter on transfer, the term 'discourse' crops up. Firstly, neither the index nor the glossary gives me an explicit definition of the term, though there are ample references in both to collocations involving the word 'discourse'• Secondly, its use in this section on transfer seems unclear. Reference to studies of Japanese and Chinese learners leads to a distinction between syntactic errors and discourse errors, based on the simple fact that topic/comment structure plausibly underpins LI word-order for such learners. This does not make sense to me, as in languages such as Chinese, the topic-comment distinction has syntactic correlates, and secondly, this holds for every other language I .know of. To go on to, then, to link such issues to discourse studies such as those investigated by Kasper (as Ellis does on p. 317) is surely linguistically unsound• The issue of markedness crops up once more in the context of transfer, but unfortunately, the issue of definition remains unclear. A diagram on p. 319 relates core and peripheral grammar to the marked/unmarked distinction, by putting both marked and unmarked rules in the core, while only unmarked rules go into the periphery. The subsequent paragraph then begins " . . . another definition of markedness •..". But the diagram scarcely constitutes a definition. It is not even clear whether the core/periphery distinction is supposed to determine markedness, or vice versa. In either case, we can only say that items not in the core are not unmarked. Further, the core/periphery distinction is, on my understanding, a cline anyway. Staying with markedness, we move on to the claim that "some of the most convincing evidence of markedness effects on transfer can be found in studies that have examined asymmetrical patterns" (p. 322). It transpires that we are handling here the fact that direction of fit makes a difference re transfer effects and learning difficulty. But this issue was already handled on p. 307, when hierarchies of difficulty were mentioned• There is no cross-reference however--the reader is apparently being introduced to a new aspect of transfer• The example brought forward (Eckman, 1977) concerns phonology, as did the hierarchy developed in Stockwell and Bowen (1965). The text is ~urther misleading• We read that in English both voiceless and voiced stops may occur initially, medially, and terminally. Perfectly true. We learn also that in German only unvoiced stops occur terminally. Equally true. However, we then read that when learning German, English speakers have to "make a known distinction in a new position", such that their problems are similar to those facing German learners of English (p. 322). This is clearly not true. As the facts are presented wrongly, the conclusion that contrastive analysis can't help is wrong, and the argument that markedness has explanatory force does not convince• In fact the split/merge distinction raised 15 pages earlier seems a much more plausible explanation of the facts than does markedness. Are these detailed points of criticism nit-picking? Well, possibly, I suppose• Certainly, the two sections I have discussed in details are more subject to such criticisms than much of the remainder of the book. The problems I have raised, however, while not representative of the book as a whole, do seem to me to be sympotomatic. The real problem, I repeat, is that the author aspires to address students, fellow-professionals, and L2 language teachers at the same time. As an introductory text for students (which the title suggests is what it's all about), there is too much material here, that has perhaps not been thoroughly absorbed and integrated. For trainee foreign/second language teachers, who are in my experience unhappily not always agog to discover what 'research' has to offer anyway, the book is also too diffuse and too detailed, and may well, I suspect, be counter-productive. For readers of this review--well of course you have to go out and buy the book. It is a remarkable achievement, and you will want to exploit it for your own learning and teaching purposes• But although it's hats off to the author, it may be as well to keep your microscope handy when venturing into the territory that Ellis has mapped out for you in this impressive, but flawed Meisterwerk.

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REFERENCES BUTTERWORTH, G and HATCH, E. (1978) A Spanish speaking adolescent's acquisition of English syntax. In Hatch, E. (ed.) Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House. DAKIN, J. (1973) The Language Laboratory and Language Learning. London: Longman. ECKMAN, F. (1977) Markedness and the contrastive analysis hypothesis, Language Learning 27, 315-330. ELLIS, R. (1984)Classroom Second Language Development. Oxford: Pergamon. ELLIS, R. (1985) Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ELLIS, R. (1990) Instructed Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. FELIX, S. and HAHN, A. (1985) Natural processes in classroom second-language learning,Applied ~'nguistics 613,223-238. GARDNER, R. C. (1985) Social Psychology and Second Language Learning: the Role of Attitudes and Motivation. London: Edward Arnold. GASS, S. M. (1993) Second Language Acquisition: past, present and future, Second Language Research 9/2, 99-117. LARSEN-FREEMAN, D. and LONG, M. (I 991 ) An Introduction to Second Language Acquisition Research. London/New York: Longman. LEVENSTON, E. A. (1971) Over-Indulgence and under-representation--aspects of mother-tongue interference. In G. Nickel (ed.) (1971) Papers in Contrastive Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 115-121. LIGHTBOWN, P. and SPADA, N. (1990) Focus-on-form and corrective feedback in communicative language teaching: effects on second language learning. In Studies in Second Language Acquisition 12, 429-448. RIVERS, W. (1964) The Psychologist and the Foreign Language Teacher. Chicago: Chicago University Press. SCHACHTER, J. (1993) Second language acquisition: perceptions and possibilities, Second Language Research 9/2, 173-187. SPOLSKY, B. (1989) Conditions for Second Language Learning, Oxford: Oxford University Press. STOCKWELL, R. P. and BOWEN, J. D. (1965) The Sounds of English and Spanish, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Willis Edmondson Zentrales Fremdspracheninstitut University of Hamburg Von-Melle-Park 5 20146 Hamburg Federal Republic of Germany