Using SLA research in language teaching
of IJAL 9/2, 1999, 267-284
paper discusses ways of using second language acquisition (SLA) research in
teaching. It argues that the proper use of SLA research should meet a set of
overlapping requirements: validity of the research, ethics in obtaining results,
generality of research and teaching use, matching of languages in research and
teaching, matching of learners and students, and breadth of coverage of language
learning. These requirements are applied to three sample areas of research: the
question of age-effects in L2 learning, the acquisition of phonology and the
acquisition of the writing system. The conclusion is that SLA research can be a
source of provocative ideas to use in different levels of teaching and can form
a bridge between psychological theories or linguistic descriptions and language
When second language acquisition (SLA) research began to emerge as a separate discipline, one of the hopes was that it would benefit language teaching (Corder 1973; Stern 1983). In recent years SLA research has mostly seen its role as raising teachers' awareness of SLA concepts rather than affecting teaching directly; Markee (1993) for example sees SLA research as "a resource for changing teachers' professional cultures". However, channelling SLA research through teachers leaves the other people involved in language teaching such as course-book writers and students out in the cold and prevents SLA research from being used in the practical design of coursebooks, examinations and so on (Cook in progress)
paper suggests putting the usefulness of SLA research to language teaching on a
firmer base. It concentrates on the more 'linguistic' aspects, partly for space,
partly because these are already covered in books such as Lightbown & Spada
(1993). The first section discusses requirements for using SLA research in
language teaching, which are applied in the second section to brief samples of
SLA research. This paper is not attacking or defending any contemporary SLA
positions. SLA research is today a large and heterogeneous area, ranging from
Vygotskyan psychology (Lantolf 1994) to connectionism (Broeder & Plunkett
1994); the presentation here is necessarily selective. Seeing SLA research as a
valuable resource for teaching does not mean denying its status as an autonomous
field with its own goals and interests.
for using SLA research
section suggests some overlapping requirements that any use of SLA research must
meet, building on the discussion in Cook (1992, 1996).
valid is the SLA research
research is still a young field embracing a range of methods and theories; it
cannot be taken for granted that any piece of research is necessarily sound. The
main question is the validity of the SLA research in terms of standard research
criteria: is the methodology sound; are the data adequate; do the conclusions
come from the actual research; and so on. Though in one sense SLA research has
to discipline itself, its proper use depends on these requirements being met.
One example is the number of L2 learners involved in the research. Small-scale
case studies can provide insights, such as the six Hispanic learners of English
in the Cazden, Cancino, Rosansky & Schumann (1975) corpus, which have been
reanalysed many times in the SLA literature, for example Gass & Lakshmanan
(1991) and Hilles (1991). Some research designs, particularly in the Universal
Grammar area, still rely on single subjects (Schwartz & Sprouse 1996) in the
belief that what is true for a single learner must be true for all. But such
small numbers may lack sufficient people to cover individual variation in
learning, sufficient L1s or L2s to counteract variation between languages, a
sufficient range of situations, and so on, to be discussed below. Even the
mammoth European Science Foundation (ESF) project (Perdue 1993), which covered
five different L2s, only took in 26 learners.
In principle, the SLA research should be clearly based on evidence from second language acquisition rather than, say, from L1 acquisition, animal behaviour, or computer simulations, all of which have figured in the past. The validity of research is problematic when it depends upon disciplines that those concerned with teaching or SLA research are not qualified to discuss. Take the example of brain lateralisation. Albert & Obler (1978: 254) interpreted the existing research as saying that the right hemisphere of the brain is more involved in the L2 than in the LI; so "it might be useful to develop a program of second language teaching that emphasises so-called 'right hemisphere strategies' ... through nursery rhymes, music, dance, or techniques emphasising visuo-spatial skills". Paradis (1992) claims the original research itself did not bear out this conclusion and that there is still no certain evidence that L2s are stored in the brain differently from L1s. The lack of validity of the research undermines the teaching application. Any benefits from nursery rhymes are unrelated to the involvement of the right hemispheres of students' brains. Validity leads in to the question of generality discussed below.
ethical is the SLA research involved?
the extreme ethical issues involved in animal research hardly apply, SLA
research should nevertheless not inflict damage on the learners involved and
should be conducted with their consent, to the extent that consent is possible.
Teaching English pronunciation through artificial bridges in the mouth needs
careful sanctioning by the learners and dentists (Wenk 1982), just as the use of
hypnosis needs appropriate medical ethics (Schumann et al. 1978). But the
participants in more straightforward experiments also have the right not to have
their language-learning goals or educational achievement impaired by the
research. To students, L2 learning is part of their lives, not an arbitrary
research task done at a researcher's whim. For instance, one popular research
design splits students into two groups, one of which is given the treatment the
researcher believes is effective, the other a control treatment predicted to be
less effective. To a degree, as in drug trials, the researchers have withheld
what they consider the optimum treatment from some students and thus have
disadvantaged them for the sake of improving conditions for future students.
While this hardly threatens the students' lives, the consequences for their
careers or examination success could be severe in a research design that called
for students to be deliberately put in an inappropriate teaching group to
demonstrate they do not succeed.
should also be possible to take for granted that the research accepts the
Labovian dictum about difference rather than deficit that governs most other
areas of language research (Labov 1969); people of various nationalities,
cultures, sexes, religions, ethnic minorities, classes, ages, and so on have
differences rather than deficits. Since L2 learning involves transforming a
person with a single culture into a person with a multiple culture, the research
should not imply that one group or one language is intrinsically superior to the
other. Not that language teaching itself is immune to the charge of cultural
imperialism by forcing particular languages or teaching methods on students in
diverse circumstances (Phillipson 1992; Holliday 1994). More controversially, it
has been argued that it is as biased to use native speakers as the goal for
non-native speakers as it is to judge women by men, whites by blacks, or any
group by the standards of another group to which by definition they can never
belong (Cook 1999); that is to say, L2 users, too, are different from native
speakers rather than deficient.
general is the SLA research
perennial problem for any research is the extent to which generalisations can be
made from small amounts of evidence: can the fall of an apple tell us about the
forces within stars? At one level the risk of overstating the conclusions should
be minimised by statistical tests, now usually applied to SLA research: it
should be clear within the research report itself whether the results stand up
or not. At another level, complete generality is impossible to achieve in SLA
research given the diversity of the learners' L2s, L1s, situations,
personalities, and so on.
research includes both general overall theories such as the Universal
Grammar (UG) model and specific results such as Arabic learners’ use of
epenthetic vowels to pad out consonant clusters in English such as /bi lstik/
for plastic (Broselow
1992). Teaching, too, ranges from overall goals for language teaching to
specific teaching techniques used with a particular group of learners (Cook
1992). Linking research to teaching means employing both these scales of general
to specific, on the one hand using general SLA theories for either general or
specific aspects of language teaching, on the other using specific SLA results
in specific teaching areas. While the match between SLA research and language
teaching can never be exact, the user has to bear the relationship constantly in
most dangerous procedure is to use one specific piece of research as the basis
for general teaching implications. Dulay & Burt (1973) looked at the
acquisition of grammatical morphemes such as past tense -ed and
articles the/a by 294
5-8-year-old Hispanic children learning English in California and New York City
to settle the question "Should we teach children syntax?" Whatever its
other merits, this research concerned grammatical morphemes rather than other
aspects of syntax, Hispanics learning English rather than other groups acquiring
English or other languages, the USA rather than other countries, and children
aged 5 to 8 rather than adults. Though subsequent research amply showed that the
results could be generalised to other learners and situations (Makino 1993),
using the original research as the rationale for not teaching syntax was a case
of a mouse giving birth to an elephant.
have suggested that one habit in SLA research is to borrow general theories of
human learning rather than to rely on SLA theories or research or indeed on
linguistics. The classic example was indeed audiolingualism, which took a
learning theory based on animal behaviour, applied it to LI acquisition with
very little evidence, and generalised it to L2 learning with almost none (Rivers
1964). A contemporary example is the theory of connectionism, the SLA papers on
which are mostly presentations of the theory itself for L2 researchers,
sometimes with a computer simulation, for example Gasser (1990) and Sokolik
& Smith (1992); they seldom have a specific basis in L2 research, apart from
Broeder & Plunkett (1994). To use connectionism as a rationale, say, for
reviving drill-like activities in the classroom depends on the strength of the
theory itself and its general relevance, not on SLA research as such. The
reliance on general learning theories also usually means accepting that language
is no different from any other aspect of the human mind, rather than being a
unique independent module, a conclusion that is anathema to many linguists and
SLA researchers or, indeed, to many language teachers, who often insist that
language has to be taught in different ways from other school subjects because
it is different in nature.
well do the languages match the teaching situation?
languages involved in the research need to match those involved in the teaching
situation in relevant ways. At one extreme some research is so general that it
concerns all languages everywhere, as in the UG theory. Even there it cannot be
assumed that something that is true for one group of learners carries over to
another. Take the example of the pro-drop parameter which separates languages
in which subjects are not needed in the sentence, such as Italian Parla ('speaks'),
from languages in which they are required, e.g. He
speaks not *Speaks in English.
L2 learners should carry this variation across from their first language to the
second; this turned out indeed to be true for the English of French and Spanish
learners (White 1986) but not to be true for the Spanish of English learners (Liceras
is useful, then, to reiterate a few of the major differences between languages
which have to be taken into account in L2 learning, taken from Cook (1997):
versus intonation languages
languages use change of pitch to convey lexical meanings, e.g. Chinese and
Yoruba; intonation languages such as English use it to express a variety of
factors in attitude, grammar, and discourse function. SLA research on these
includes Leather (1990) and Cruz-Ferreira (1986).
versus meaning-based script
widely-used writing systems relate written symbols either to the sounds of
language, whether alphabetic as in English or syllabic as in Korean or Japanese
kana, or to units of meaning as in Chinese characters. There is a continuum of
orthographic 'depth' from 'shallow' languages in which the script is closely
connected to the sounds, e.g. Spanish, to 'deep' languages in which it is
closely related to meaning, e.g. Chinese (Katz & Frost, 1992). This forms a
growing area of SLA research, to be discussed below.
vary in the extent to which they express grammatical relationships by changing
the forms of words through inflections. Russian is a highly inflected language,
with each word averaging 3.33 morphemes; Vietnamese has no grammatical
inflections and averages only 1.06 morphemes per word; English has a handful of
inflections for verbs and nouns and comes at the low end, averaging 1.68
morphemes per word. SLA research has concentrated on variational aspects of
inflectional morphology (Young 1994) and on the presence or absence of
inflections in early L2 speech (Klein & Perdue 1997) but has not yet tackled
this area in depth.
over whether the main word order in the sentence is SOV (Subject Object
Verb) (45% of languages), SVO (42%), VSO (9%), VOS (3%), OVS (1%) or
OSV (<1%) (Tomlin 1986). In SLA research, the basic word order of the sentence has
chiefly been explored through the Competition Model (MacWhinney 1997),
with some attempt at other types of word order universals (Cook 1988).
L2 learner may speak an L1 with any combination of these features and be
learning an L2 with any combination. SLA research may be straightforward when
a specific limited area of language is involved, say the acquisition of English
intonation. But it becomes extremely difficult when the features interact with
each other; the very combination of Chinese being uninflected, having tones and
using a character-based script could lead to some Chinese difficulties with
English rather than any one feature taken separately.
based on specific L1s or L2s does not necessarily apply to all languages.
English is still the L2 that dominates SLA research, with French and German
featuring more in recent years, as introductions to SLA research such as
Larsen-Freeman & Long (1991) or Ellis (1994) readily attest. Using English
as the L2 may bias SLA research in various ways. Taking the above features,
English is an intonation language with a fairly 'deep' sound-based script,
fairly sparse inflectional morphology, and SVO order. These facts are not just
separate but interact; for example the non-alphabetic aspects of English
orthography relate to its morphology in such conventions as the past tense 'ed' being spelt as <-ed> despite
its three usual pronunciations /t/,
/id/ as in watched,
played and waited. Together
they make English a unique combination of features, just as Chinese is unique,
or any language is unique. Any pair of L1 and L2 involved in SLA research will
involve at least as many variables.
concentration on English may also highlight features that are comparatively rare
in other languages. The pro-drop parameter mentioned above has been widely
studied in UG based research from White (1986) to Davies (1996), despite
frequent changes in the syntactic analysis. The 'fact' that languages fall into
two groups seems potentially useful for language teaching, particularly when
languages with opposite values are involved, such as Spanish and English. One
use might be the shaping of the language input the learner encounters to provide
the relevant clues to establish the parameter setting. For example, the clues
that English requires subjects may be the use of dummy subjects like there and it and
the fact that English verbs are uninflected for person with the exception of
third person singular present tense verb forms. Yet languages such as English,
French and German that require the subject form a small minority, possibly about
7%. Is it useful to base language teaching on something affecting only one in
fourteen of the world's languages? The applicability of Universal Grammar or any
other model to language teaching should not depend on unusual constructions
limited to a few languages.
well do the L2 learners
match the students?
LI acquisition research it is axiomatic that any normal human child taken at
random could learn any possible human language; though this is a question of
belief rather than research, no evidence has ever been produced to contradict
it. L2 acquisition is another matter: L2 learners come in all shapes and sizes
and reach varying levels of L2 competence. The nature of their progress depends
on features of their individual personalities, ages and situations. Before using
SLA research it is necessary to see how well the profiles of the learners
involved in the research match the profiles of the projected students.
Grosjean (1997) has enumerated seven factors involved in choosing bilinguals for
an experiment: language history, language stability, languages known, competence
in each skill, functions of the languages, language modes and amount of
code-switching. It cannot be anticipated in advance which of these may turn out
to be relevant.
are at least as many varieties of language student. To go over some of the more
obvious variations, SLA research has claimed that at least the following factors
affect the outcome of L2 learning:
motivation of L2 learners varies in many ways, for example the integrative
motivation to take part in the target culture and the instrumental motivation to
use it for one's own ends - career,
examinations etc., elaborated in Gardner (1985). Even this one theory of
motivation has revealed cultural variation from India (Lukmani 1972) to Hungary
over the world it seems that, when they have a choice, language students are
more likely to be women than men. This may be cultural stereotyping or may
reflect a sex difference; for example, girls are better at L2 listening than
boys (Assessment of Performance Unit 1986).
of the teachers' wishes, students choose the type of learning strategy
individually, whether broad Good Language Learner strategies such as
"Involve yourself in the language learning process" (Naiman et al.
1978) or 'metacognitive' strategies such as deciding in advance to concentrate
on one aspect of a task (O'Malley & Chamot 1989).
factors affect L2 learning even if each area that has been studied seems to
yield contradictory results. Cognitive style, for example, reflects the
difference between field-dependent people whose thinking requires a context and
field-independent people whose thinking does not. Some SLA research has shown
that this interacts with teaching method (Stansfield & Hansen 1983), other
research that it is a cultural variable (Hansen 1984).
research reveals even wider possible differences between students than even the
language teaching profession had suspected. Teaching aimed at one type of
student may not work with other types. Teaching designed for students with
integrative motivation may antagonise those with instrumental motivation;
18-year-olds may rebel if taught in the same way as 12-year-olds; and so on for
all the other factors. At minimum the results of SLA research into learner
variation have reinforced the view that no single teaching solution suits all
students in all circumstances. In general then the uses of SLA research must
take into account the parallels between the learners studied in the research and
the projected students.
broad is the coverage of language learning areas?
research is not a monolithic whole but covers many areas of language. Some
research may be specific to one small area: the way you learn to pronounce /t/ may not be
the same as the way you learn conditional clauses. Other research may embody a
principle that applies everywhere, say the use of a meta-cognitive learning
strategy such as monitoring one's speech (O'Malley & Chamot 1989). Before
using particular SLA research, it is necessary to see how specific the language
learning area is and how well it matches the proposed application.
learners have to learn at least:
vocabulary: the meaning relationships between words
phonology: the sound systems of the language
discourse: the connections between, and within, utterances
syntax: the 'computational system' that sequences and modifies units of language to convey meanings.
also have to be able to use at least the following processes:
the spoken language
speaking: conveying meanings in spontaneous speech
writing: conveying meanings in writing
spelling: using the orthographic system of the language
reading: extracting meaning from written texts.
standard introductions to SLA research such as Ellis (1994) or Larsen-Freeman
& Long (1992) are virtually dominated by syntax and barely recognise that
areas such as spelling, vocabulary or phonology exist. This dominance of syntax
is no longer representative of SLA research itself, which now covers most of the
above areas, for instance spelling (James et al. 1993), vocabulary (Schreuder
& Weltens 1993) and pronunciation (James 1996). These lacunas in the
introductory treatments of SLA research not only limit the direct use of SLA
research but also hinder language teaching professionals from seeing its
usefulness, since recent views of language teaching have by and large not given
syntax a central place (Grauberg 1997).
research into syntax may be appropriate for the teaching of syntax, or at least
for those aspects of syntax it covers, but it is doubtful whether it has
implications outside this area. It may be crucial to the Universal Grammar
theory to know how learners tackle principles such as subjacency that rule out
sentences such as *What
did John hear the news that the mayor would do? At
best this research describes how learners tackle core issues of UG syntax. It
provides no help with the many peripheral areas of grammar that are not part of that core or with the many areas of grammar that are not studied by UG theory. It says
nothing about the rest of language, be it the performance aspects not covered by
competence or the other areas that UG theory pays no attention to, such as
discourse, or indeed the many areas of syntax UG theory does not tackle.
the answers to these questions mostly come down to matters of appropriateness.
To be useful to language teaching, SLA research has to concern appropriate
learners, appropriate languages, appropriate areas of language learning and
appropriate situations. The research has to match the teaching use. A piece of
SLA research must either relate specifically to the area of teaching in question
or be so general that it relates to all of language teaching. The danger has
often been that the devotees of a successful SLA theory have applied it to all
aspects of teaching despite its partial coverage. A proper use of SLA research
has to include many aspects if it is to link to more than limited aspects of
language teaching. And it needs to be filtered through the research that
specifically deals with the features of the classroom itself, such as Lightbown
& Spada (1993).
us then take three pieces of SLA research to explore briefly some of the
implications of this argument. Each example first presents the particular SLA
research, then applies the requirements discussed above and finally suggests
some uses. The selection represents an arbitrary choice out of the hundreds of
research areas that could have been chosen. The intention is to take one general
topic — age; one specific piece of research — the acquisition of English
pronunciation by Austrian children; and one area virtually untapped by language
teaching — the writing system.
does age affect L2 learning?
perennial question for linguists, SLA researchers and the person in the street
is whether children are better at acquiring second languages than adults. The
proliferating research into the question of age is surveyed in Singleton (1989).
The question affects language teaching in that educational systems have to
decide on the optimum age for starting an L2 in the classroom.
common assumption is that children are better than adults. One set of results
challenges this view. Some of this work concerns naturalistic settings: adults
and 11-15-year-olds learnt Dutch better than children aged 3-10 for most of the
first year in the Netherlands (Snow & Hoefnagel-Hohle 1978); by the end of
the year the most successful learners were the 8-10-year-olds and the least
successful the 3-5 year-olds. Sometimes it covers classroom acquisition:
Ekstrand (1978) studied 2400 children acquiring Swedish as an L2 and found that the older
the child, the better.
second set of results, however, shows that children are better. Johnson and Newport (1989) tested the grammaticality
judgements of people who had immigrated to the USA between the ages of 3
and 9 and found a steady decline in this ability with age of arrival in the USA.
Patkowski (1980) came to similar conclusions by looking at the Foreign Service
Institute ratings of written language by 67 immigrants to the USA. The
contradictions between these two sets of results have usually been resolved by
saying that adults have an initial advantage, children an advantage over the
longer term (Krashen, Scarcella & Long 1982; Singleton 1989).
age research has concerned foreign accent, which is a slightly different issue,
being related not only to how people produce sounds physically but also to how
speech shows membership in social groups. Despite the prevalent belief that only
children acquire an L2 without a foreign accent, recent studies have revealed a
group of Dutch speakers of English who are indistinguishable from native
speakers (Bongaerts, Planken & Schils 1995). Indeed Neufeld (1978) managed
to produce adult L2 learners of Japanese whose pronunciation could not be
distinguished from native speakers after eighteen hours of language teaching.
the six requirements fully to such a large area of research would be impossible;
the following seems generally true of much of the research. The first three
requirements are easily met because of the sheer range of the research. The
research is valid in that it includes a vast amount of data with large numbers
of learners; it is ethical in that none of it appears to affect the learners
adversely; it is general in that it takes an overall issue of L2 learning; and
it is specific in that it deals with particular issues of syntax and
remaining requirements pose more of a problem. The breadth of languages covered
is one issue. The L2 is almost invariably English and the majority of learners
speak European languages, as in Johnson & Newport (1989), Bongaerts et al.
(1995) and Patkowski (1980). There are therefore dangers in generalising to
other L1s and other L2s. The appropriateness of the learners is also suspect.
The majority are adults or children arriving in the USA as in Johnson &
Newport (1989) or Patkowski (1980), sometimes the Netherlands (Snow &
Hoefnagel-Hohle 1978). Immigrants, however, form a particular group in social or
psychological terms and their results may not generalise to non-immigrant
groups. The bulk of the research, furthermore, concerns learning situations
where the second language is in active use within the community, whether English
in the USA, Dutch in the Netherlands or Swedish in Sweden, unlike situations
where a foreign language is taught in a classroom but not readily available in
the world outside, say French in the USA, Japanese in the Netherlands or English
in Sweden. Finally, the coverage of learning areas is rather limited. Usually
the concern is syntax and accent; vocabulary studies in fact have found no age
difference (Singleton 1995); the works of Conrad, Nabokov or Beckett provide
strong evidence that older L2 learners can master the writing system. Claims
have to be restricted to a narrow range of language activities.
research could be used in language teaching in
several ways. One is the original debate about the age when a second language
should be started. Ultimately the decision about the optimal age to start L2
teaching in schools is a matter for the whole educational system in a country.
SLA research can at best provide hints to inform this decision. If the
educational system aims at a quick basic ability to use a second language, this
is best acquired as an adult; if it aims at a high level of performance, this is
better acquired as a child (Krashen, Scarcella & Long 1982). However, this
does not take into account any of the benefits of cultural understanding,
language awareness, etc. that are unrelated to the ability to speak and talk the
L2 and that may be particularly valued by the students or by the educational
system. The UK national guidelines for language teaching (HMSO 1995) include the
student's self-development, the training of cognitive processes and insight into
the LI, as well as the usual communicative goals.
approach is through the attitude towards foreign accent. The dire prediction
that older people cannot lose their foreign accent seems unwarranted. Teachers
may be more optimistic about teaching pronunciation and convince themselves
and their students that a native-like accent is indeed attainable for some
students whatever their age. However, if the goal is L2 use rather than native
speaker use, it does not necessarily follow that a foreign accent is undesirable
and that L2 users have no right to express their identity in the second
language; as a French wine-maker said, "My English is not good but my
French accent is perfect" (Cook 1999).
us now take a specific example of detailed research from phonology. In recent
years, several alternative theories have been mooted for the acquisition of
phonology in an L2. Major's ontogeny model (1990, 1994), for example, claims
that phonological transfer decreases over time while developmental factors
first increase, then decrease.
traditional type of study was carried out by Wieden & Nemser (1991), who
looked at the acquisition of English phonology by 384 Austrian school children
in grades 3-11 (two classes in four regions at each age) to establish the stages
of development and the characteristic problems of Austrian learners through a
battery of tests of perception, imitation and elicitation. This yielded a range
of results. One interesting feature was a contrast between phonemes such as the
diphthong // in boat that
improved over time and other phonemes such as the schwa in folder and the
dark /l/ in ball which did
not improve after eight years of school. That is to say, some phonemes develop
over time, others do
not. Three distinct stages of development were found: a pre-systemic stage in
which the children knew the sounds in individual words but not in all
circumstances; a transfer stage in which they systematically used the L1
categories in the L2, for example using the single Austrian sound /b/ for both
English /p/ and
/b/; and an approximative stage in which they restructured the L1 sounds into a new
system, i.e. a native-like RP system.
terms of the requirements, the research seems valid in that it uses appropriate
methodology with large numbers of child learners; it is ethical in that no harm
came to the children through
the testing. On a scale of generality, it is specific to the acquisition of
English phonemes by a certain group of learners in one classroom situation. A
full match between languages and learning situation occurs only if the
prospective students are young Austrian learners of English. It may or may not
be possible to generalise to other students. Since the research looks at the
phonetic detail of English and Austrian German rather than phonological
theory, it may be hard to apply the categories to other languages. The match
between L2 learners and students again comes down to assessing whether the
characteristics of the learners are commensurable with the students in age,
personality etc. The results might be useful for teaching teenage children
English in foreign language situations but could only be tentatively extended to
other students in other places. The coverage of language learning is confined to
segmental or non-segmental phonology. Even if the stages turn out to be true of
other learners, this does not mean that they are necessarily true of other areas
of language such as vocabulary acquisition.
these caveats, the research could be used in teaching in several ways. One
choice is for the person designing the teaching sequence. Sounds like the diphthong // that can improve could be concentrated on as this may have the maximum effect. Or
difficult sounds like schwa // could
be taught since the easy ones will be learnt anyway. The reason for choosing one
or the other approach is unlikely to be found in the original research but only
emerges when the two alternatives are followed in practice; nevertheless, it is
the research that has provided the impetus. A second choice concerns whether or
not to draw the students' attention to phonology. An interventionist teacher
might tell the students about the sounds that have been established to be a
problem. A non-interventionist might decide not to squander precious teaching
time on things that are unalterable and so minimise any attention to 'difficult'
sounds. The same piece of research could also be used to affect the design of
pronunciation materials, the details of the syllabus, and the specification of
the final examination, provided the requirements were used appropriately.
of a new writing system
third example comes from the area of writing systems. Much processing of written
text is a balance between sound-based processes for converting letters into
sounds and visual-based processes for handling whole symbols, both between
languages and within the same user. The main SLA research thrust has been on the
transfer from a character-based system to a sound-based one, and vice versa.
Chinese L1 students have difficulty in processing non-words in English, showing
their phonological processing is under-developed (Holm & Dodd 1996).
Speakers with meaning-based LI writing systems in general are better at visual
reading tasks in English than those with sound-based L1s (Brown & Haynes
recent piece of research in this tradition is Chikamatsu (1996), which looked at
the transfer from L1 to L2 orthographic systems by contrasting L2 learners of
Japanese syllabic signs (kana) from two different L1 systems – Chinese
characters and the English alphabet. Results were indeed that Chinese people
relied more on visual information, English more on phonological. L2 learners are
carrying over the characteristics of their LI writing system to the L2.
terms of the six requirements, this research seems valid methodologically,
particularly in contrasting two groups of learners rather than relying on one,
ethical in not interfering, and reasonably general in its scope in that it
concerns overall characteristics of writing systems rather than
language-specific details. In terms of coverage, English, Japanese and Chinese
represent three language types, even if within each type there is great
variation - English is a relatively 'deep' orthography compared to the 'shallow'
orthography of Italian, though both are alphabetic sound-based writing systems
(Katz & Frost 1992). The learners are appropriate if they are taken to
represent older academic types of learner. The area of learning covered is in
one sense narrow as it concerns a single aspect of orthography; in another sense
it affects all the learners' processing of written language even at an advanced
main point for teaching is simply to draw attention to the fact that some L2
students have to shift from one overall writing system to another, whether
English people learning Japanese, Chinese learning Spanish, or whatever. The
presentation of early written material in coursebooks, for instance, should be
influenced by whether or not the students are transferring across this great
divide of languages or are shifting in the amount of 'depth'; the testing of
reading comprehension should pay attention to the different degrees of
difficulty in writing for students from different LI scripts. Specific teaching
exercises may be utilised to direct the students' attention towards the nature
of the new script they are acquiring. Yet virtually none of this seems to have
been mentioned in language teaching.
we see from these three briefcase studies, SLA research can provide teaching
with provocative ideas - is an accent avoidable in adults; should pronunciation
teaching concentrate on 'improvable' sounds? If nothing more, these ideas can
stimulate the teaching profession into re-examining its current practice. As
always, the real-world success of these in the classroom doubtless depends on
other variables in the teaching/learning situation that have little to do with
SLA research directly. This is, then, where such insights need to be combined
with the classroom-based approaches explored in, say, Lightbown & Spada
(1993) or Harley et al. (1990).
main argument here is that research into language learning and teaching can
provide useful input for language teaching. Obvious as this may seem, it
nevertheless constitutes a rejection of several popular approaches to the
applied linguistics of language teaching. One
consists of taking a theory from some other area and applying it willy-nilly to language
teaching, for example the behaviourist theories that underpinned the
audiolingual approach or the theory of connectionism. Without a basis either in
the acquisition of second languages or in classroom research, such ideas have no
more to do with language teaching than, say, theories of knitting. A second
approach is the trend towards presenting teachers, and indeed students, with
data about the language of native speakers, whether vocabulary, discourse or
syntax, often derived from large corpora. Such descriptions are not relevant to
language teaching unless they can show firstly how these performance data relate
to the knowledge in the speakers' minds, secondly how L2 learners acquire such
knowledge, thirdly how non-native speakers relate to native speakers. These two
approaches have no more or less chance of succeeding intrinsically than, say,
teaching students the difference between plain and purl stitches. Their
success is accidental; the links between linguistic or psychological theories or
descriptions and language teaching can only come through the mediation of SLA
research. Willis (1998: 45), talking of concordances, remarks: "Once we
begin to view the process of language description in this way it is a short step
to apply the process pedagogically." This "short step" is,
however, a big leap for teaching: SLA research provides the missing link between
the description and the classroom application.
The three brief examples here have only scratched the surface. SLA research has something to say about the acquisition of vocabulary, phonology, syntax, discourse, classroom interaction, and much more: all aspects of language and language acquisition are covered somewhere in SLA research. Each of these examples suggested ideas for language teaching, whether through the attitudes towards foreign accent, the choice of what sounds to teach, or the importance of the writing system. Other insights are crying out to be used — what syntax should be taught to beginners; what level can we realistically expect L2 learners to achieve; do pragmatic functions of language and communication strategies transfer from the L1; should the L1 really be minimised in the classroom? Others can be gleaned from surveys of SLA research such as Cook (to appear). The very lack of a unified theory of SLA may be a strength for language teaching by suggesting a diversity of possibilities rather than a single party line and thus leaving teaching more free to pick and choose. By mining this rich vein, teaching may be able to base its future developments in part on how people learn second languages rather than on the description of native speakers or the changing fashions in the classroom.
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