27.5255, Review: Applied Ling; Cog Sci; Lang Acquisition; Ling Theories: Madlener (2015)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-27-5255. Thu Dec 29 2016. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 27.5255, Review: Applied Ling; Cog Sci; Lang Acquisition; Ling Theories: Madlener (2015)

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Date: Thu, 29 Dec 2016 18:52:14
From: Anita Thomas [anita.thomas at unifr.ch]
Subject: Frequency Effects In Instructed Second Language Acquisition

Discuss this message:

Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/27/27-122.html

AUTHOR: Karin  Madlener
TITLE: Frequency Effects In Instructed Second Language Acquisition
SERIES TITLE: Applications of Cognitive Linguistics [ACL]
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2015

REVIEWER: Anita Thomas, Université de Fribourg

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Frequency effects in instructed second language acquisition” by Karin
Madlener is a monograph based on the author’s PhD project. It examines the
effects of different kinds of frequency distributions in the input to adult
classroom learners of German. The study is conducted from a cognitive
linguistics perspective, more specifically from a usage-based approach. 

The book is divided into four parts. Part I consists of a single chapter that
situates the study in a general theoretical discussion about input processing
and language learning processes. It questions the validity of results based on
artificial languages and argues for the necessity of the study of input in a
real-life second language (L2) classroom context. The aim of the study is to
contribute to research on input optimization. It tests a variety of frequency
distributions and how they impact the rate and the amount of (implicit)

The second part consists of three chapters that present the theoretical
background. Chapter 2 introduces key notions related to input and language
learning as modelled in the approach of Gass (1997) with its four main
components: input, intake, interlanguage development and output. The chapter
ends with a series of open questions that arise from this model. They relate
to input quantity and quality, as well as to the relation between input and
learning, and point towards the necessity of a constructionist approach to
address these questions. 

Chapter 3 presents the core theoretical background of the study. It introduces
the key notions related to a constructionist approach and how input processing
is described in this framework. Different aspects of frequency effects are
presented and discussed, especially effects of type and token frequency and
processes of automatization (entrenchment, chunking, pattern detection, schema
abstraction and generalization). The presentation of these notions follows the
same structure as the presentation of the empirical results: they are
distributed between learners with no previous knowledge of the target
structure (“first contact”) and learners with some previous knowledge
(“consolidation”). The processes underlying frequency effects in these levels
of L2 proficiency are contrasted with L1 acquisition, where L2 acquisition is
presented as less successful. Based on earlier studies, the author stresses
the fact that the lack of success might also be influenced by the context in
which L2 learning takes place: the L2 classroom. In this context, learning is
traditionally connected to explicit instruction and limited input. However,
from a usage-based point of view it is possible to enhance the input situation
in L2 teaching, the author says. This is different from perspectives that
suggest to compensate the difficulties in L2 acquisition with more explicit
instruction (e.g. Norris & Ortega 2000). The chapter ends with the explicit
challenge the study wants to meet: to enhance the L2 input by implicit means.

Chapter 4 presents and discusses different approaches and techniques of input
optimization: Sharwood Smith’s (1993) Input Enhancement approach, Focus on
Form (e.g. Doughty 2001), Van Patten’s (2009) Processing Instruction, Visual
Text Enhancement (e.g. Wong 2005) and Input Floods (e.g. Hernández 2011). This
last approach is the one that will be used and developed in the study. The
author stresses the need not only for input floods, that is extensive exposure
to input, but also for structured input floods where type and token
frequencies of the target structure are controlled. The chapter finishes with
a short section about structural priming and implicit learning.

The third part presents the methodology and the results of the study. Chapter
5 describes the study design. The first section presents the different
characteristics of the data collection: the target structure (the German
predicative present participle construction – be + present participle), the
training and testing procedures, the five different frequency distributions
(number of different verbs used, skewed versus balanced type-token ratio), the
testing material (listening comprehension tasks followed by a variety of
production tasks and grammaticality judgement tasks). The second section
presents the study’s five main hypotheses and the last section the methods
used for the data analysis.

Chapter 6 and 7 present the results. Both chapters first present the results
for the learners that showed no knowledge of the target structure at the
pre-test and then for the learners that had some previous knowledge. Chapter 6
concentrates on the three first hypotheses. They concern the effect of type
frequency, that is the number of different verbs (50, 25 or 9) used in the
input in the balanced condition. Chapter 7 concentrates on the two last
hypotheses, which concern the effects of skewed versus balanced type token
ratio in the input (the number of tokens of the target structure per specific
verb). The results are presented in bar charts and graphs and described and
interpreted in the text. 

The fourth part consist of the last chapter. The main results with regard to
the hypotheses are summarised in the three first sections. They are followed
by a section about the study’s implications for second language teaching and a
final section with a list of open questions. The five main hypotheses are all
clearly or partially confirmed by the data. In short, the main findings are
the following: 1) Structured input floods in listening comprehension training
have a positive learning effect on adult L2 classroom learners. Most
interestingly, there was a significant improvement in the learners’ usage of
the target forms in the production tasks but not in the acceptability ratings
in the grammaticality judgement tasks. This result suggests that comprehension
and production precede explicit knowledge and, according to the author,
constitutes a clear argument for implicit (incidental) learning. 2) Type
frequency, that is the number of different specific verbs used in the input,
also had an impact on the learners’ improvement rates. For the learners at
initial stages, the best results, in terms of training effects, were obtained
with a low number of different verbs. The more advanced learners showed better
results with a high number of different verbs but overall the advantage of the
high number of different verbs in the input was rather limited. 3) Skewed
input makes a difference in terms of learning outcomes but skewed input is not
necessarily beneficial in first contact with a new construction.


The classroom study presented makes a clear contribution to research in the
field of input influence on L2 classroom learning by observing L2 learners’
improvement in both production and judgmental tasks in different frequency
conditions. The fact that the study was conducted in a real classroom context
is another strength of the study. 

The theoretical background provides a useful overview of the main theories and
notions related to the influence of input, input enhancement and frequency.
These are summarised in Figure 4.1 on page 96, where the author combines the
model of Gass (1997), key issues from Ellis (2002, 2009) and language
development over time. Like  most figures, it might be subject to discussion,
which is precisely what makes the figure interesting and useful. Given the
important role of implicit learning in the study, I was wondering why there
was no single reference to the work of Rod Ellis (e.g. 2005). In my view the
discussion of the results would have profited from reference to this earlier
research on different characteristics of implicit and explicit learning (and

The strongest regret about the reported study is that the semi-experimental
intervention was limited to two weeks. Given the real-life classroom
situation, it would have been really interesting to test the long term effect
of the intervention, for example by adding some test sentences in other tests
later on. This would have given the opportunity to disentangle memory effects
(or structural priming effects) from learning effects (or entrenchment). With
respect to the short duration of the study, I find that the section about the
implications for second language teaching could have been more modest. The
study shows effects from a two-weeks intensive focus on one single target
structure but we don’t know whether there is a long term learning effect.

As mentioned above, the study presented in the book makes an important
contribution about the effect of different frequency conditions. The variation
of the number of different verbs used and the number of tokens for each verb,
while keeping the number of input tokens constant, is a nice design. What
surprised me, was the fact that the author is aware of the fact that there is
a relation between type frequency and category formation (p. 304) but seem to
completely leave out that part from the study design. From my understanding of
the literature about prototypicity, type frequency and zipfian law (e.g. Ellis
& Collins 2009, Bybee 2009), the most frequent exemplar of a specific
linguistic category will help the learners to recognize and establish
(entrench) the category represented by this exemplar. However, when this
exemplar is not contrasted with any other category, I can’t see how the
learners would recognize the category to which it belongs. In other words, the
fact that the results for the skewing conditions are weak could be explained
by the fact that no contrast with the target structure was available in the
skewed conditions.

The results are presented in a very detailed way, but the two chapters are
difficult to read. Instead of the constant repetition of the very densely
formulated hypotheses, I would have preferred to have some reminders about how
they were tested in the experiment. This is also a general criticism I have
towards the book: it is difficult to read. The book presents a study that
combines a high number of factors in a complex way. Unfortunately, neither the
titles nor the Table of Contents will help the reader to navigate between the
different levels of the book.

Despite these critical comments, this volume will be of interest to
researchers and PhD students working on input enhancement and will hopefully
inspire several follow-up studies. 


Bybee, J. 2008. Usage-based grammar and second language acquisition. In P.
Robinson et N.C. Ellis, Handbook of cognitive linguistics and second language
acquisition (pp. 216-236). New-York, NJ: Routledge.

Doughty, C. 2001. Cognitive underpinnings of focus on form. In P. Robinson
(Ed.), Cognition and second language instruction (pp. 206-257). Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press. 

Ellis, N. C. 2002. Frequency effects in language processing: A review with
implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition.
Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24. 143–188.

Ellis, N. C. 2009. Optimizing the input: Frequency and sampling in usage-based
and form-focused learning. In M. H. Long and C. Doughty (eds.), The Handbook
of Language Teaching (pp. 139–158). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. 

Ellis, N.C. & Collins, L. 2009. Input and second language acquisition: The
roles of frequency, form, and function. Introduction to the special issue. The
Modern Language Journal 93,iii. 329-335.

Ellis, R. 2005. Measuring implicit and explicit knowledge of a second
language. A Psychometric Study. SSLA 27.141-172

Gass, S. M. 1997. Input, interaction, and the second language learner. Mahwah,
NJ: Erlbaum.

Hernández, T.A. 2011. Re-examining the role of explicit instruction and input
flood on the acquisition of Spanish discourse markers. Language Teaching
Research, 15. 159- 182. 

Norris, J., & Ortega, L. 2000. Effectiveness of L2 instruction: A research
synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis. Language Learning, 50. 417-528. 

Sharwood Smith, M. 1993. Input enhancement in instructed SLA: Theoretical
bases. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 15. 165-179. 

VanPatten, B. 2009. Processing matters in input enhancement. In T. Piske & M.
Young-Scholten (Eds.), Input matters in SLA (pp. 47-61). Bristol: Multilingual

Wong, W. 2005. Input enhancement: From theory and research to the classroom.
Boston: McGraw-Hill.


Anita Thomas is an Associate Professor of French as a foreign language at the
Department of Multilingualism and Didactics of Modern Languages at University
of Fribourg/Freiburg, Switzerland. Her main research interests include second
language development with focus on the influence of input, structural priming,
usage-based approaches, and the development of French verb morphology at
different ages.


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