25.3395, Review: Applied Linguistics: Mitchell, Myles and Marsden (2012)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-25-3395. Thu Aug 28 2014. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 25.3395, Review: Applied Linguistics: Mitchell, Myles and Marsden (2012)

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Date: Thu, 28 Aug 2014 12:33:09
From: Caroline Payant [cpayant at uidaho.edu]
Subject: Second Language Learning Theories

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-755.html

AUTHOR: Rosamond  Mitchell
AUTHOR: Florence  Myles
AUTHOR: Emma  Marsden
TITLE: Second Language Learning Theories
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Caroline Payant, University of Idaho

Second language acquisition (SLA) is a relatively new field of linguistic
inquiry. Despite this, we have witnessed the emergence of numerous theories to
account for the complex processes underlying the acquisition of a language
beyond the first language (L1). Currently, we do not have a single, unified
understanding of how adults learn a second language (L2). To introduce readers
to the wealth of current theories and schools of thought, Rosamond Mitchell,
Florence Myles, and Emma Marsden, three SLA researchers with different views
about how L2s develop, constructed a comprehensive introductory textbook to L2
theories. The next section provides a brief summary of the ten chapters from
“Second Language Learning Theories” (3rd ed), London: Routledge.
Chapter 1 sets the stage for the entire textbook, introducing a number of key
concepts and issues. These concepts are critical for the development of
theories of SLA, regardless of the researchers’ epistemologies. Following a
brief discussion of features of “good” theories, the authors discuss current
debates regarding the nature of language and the language learning process.
The chapter concludes with a discussion of individual learner differences
(e.g. motivation, aptitude, anxiety).
Chapter 2 is a historical overview of L2 theory, serving to situate current
proposals and L2 theories. As in other SLA textbooks, (see, e.g., Gass,
Behney, & Plonsky, 2013; Lightbown & Spada, 2013), readers are presented with
seminal moments in the history of theory building. The chapter begins with
major developments that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s. After outlining
Skinner’s behaviorist views as an explanatory framework for L1 and L2
development, the authors review Chomsky’s criticisms of behaviorism. Rather
than delving into the Chomskyan Revolution (i.e., Universal Grammar (UG)),
Mitchell, Myles, and Marsden focus on L1 acquisition studies that paved the
way for systematic investigations of L2 development (e.g., error analysis and
morpheme studies). They present Krashen’s Monitor Model ­­ an influential
model that sought to bring some unity to the ideas pertaining to L2
development. The number of major theories and schools of thought that emerged
in the 1980s are introduced and revisited in detail in the subsequent
chapters. To summarize the trends in SLA research since the 1950s, Myles’
(2010) second language learning timeline is provided in the concluding section
of Chapter 2.
An in­-depth discussion of UG, a theory inspired by Noam Chomsky, constitutes
Chapter 3. The authors begin by reviewing the aims of the Chomskyan tradition
(i.e., what constitutes knowledge and the process of acquisition). After
considering arguments in favor of UG, they include a detailed discussion of
what characterizes the innate language faculty (i.e., principles and
parameters), and provide support for UG using evidence from L1 acquisition
studies. Drawing on L1 empirical studies, they consider the applicability of
UG to L2 acquisition. Finally, current debates about the initial state and the
ultimate attainment are explored. With this clear discussion of current
research endeavors and a thorough assessment of the contributions of UG-­based
approaches to SLA, readers have equal access to both UG’s strengths and
Cognitive orientations to L2 learning are explored in Chapters 4 and 5.
Chapter 4 examines frameworks that fall within emergentism, a framework that
rejects the existence of a specific language faculty. The authors focus first
on input­-based emergentist perspectives. Researchers who investigate such
perspectives are chiefly concerned with input, which arguably enables learners
to extract linguistic structures and patterns to create a complex linguistic
system. This line of work examines how particular characteristics of input
correlate with L2 development (for example, frequency, saliency, and
redundancy). In the latter section, theories relating to processing
constraints and L2 development are presented. The authors begin with
Pienemann’s Processability Theory and illustrate how his work has informed the
Teachability Hypothesis. The discussion then turns to O’Grady’s
Efficiency-­Driven Processor framework.
Chapter 5 explores learning mechanisms available to L2 learners, such as
memory, explicit knowledge about language, skill acquisition, and conscious
attention to language. In order to discuss the role of memory systems for L2
development, Mitchell, Myles, and Marsden describe two forms of knowledge:
declarative and procedural. Following is a review of memory systems and their
role in L2 learning, and a clear definition of explicit knowledge. One
prominent theory that draws on the notion of explicit knowledge is Skill
Acquisition Theory, which accounts for several L2 learning phenomena (e.g.,
incremental learning, individual learner differences, fossilization). The role
of awareness, explicitly addressing the relationship between noticing and L2
development, is then explored. The chapter concludes with a discussion of
underlying mechanisms (specifically, working memory) that enable learners to
allocate and focus attention while using language.
Building on cognitive and processing theories, Chapter 6 focuses on
interaction and L2 development. After briefly introducing the revised
Interaction Hypothesis, the authors present research relating to the role of
interaction in L2 development as well as the role of feedback. This section is
supported by a number of empirical studies illustrating the benefits of
various types of feedback on language development. Based on the observation
that input alone fails to account for L2 development, the authors examine the
predictions of the Output Hypothesis and discuss the importance of noticing
for L2 development.
Chapter 7 addresses functionalism. Concerned with the meaning-­making
processes, researchers from this paradigm claim that in order to understand L2
development, we must consider speech acts that learners are striving to
realize while also accounting for the social, physical, and discourse
contexts. After reviewing functionalist case study research, Mitchell, Myles,
and Marsden discuss the European Science Foundation project which sought to
describe adult, naturalistic interlanguage development. Following this, the
authors introduce research focusing on specific areas of linguistic
development, such as temporality, spatial location, coherence, and modality. A
detailed example related to temporality is provided. This discussion segues
into a formal introduction of the Aspect Hypothesis. The chapter concludes
with a brief introduction of L2 pragmatic research.
Chapters 8 and 9 focus on socially informed theories of L2 development. First,
key concepts of Sociocultural Theory as conceived by Lev Vygotsky are
introduced, including mediation, regulation, zone of proximal development,
microgenesis, private speech, and activity theory. The applications of a
sociocultural perspective to L2 development are illustrated by drawing on a
survey of empirical research for each of these concepts. The authors show how
one of the key contributions of Sociocultural Theory in this paradigm is its
ability to clarify the interconnectedness and interplay between social and
cognitive factors in L2 development.
Chapter 9 includes an examination of sociolinguistic research and L2
development. First, a quantitative approach to the study of lexical and
morphological variation is introduced. The authors’ discussion of empirical
studies indicates how sociolinguistic and linguistic factors mediate
interlanguage L2 variation. Next, readers are introduced to qualitative and
interpretative approaches to L2 development, including: (1) Language
socialization; (2) Communities of practice and situated learning; (3) Identity
and agency; and (4) Investment and affect. These final perspectives both
examine the interdependence and consider the broader social context of
linguistic and sociocultural development.
Following their survey of multiple perspectives on the acquisition of an L2,
Mitchell, Myles, and Marsden conclude their book by discussing the greatest
achievements within L2 acquisition theories, as well as the increasingly more
sophisticated research methods employed by L2 acquisition researchers. They
also consider the relationship between theory building and L2 pedagogy. While
L2 acquisition research does not prescribe teaching methodologies, the authors
propose that research can guide and inform classroom experiences.
Since the 1980s, we have witnessed a proliferation of SLA theories that
reflect differing epistemologies. The book “Second Language Learning
Theories”, introduces readers to these theories and is the result of a
collaborative project among three authors from three different orientations to
SLA: linguistic (Myles), cognitive (Marsden), and social/educational
(Mitchell). Their collaborative efforts led to this comprehensive survey of L2
This publication covers a breadth of theoretical positions, research topics,
research methods, and data analysis techniques. In discussing cognitive
theories of SLA, the authors begin with implicit mechanisms and then focus on
explicit mechanisms (Chapters 4 and 5, respectively). This organization is
effective in showing how some theorists argue that learning a language taps
into general, cognitive mechanisms (implicit learning) whereas other theories
highlight key mechanisms that are central for language learning alone
(explicit learning). Reflecting the social turn in SLA, the authors also
include two chapters addressing social factors that should comprise L2
theories (i.e., Chapter 8 “Sociocultural Perspectives on Second Language
Learning” and Chapter 9 “Sociolinguistic Perspectives”). Although
comparatively shorter than the discussions of linguistic and cognitive
orientations, these chapters on social dimensions reflect recent advances and
discussions that permeate the field of SLA (Block, 2003; Ortega, 2014).
With this comprehensive textbook, students may feel overwhelmed by the various
epistemologies underlying SLA research. Nevertheless, it is important to have
inclusive textbooks, which illustrate the current state of the field of SLA.
Researchers are actively engaged in discussions and debates about L2
development, and we have not yet agreed on how a theory (or multiple theories)
of SLA should look. After reading this book, students of SLA will not have a
skewed understanding of the field; rather, this survey may fuel their interest
in particular areas and encourage them to read further about topics introduced
in the book.
While there are some advantages to survey texts, they should come with an
important caveat. If such texts are used for a semester­-long course, novice
readers may have limited time to assimilate substantial amounts of
information. Moreover, students can easily become confused with the array of
new terms (some with complex definitions). Students may thus confuse key
concepts from different perspectives. Thus, when this book is used as a course
text, professors must truly highlight the epistemological differences that
inform these theories and remind students not to judge prematurely the
individual contributions or potential of each approach.
To facilitate the reading process, the authors provide a consistent format to
the presentation of the information. Following a brief introduction of each of
the chapter’s contents, the authors discuss key concepts. They then provide an
evaluation of the theories/perspectives by considering the scope and
achievements of the proposed theories. This evaluative component is useful for
readers as it prompts them to think about the benefits and limitations of the
theories. Also, readers will appreciate the glossary of key terms for the
whole book that are introduced throughout the readings.
Despite the clear format, some issues need to be acknowledged. The strictly
factual presentation of the complex information does not actively engage the
reader. For example, the authors include reviews of current empirical studies;
however, what appears to be lacking is more data to support the discussions
and findings. Additional data from empirical studies can help novice readers
better understand the aims of the research, the methods, and the findings.
Also, discussion, data analysis problems, and reflection questions for each
chapter would be an asset. They could push readers and novice SLA researchers
to reflect on, process, and assimilate the wealth of information that might be
otherwise inaccessible. Moreover, readers could benefit from greater textual
interconnectedness throughout the book. Each chapter, focusing on one
orientation (e.g., Chapter 3: UG; Chapter 4: Implicit cognitive mechanisms;
Chapter 6: Interaction), could be compared and contrasted more explicitly with
the others, to help readers better appreciate the similarities and differences
underlying these different approaches/theories. Highlighting how they differ
(perhaps in interactive reflective prompts) could engage the reader and
increase the accessibility of these materials. Finally, despite having a
plethora of recommended readings directly embedded in the text, each chapter
could have concluded with suggested readings for follow-­up study with some
questions for guided reading.
The specified intended readership for this publication raises some concern.
The audience, as conceived by the authors, includes undergraduate and graduate
students from language-­related fields, as well as teachers and researchers
interested in issues related to L2 development. Given its theoretical
orientation, this book may not be suitable for undergraduate students, who
might be excessively challenged by its theoretical discussions and the breadth
of its theoretical models. Another concern is the lack of explicit connections
to teaching pedagogy. Thus, in-­service teachers interested in identifying
applications of L2 theories to pedagogy should consider another text. In sum,
this book may be of interest to advanced students and faculty from programs
which focus primarily on introducing theory at the expense of making
connections to pedagogy.
In recent years, a number of researchers are questioning who L2 learners are.
Researchers reporting on multilingual learners are critiquing how SLA
researchers conceptualize L2 learners. One ongoing debate relates to the term
‘L2’ (Block, 2003). In their first chapter, L2 learning is operationalized as
“the learning of any language, to any level, provided only that the learning
of the ‘second’ language takes place sometimes later than the acquisition of
the first language” (p. 1). Immediately, one recognizes that the contents of
this book reflect the pervasive belief that learning an L2 entails similar
cognitive and social processes as learning an additional language. Recent
advances in the field of multilingualism suggests that we need to be more
critical of how we treat and investigate ‘L2 learners’ and that we should
increasingly treat learners of true L2s differently from learners of
additional languages (language beyond the L2) (De Angelis, 2007).
Currently, educators can choose from a wide array of SLA textbooks. Although
it has some shortcomings, “Second Language Learning Theories” is a welcome
addition. Three authors whose cooperative work provides us with a
comprehensive view of current advances is an asset to this field. In sum, this
book is a good option for theoretical, graduate-­level SLA courses.
Block, D. (2003). “The social turn in second language acquisition”.
Washington: Georgetown University Press.
De Angelis, G. (2007). “Third or additional language acquisition”. Clevedon.
Gass, S. M., Behney, J., & Plonsky, L. (2013). “Second language acquisition:
An introductory course (4th ed.)”. New York: Routledge.
Lightbown, P. & Spada, N. (2013). “How languages are learned” (4th ed.).
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Myles, F. (2010). The development of theories of second language acquisition.
“Language Teaching”, 43, 320­332.
Ortega, L. (2014). Ways forward for a bi/multilingual turn in SLA. In S. May
(Ed.), “The multilingual turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and bilingual
education” (pp. 32­53). New York: Routledge.


Dr. Caroline Payant is an assistant professor in the MA TESL program at the
University of Idaho. Her areas of interests include cognitive and
sociocultural aspects of language acquisition as well as L2 teacher education.
Her recent work has examined the impact of pedagogical tasks on
learner-learner interaction and language development. At the University of
Idaho, Caroline teaches SLA, ESL Method, ESL Teaching Practicum, and
Sociolinguistics. Her work can be found in TESL Canada Journal and
International Review of Applied Linguistics. Caroline received her Ph.D. in
Applied Linguistics from Georgia State University (2012) and her M.A. from the
Universidad de las Américas Puebla (2006).

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