What is Second Language Learning?

Handout for a talk ca 2008, amplified
Vivian Cook

L2 Learning and Language Teaching Book SLA site

This talk considers what is meant by ‘second language learning’ and how this relates to an independent discipline of SLA research.

1. What is the 'language' in second language learning?

The word ‘language’ is understood in different ways by those carrying out SLA research, including:
- language as a property of human beings,
- language as an institutional abstraction,
- language as a collection of sentences,
- language as social behaviour,
- language as knowledge in the mind,
- language as a form of action.

Any SLA research needs to start by defining its view of language; arguments about say language as a collection of sentences are not compatible with language as knowledge.
(for amplification see Cook Prolegomena)

2. What is the 'second' in second language learning?

The word ‘second’ is typically undefined in SLA research, apart from being sometimes contrasted with ‘foreign’. A language can be:
- second by official fiat when other languages are laid down as first by law,
- second by chronological sequence in that the person learns it after the first,
- second by priority, usually discussed in terms of dominance,
- second contrasted with foreign by function or location.

SLA research needs to define how ‘second’ is interpreted in any given research, particularly in a European context now rife with terms like ‘first second language’.
(for amplification see Cook Prolegomena)

3. What is 'learning' in second language learning?

The meaning of ‘language’ and which interpretation of ‘second’ that you choose dictates what you call learning – the appropriate learning theory and the research design. Learning language as a set of sentences is different from learning language for social relationships. One issue is the extent to which SLA research is dependent on psychology or developmental psycholinguistics for accounts of learning or can make up its own account, as has happened in recent years. SLA research needs to make explicit the type of view of learning it is drawing on or is inventing.


4. Where does SLA research come in?

The underlying issue is whether SLA research is an autonomous area or is dependent on other disciplines. If it is relying on psychology, it needs to justify itself in terms of contemporary psychological models of learning and development, not bygone theories - the cognitive commitment; if drawing on linguistic descriptions of syntax, vocabulary, phonology, etc, it needs to square these with current linguistics - the linguistic copmmitment: any X-based research should be justifiable in terms of contemporary X. In particular, drawing on other disciplines is dangerous when it combines theories or ideas that are not compatible within the parent discipline, say incompatible models of memory or syntax. Alternatively SLA research can do its own thing – and remain largely irrelevant to its neighbours in psychology, education and linguistics. 



Cook, V.J. (2006), ‘Interlanguage, multi-competence and the problem of the “second” language’, Rivista di Psicolinguistica Applicata VI, 3, 39-52 online version

Cook, V.J. (2007), ‘The nature of the L2 user’, in L. Roberts, A. Gurel, S. Tatar & L. Marti (eds.) EUROSLA Yearbook, 7, 205-220. Reprinted in L. Wei (ed.) (2011), The Routledge Applied Linguistics Reader, Routledge 77-89. online version

Cook, V.J. (2008), ‘Linguistic contributions to bilingualism’, in J. Altaribba & R. Heredia (eds), An Introduction to Bilingualism: Principles and Practice, Erlbaum, 245-264