Vivian Cook   Writing System Topics  Online Writings

Developing links between second language acquisition research and language teaching

Vivian Cook, Newcastle University

Draft of paper for K. Knapp and B. Seidlhofer (ed.) Handbooks of Applied Linguistics Volume 6: Foreign language communication and learning, Mouton

This chapter looks at the relevance of second language acquisition (SLA) research to second language teaching. The chapter takes the attitude that SLA research is one useful source of information for language teaching among many. Carl Jung used to say that when a psychoanalyst met a patient they had to put out of their mind any theories and past experiences in favour of doing what was right for that patient. Teachers too are ultimately responsible for the well-being of their students and so need to decide what to do for themselves. For example one suggestion from early SLA research was that the first year of teaching should avoid questions and commands; it did not take teachers long to discover it was a recipe for disaster if they could not ask the students questions or tell them what to do in the class.

1.  SLA research and language teaching

Teaching is only successful if it promotes learning in students. This statement seems such a truism that it hardly needs to be made. Teaching feeds off learning; any teaching activity needs to activate some learning process or strategy in the student’s mind or else it won’t teach anything. Yet in practical terms this obvious fact is often ignored in language teaching. The measure of a good lesson for many teachers, and indeed school inspectors, is one where the activities work and the students are happy, with little tangible evidence that the students have learnt anything.

The corollary of the truism is that the more teachers know about how people learn second languages the better they will teach. About the 1960s and 1970s, people began to take this view seriously by developing SLA research to underpin language teaching. This new discipline soon had its own journals such as Second Language Research and its own conferences such as the annual European Second Language Association (eurosla) meeting. Initially SLA research was largely initiated by applied linguists involved with language teaching, such as Robert Lado, Rod Ellis and Stephen Krashen, who saw it as feeding back into language teaching. Later SLA research tried to establish itself as an independent discipline, drawing in psychologists like Nick Ellis or linguists like Lydia White. Yet, despite the vast strides in SLA research, few people have been interested in maintaining the bridge to language teaching and only a fraction of the research has been applied to classroom teaching.

The first central concept in SLA research was that learners had a language of their own, given the name ‘interlanguage’ by Selinker (1972). The language the L2 learners spoke was neither the same as the second language that they had as target nor as the first language they already knew but was a system in its own right, created partly out of the L2 and the first language (L1), but also out of many other processes going on in their minds. SLA research swung away from seeing learners as passive recipients of whatever teachers liked to give to them to seeing them as active learners and creators. In 1960s teaching such as the audiolingual method, the teacher built up knowledge in the student’s mind piece by piece (Lado, 1964); the students had little say in what they did; anything that went wrong was the fault of the teaching. In most teaching since the 1970s the learners build up knowledge in their minds by trying to process language meaningfully and to use learning strategies etc: learning is their responsibility. The SLA concept of interlanguage turned the focus on the individual learner; teaching was helping the student to learn, not force-feeding them with information. The present perfect tense for example I have lost my pen would have formerly been taught say by a drill in which the student practiced the sentence with a large variety of vocabulary changes I have lost my wallet/car-keys/…, forcing the structure into the student’s mind. Now it is taught by putting the student in a position where they have to communicate something using the present perfect. They learn it because they need to understand or to use it, the structure growing in their minds out of their interaction with the world. The idea of interlanguage being independent and self-directing allows the students freedom to speak for themselves rather than parroting sentences supplied by the teacher in one way or another via drills, substitution exercises, fill-in exercises etc.

The change to a learner perspective led to a realization that the stages of development that students go through are not necessarily the same as those that are followed in teaching. SLA research discovered that the interlanguage of learners goes through common stages of development, to a large extent independent of their first languages, whether in terms of grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation. One current version of the stages idea is Processability Theory (Pienemann, 1998), which claims that all learners start by producing single content words, beer, plane,etc. Then they learn how to put words in the right order within one sentence, i.e. Subject before Verb in English John like beer, Plane leaving. Next they learn how to move parts of the sentence around so that they can ask questions Does John like beer?, When is plane leaving? Finally they learn to use the right order in embedded sentences such as reported speech I asked if John liked beer.

The Processability Model sequence is clearly at odds with the sequences embedded in many language teaching syllabuses and coursebooks. In the classroom students have been encouraged to use full sentences from the beginning, not isolated content words. One lesson for teaching called the Teachability Hypothesis was that‘an L2 structure can be learnt from instruction only if the learner’s interlanguage is close to the point when this structure is acquired in the natural setting’ (Pienemann, 1984, p. 201). In other words teachers should not waste time on teaching things for which the students are not ready. Emphasising, say, questions in the early stages may be useless as students cannot yet handle the word order movement on which they are based. Students are following a built-in schedule, not the one laid down by the teacher or the coursebook.

The switch in focus from the teacher to the learner as creator of their own language also led to SLA research looking at the choices that students make in their minds for using and learning the language. One branch is research into communication strategies – how do students compensate when they know less of the language than they need for getting an idea across to someone? The research tries to list all the strategies available to students (Tarone, 1988) like generalization – when a more general word can be used rather than a more particular one, such as animal for rabbit, and the analytic strategy in which the meaning of the word is conveyed in separate parts, not knowing the word parrot, a student says ‘talk uh bird’, conveying the meaning in the two parts. For teaching this provided a way of looking at tasks and of seeing how students can practice the strategies involved. Hence it supported making the students interact communicatively in the classroom – unthinkable under audiolingualism as the students would make ‘mistakes’ when not under the teacher’s eagle eye – and was a major precursor for task-based learning.

Looking at learners more closely also revealed the extent to which they differed. We have just seen how learners decide on strategies to use; hence they vary in the ways that they tackle learning and communicating. But there are a host of  other dimensions on which students vary. One popular field was motivation: how does your motivation for learning a language affect your success in learning it? A continuing strand has been the idea that there are two main types of motivation: integrative, which involves wanting to take part in the society that uses the target language; and instrumental, which means using the language for some purpose like passing an examination or getting a job. From Gardner and Lambert (1972) on, this has been extensively investigated in many countries, showing some variations between different situations (Gardner, 1985). However the overall message is that learners need either high integrative or instrumental motivation to succeed. The lesson for teachers was partly that such deep-rooted motivation has a considerable amount of inertia; trying to change the student’s long-term motivation was going against years of experiencing the attitudes of their schools, their parents and their societies towards second language learning.

An overall conclusion for teaching of the centrality of the learner and of learning was that much less is under the teachers’ control than had previously been thought. The learner has an independent human mind that goes its own way regardless of the teacher; one of the characteristics of Good Language Learners was found to be that they knew what was best for them and would compensate for the type of teaching they received by adding stuff to suit themselves (Stern, 1975). The language input that the students receive in the class, the tasks they carry out, are all adapted by them to suit their own needs. To a large extent the teacher has to fall in with the learners’ strategies and spend time on teaching the things that are teachable and on providing the sustenance the learner needs.

This outline of some key SLA research concepts has drawn on only a selection of the vast bank of ideas about SLA in the literature; Rod Ellis' mammoth The Study of Second Language Acquisition (1994) for instance manages to take up 824 pages without even going into phonology or vocabulary. Many of the changes in thinking about language teaching over the last decades can be linked to the overall ideas about the nature of the learner developed in SLA research. Yet the typical use of SLA research by teachers and methodologists is more to justify existing teaching methods and approaches than to discover new ones, as we see with task‑based learning (Skehan, 1998).

2. Some SLA research concepts and the classroom 

Let us now select a few key SLA ideas which can be linked to teaching out of this vast array. As always, these should be treated, not so much as diktats by the applied linguist that teachers have to obey, as suggestions that may or may not turn out to be useful.

a) Universal Grammar

Two key concepts of the Universal Grammar school of linguistics are parameter-setting and vocabulary acquisition. Parameter-setting explains how human languages vary within a common framework. The grammar of a particular language reflects certain highly abstract principles that apply to any language because they are already built‑in to the human mind. These do not need to be accounted for in language acquisition precisely because they are not so much learnt as inevitably forming part of our knowledge of any language whether first or second. The principles themselves cannot vary between languages; the differences between languages come from different settings for parameters. What distinguishes people who know English from those who know Chinese is the settings for these parameters. Take the pro-drop parameter which dictates whether you must have a pronoun subject in the sentence or not. In Chinese you can say:

          Zou lu. (walks road)

without a subject pronoun. But the English equivalent is impossible without a subject:

*Walks down the road.

And has to be:

He/she/it walks down the road.

Chinese has a pro-drop setting for the parameter, English a non-pro-drop setting, as does every human language, whether German (non-pro-drop), Japanese (pro-drop), French (non‑pro-drop), and so on for all the world’s languages (although by far the majority of them are in fact pro-drop apart from English, German and French).

Acquisition of a language means acquiring the appropriate parameter settings for the language involved. In terms of second language acquisition, an English learner of Chinese has to switch from a pro-drop setting to a non-pro-drop setting; and vice versa for English learners of Chinese. And so on, for all languages that are learnt as second languages. This form of syntax goes with a particular theory of acquisition. Language acquisition is effectively parameter-setting from input: to set the parameter the learner needs to encounter language examples to demonstrate which way to set it. UG-related work emphasises how the mind creates language for itself out of what it hears using its inbuilt properties. The details of the situation and of the language encountered are more or less immaterial, short of total language deprivation.

The pro-drop parameter has been extensively researched in L2 acquisition. It turns out that resetting the parameter is more difficult for people learning non-pro-drop English from pro-drop backgrounds than it is for English people learning pro-drop languages such as Spanish (White, 1986); the setting is also affected by so-called ‘reverse’ transfer in that people’s L1 may be affected by the L2 setting (Tsimpli et al, 2004).  Recent UG research into SLA has been concerned with the extent to which L2 learners start off with the same built-in knowledge of language as L1 monolingual children, for example the hypothesis that ‘the initial state of L2 acquisition is the final state of L1 acquisition’ (Schwartz and Sprouse, 1996, 41), and the extent to which they can acquire the same knowledge as a monolingual native speaker – the ‘end-state’ of acquisition. The nature of the initial state has become extremely murky with at least four hypotheses being advanced for it (Cook and Newson, 2007). The consensus on the end-state is that, while some exceptional people can at least pronounce the L2 like a native (Bongaerts, Planken and Schils, 1997), most L2 learners could not pass for native speakers (whether this matters or not will be discussed later).

The more interesting implication comes from the current version of Universal Grammar called the Minimalist Program (Chomsky, 1995). This maintains that parameter-setting is related to lexical items; the fact that walk needs a subject is part of our lexical knowledge. Since the principles of language are universal and built-in to the mind, all we learn when we acquire a language are the vocabulary items: language acquisition is just vocabulary acquisition. So when we learn the verb walk we learn that it has to have a subject, and so on. For language teaching this means on the one hand no need to teach core syntactic principles as they are already there (just as well as no course-book has ever covered them), on the other an increased need to teach vocabulary with a particular set of syntactic properties that demonstrate the type of sentence each item may occur in: for example the ‘arguments’ of the verb walk call for a subject but not for an object; like needs an animate subject and an object; give an animate subject, a direct object and an indirect object.

If the crucial aspect of acquisition is the provision of appropriate examples, then language teaching has to provide them. Give the learners a proper range of sentences and their mental parameters can be set; one of the justifications for the use of authentic language is indeed that it covers the full range of input features necessary for parameter-setting demanded by the UG theories of second language acquisition better than any selection by teacher, course-book writer or syllabus designer can do. Most L2 learners of English speak first languages where it is not necessary to supply pronoun subjects in the sentence. Hence they need evidence to show them that English is a non‑pro‑drop language. This does not necessarily have to be authentic but can be found in the normal sequencing of language in the coursebook. The opening sentence of New Headway (Soars & Soars, 2002) is Hello I’m Sandra, neatly showing that a subject pronoun is necessary in English; a few pages later comes It’s a photograph, showing that a dummy it has to fill in the subject slot; Unit 8 introduces There’s a CD player, showing the need for a dummy subject there in existential sentences. Though it is unmentioned in the grammatical inventory for the course (or indeed probably any course), one of the main teaching points in this typical EFL grammatical progression is the correct pro-drop setting for English. Like authentic language, the course-book can provide examples to base language acquisition on, whether accidentally as a by‑product of covering other things or as a deliberate policy.

Taking into account the complexity of words is perhaps more difficult. It is certainly possible to display the word in different grammatical contexts so that it is clear that go can be followed by prepositions such as up and down, but not usually by an object noun phrase, has a variety of written and spoken forms go, goes, went, and has a number of meanings such as ‘travel’, ‘reach’, ‘start’ etc. The teacher builds up the range of information for a vocabulary item in the student’s mind. Yet mostly language teaching has seen its duty as repeating the new word a few times and listing it in a mini-lexicon – the word-list for Headway lists go with four phrases such as go shopping. The main moral for language teaching is to teach the complexity of words in terms of meanings, relationships with other words and syntactic potentials rather than as single items learnt in conjunction with single meanings.

b) L2 learners’ strategies

This section is concerned with the strategies through which language is used and learnt, already mentioned briefly. The term ‘strategy’ is used in a variety of ways, the common factor being a deliberate choice by the learner to process or learn language in a particular way. The influential early idea of strategies came from Selinker’s original paper on interlanguage (Selinker, 1972), which he saw as made up of a complex of five central processes that are part of the 'latent psychological structure', including strategies of L2 learning, such as simplification strategies, when the learner 'simplifies' English so that say all verbs may occur in the present continuous, yielding sentences such as I'm hearing him and communication strategies, such as when the learner omits communicatively redundant grammatical items and produces It was nice, nice trailer, big one, leaving out a. The twin ideas of communication and learning strategies gave an impetus to a whole generation of researchers.

A distinctive flavour of communication strategies research was that it defined communication strategies in terms of failure; a communication strategy was something you resorted to when communication was actually breaking down rather than using to initiate the communication in the first place, in Tarone’s words 'a mutual attempt of two interlocutors to agree on a meaning in situations where requisite meaning structures do not seem to be shared' (Tarone, 1988). The research tended to yield longer and longer lists of potential strategies that learners could use, such as word-coinage – heurot for clock in French – or circumlocution – when you make a container for pottery. The approach seemed to be purely descriptive, rather like a plane-spotter’s log of aircraft seen at Glasgow airport.

This led researchers at the University of Nijmegen (Poulisse, 1990) to prune the lists by suggesting that the multifarious communication strategies actually came down to trying to compensate for a word that is not known in the second language through two core ‘archistrategies’:

      – the conceptual, broken down into:

- analytic talk uh bird for parrot,

- holistic table for desk

      – the linguistic, consisting of:
                        - morphological creativity ironize for iron

                        - L1 transfer middle for waist.

This model was tested on Dutch learners of English through experiments and other elicitation techniques to yield not only some idea of the relative importance of different strategies – holistic strategies came out way ahead – but also the discovery that a person’s L2 strategies largely reflect their strategies for finding a word they didn’t know in their first language. In other words communication strategies driven by ignorance of a word are the same in the second language as in the first; in the second language we need to resort to them more often because we know fewer words. Teachers may not need to specifically teach communication strategies, simply encourage students to make use of those they already prefer.

Learning strategies research followed a similar path of first assembling examples of learning strategies into lists and then looking for more general explanations. A typical example of the first stage was a list of some 31 learning strategies, divided into three groups (O’Malley and Chamot, 1990):

Research into classrooms established that cognitive strategies outnumbered metacognitive by at least two to one and that social strategies were hardly mentioned. This led to the development of a teaching approach called Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA) (Chamot, Barnhardt, El-Dinary and Robbins, 1999).

The most influential phase of this research came with the research instrument called the Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL) (Oxford, 1990). This required learners saying whether statements about themselves such as:

 “I think of relationships between what I already know and new things I learn in English.”

were ‘Never true of me’ or ‘Always true of me’ on a 5-point scale. The list of strategies was divided into

- direct strategies such as memory, cognitive and compensation

- indirect strategies such as  metacognitive, affective and social

that is to say, the definition of strategies was broad and intended to cover the student as a whole. SILL has been used all over the world with thousands of students. A typical study is Shmais (2003), who administered it to 120 university students of English in Palestine; the most popular set of strategies were the metacognitive, with not much separating the others; sophomores use more memory strategies.

The inherent issues about applying strategies research to teaching are whether talking about them explicitly helps students to actually use them and whether there are dangers in imposing group solutions on people’s idiosyncratic individual choice of strategies. The Tapestry coursebook series, for example (Benz and Dworak, 2000), deliberately opts for organising teaching around the SILL scheme of:

It is then possible to use strategies research as an organising principle language teaching.

This is a different question from whether strategies should be presented explicitly to the students, just as using grammar for teaching syllabuses is different from explaining it to the students. My coursebook Meeting People (Cook, 1982) for instance included an exercise in which the students discussed the Good Language Learner strategies proposed by Stern (1975). Presenting strategies as a set of choices open to the students rather than as a predetermined set imposed upon them recognises that they are an individual matter and that students may profit more by choosing among the strategies for themselves rather than being forced to do the same things as everybody else.

The overall issue that strategies raise for teaching is the extent to which students should go their own way independently of teachers. Interlanguage was originally a declaration of independence for the L2 learner, recognising that they are creating a language of their own, not necessarily the one aimed at by the teacher. Communicative language teaching to some extent allowed students to think for themselves in creating their own communicative interactions; task based learning has been concerned more with the provision of tasks to be handled the teacher’s way than with student-prompted tasks. Only perhaps in the autonomous learning theory is there a full expression of the idea that it is the students’ right to decide what they do: in the words of Holec (1987), ‘Learners gradually replace the belief that they are “consumers” of language courses with the belief that they can be “producers” of their own learning program and that this is their right.’

3. Checking language teaching assumptions against SLA research

At another level we can use SLA research as a way of testing some of the assumptions that modern language teaching so takes for granted that they are barely mentioned. The source of many of them is the revolution in language teaching that took place in the late nineteenth century, whose consequences we are still living with. We shall look at three of the principles that have come down from this time and see whether they can be justified from SLA research:

a. Students learn best through spoken, not written language.

The Reform movement of the 1880s emphasised the spoken language as a reaction against the largely writing-based grammar/translation method; indeed the reformers were among the founders of phonetics as a science, such as Henry Sweet (Howatt, 2004). The long-standing tradition in linguistics since Aristotle is to see the spoken language as primary (Cook, 2004). The main argument concerning language learning is usually that children learn to read and write some time after they learn to speak and listen. Historically this led at the most extreme to forms of audiolingualism where the written text was banned from the classroom during the early stages of acquisition. Communicative teaching and task-based learning still follow this tradition by treating the written language as a subsidiary aid to speech by getting students to fill in words in exercises, tick boxes to show comprehension, etc (Cook, 2004), rather than giving it the same respect for its natural forms as the spoken language. Tasks and communicative exercises have been seen as primarily spoken exchanges, using written learning incidentally.

The objection from SLA research is then, not just that teaching minimises writing, but that it ignores the specifics of written language  Coursebooks for instance simply use the target punctuation without explanation, say goose-feet quotation marks in French <le verbe « avoir »>, the initial upside-down Spanish question marks <¿> and exclamation marks <¡>, and the hollow punctuation mark < > and listing comma < > of Chinese. The only teaching method to take a stand against the spoken language was perhaps the short-lived Reading Method in the 1930s (Mitchell and Vidal, 2001). While writing is wide-spread in all classrooms and few stick to a purely oral approach, methodologists tend to see it as servant of speech rather than having its own characteristics that need to be taught, and are progressively being revealed in research on the acquisition of L2 writing systems (Cook and Bassetti, 2005); at best writing is taught at a global discourse level rather than as a practical skill comparable to pronunciation. Compare the amount of time any teacher currently devotes to teaching pronunciation with that spent teaching spelling; yet bad spelling arguably carries more stigma in real life uses than foreign accent. Regardless of whether teachers reject the over-riding role of spoken language, they can still take advantages of the precise details about the acquisition of second language writing systems now starting to be provided, not only at the level of global comparisons of meaning-based writing like Chinese with predominantly sound-based writing like English but also in terms of the types of spelling mistake people make and the ways they can be remedied.

b. Teachers and students should use the second language rather than the first language in the classroom.  

In an extreme reaction to the grammar/translation method’s use of the first language in activities such as translation, the nineteenth century reform movement suggested the second language should be used almost exclusively in the classroom rather than the first (Howatt, 2004), leading to the Direct Method and such patented spin-offs as the Berlitz Method, most extremely to the ban on the first language in the audiolingual and audiovisual classrooms. In the later communicative and task-based learning approaches, it is still hard to find any discussion of the role of the first language in the classroom, apart from the occasional advice to try to prevent the students using it in groupwork: ‘If they are talking in small groups it can be quite diffic­ult to get some classes –  particularly the less disciplined or motivated ones – to keep to the target language’ (Ur, 1996, p.121). The recent Focus-on-Form (FonF) literature has argued for the use of grammatical explanation (Doughty and Williams, 1998) but has never discussed which language should be used to explain it, implicitly accepting the second language as the norm. This L2 priority still seems embedded in many educational contexts; in the UK National Curriculum 'The target language is the normal means of communication' (DES, 1990); none of the 19 Local Education Authority advisors surveyed in the UK, ‘expressed any peda­gog­ical value in a teacher referring to the learner’s own language’ (Macaro, 1997, p.29). The justifications advanced usually rely on a compartmentalised view of bilingualism – Weinreich’s coordinate bilingualism (Weinreich, 1953) – in which the L2 user ideally separates the two languages completely in their minds. But an argument is also sometimes advanced that this is how children acquire their first language. SLA research however provides a corrective to these views by repeatedly emphasising in the part few years how the two languages are intimately connected in the mind, their lexical, syntactic and phonological systems interwoven.

c. Teachers should avoid explicit discussion of grammar.

Another theme common to many methods from the nineteenth century onwards was that the role of overt grammar should be minimised and the rules learnt inductively from cunningly provided examples. Again this was maintained through the audiolingual and communicative methods. Grammatical explanation has tended to creep in by the back door of late in the Focus on Form movement, where grammar is used as a follow-up to the task rather than as its starting point (Willis and Willis, 1996), in the tradition of Sweet (1899); as Long (1991, 45-46) puts it, ‘focus on form…overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication’. The main reason put forward for avoiding explicit grammar is that children don’t learn their L1 like this; parents rarely explain any aspect of language to them. While the issue of the role of explicit grammar in L2 learning is far from settled in SLA research, it seems at least plausible that it can be beneficial for many academic learners in classrooms – as shown by the many successful graduates in English from European universities who were trained through explicit grammar teaching.

The chief justifications for these principles is then how children learn their first language: L2 teaching should try to replicate the conditions of L1 acquisition. A keyword is ‘natural’: many methods of language teaching are claimed to be natural in mimicking the ways in which children acquire a first language. This does not mean that people necessarily agree on what is natural: the audiolingualists thought it was natural to associate stimulus and response, leading to their reliance on mechanical drills (Lado, 1964); the supporters of Total Physical Response thought natural acquisition was reacting to imperatives – the ‘golden tense’ – leading to the students physically carrying out actions in the class (Asher, 1977); the devotees of the Natural Approach saw acquisition as listening to comprehensible input, leading to exercises based on listening for meaning (Krashen and Terrell, 1983). But the main basis for these was not research about second language acquisition so much as the belief that the way you learn a first language is ‘natural’, meaning that a second language was best learnt in a similar fashion – hence the advantage of ‘acquisition’ over ‘learning’ in the Krashen framework (Krashen, 1985).

What became apparent fairly shortly from SLA research was that L2 learners differ from L1 children in innumerable ways. One is the question of age: L2 acquisition can take place at any age, not just during the first few years of life. So L2 learners vary in terms of all the variations concomitant on age – physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. The reason why grammar explanations are not addressed to small children may just be that they are incapable of understanding them. Another difference is the situation in which the languages are learnt; L1 acquisition mostly involves a tight family situation, even if there are cultural variations; second language acquisition situations can vary almost endlessly from prisoners in prisoner of war camps to children in primary school classrooms. Yet another crucial difference is literacy; most L2 learners have either acquired or are in the process of acquiring their first writing system. Literacy changes the way that we think (Luria, 1976), even the structure of our brains (Petersen et al, 2000). Expecting literate students to depend on the spoken language ignores how minds are transformed by literacy. Overall, second language acquisition differs from first language acquisition because of the very presence of the first language in the learner’s mind; general ideas about language such as ‘learning how to mean’ (Halliday, 1975) do not need to be relearnt for a second language. Hence basing L2 teaching on L1 acquisition may not work as there are two types of mind involved, one the property of an immature L1 learner without a previous language, the other of a more mature L2 learner with a previous language and probably literacy.

A more sophisticated justification for the three principles was based largely on methodologists’ interpretation of learning theories in psychology. The most striking was the use of behaviourist theory in audiolingual teaching. Behaviourists had claimed that language was taught by associating stimulus and response, most famously in B.F. Skinner’s 1957 book, Verbal Behaviour (Skinner, 1957). Learning consisted of building up these associations till children could use them automatically – the same process involved in learning any activity, such as learning to drive a car. So audiolingualism concentrated on developing such skills through drill activities and repetitions of dialogues, as described in Rivers (1964), audiovisualism on the links between visual context and language (Guberina, 1964). Audiolingualism also bequeathed to language teaching the idea that language consisted of four behavioural skills (Lado, 1964), tacitly taken for granted in virtually all language teaching to this day; the emphasis on the spoken language led to the introduction of oral before written language, which coupled with the idea that non‑productive skills were somehow ‘passive’, led to the well-known teaching sequence for the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing.

But the underlying rationale was a general theory of language learning that saw it as no different from any other form of human learning and that had, as Chomsky (1959) pointed out, been based on evidence from rats rather than human beings, let alone on first language learning. Not that this extrapolation from general learning theories to second language acquisition ceased with audiolingualism; such modern psychological theories as emergentism (Hulstijn, 2000), connectionism (Blackwell and Broeder, 1992) and chaos theory (Larsen-Freeman, 1997) have been generalised to second language acquisition with scant evidence from SLA research itself and in the teeth of the claim that language is not in principle learnable solely by ‘discovery procedures’ from language input (Chomsky, 1957). Unless we are totally convinced that all human learning follows the same route, i.e. deny the uniqueness of language that is basic to most linguistics, second language teaching cannot be based on ideas for which there is little or no direct SLA evidence. Arguments about L2 acquisition need to be based on research into L2 acquisition, not on parallels with other cases of language or non-language development.

So SLA research can be a liberating factor for teachers. Despite the support for the traditional three assumptions from most educational establishments, teachers can now feel freer to do what many have already done despite the advice from many educational establishments – use written language heavily with beginners, use the L1 in the classroom when it works better than the L2, and explain grammar in the first language. There may of course be other pedagogic reasons for sticking to the principles – using the L1 for example should not be an escape route to cover up the teacher’s lack of L2 proficiency. But the major impact of SLA research is perhaps to say that the traditional establishment teaching assumptions are not licensed by current SLA research and so teachers need not feel guilty in breaching them. These assumptions should at least be thought out from scratch for the twenty-first century rather than taken for granted and justified from some common-sense view of language acquisition.

4. Two languages in one person

We now turn to a more idiosyncratic approach, which is not necessarily standard in the field as yet. The central fact of SLA research to me is that two languages coexist in the same mind, a first and a second. According to this ‘multi-competence’ view, we should not be looking at the L1 or the L2 in isolation but at the whole language system that the L2 user possesses.

 a) cross-linguistics influence of one language on another

From the 1950s till the 1970s, the relationship of the L1 and the L2 was discussed in terms of the malign influence of the learner’s first language on the second through interference or negative transfer; if only we could forget our first language when we learn a second! Contrastive Analysis pinpointed the differences between the first and second language and saw them as leading to errors in the learners’ production (Lado, 1957); he describes how Spanish learners add an e before English consonant clusters starting with /s/ so that school /sku:l/ becomes /esku:l/ in order to conform to Spanish syllable structure; how a Chinese learner of English finds the man with a toothache difficult because modifying phrases such as with a tooth­ache precede the noun in Chinese; and so on. The later Error Analysis approach worked backwards from the mistakes that people make to their causes, chief among which was the first language (Corder, 1971); he shows how a learner sentence I am told: there is bus stop shows the learner's use of articles differs from that of English, leading back to the guess that the learner's L1 grammar lacks articles. Error Analysis was useful for teaching in suggesting the teacher had to think where mistakes could have from in the interlanguage processes rather than having a knee-jerk reaction that they were transfer from the L1. Banning the L1 from the classroom did not so much prevent interference but banish it to the privacy of the student’s mind.

The overall belief was that the first language provided an obstacle to learning a second rather than an aid. Since the early 1970s this position has been in retreat, with more emphasis on the factors that learners have in common than on the peculiarities projected from their first languages. While the first language is undeniably a major influence for good or for bad on the acquisition of a second, it is only one among many other influences. Doubtless a certain number of mistakes are L1 transfer; many however are not and reflect universal processes of language acquisition and use.

In some areas of SLA research, the concept of L1 interference is still very much alive. Many of the writing system papers in Cook and Bassetti (2004) concern how the phonology of the first language or the characteristics of the first writing system affect the writing of a second; Dutch learners for example tend to spell <cupboard> as <capboard> because of their  adaptation of the spoken English vowel /Ã/ to Dutch /A/ (Van Berkel, 2005). Being at an early stage of development, L2 writing systems research can still get some mileage out of the L1 transfer research question, which has been done to death in other areas in dozens of books and thousands of theses. There is no need for further documentation of the influence of the first language on the second for every possible pair of first and second languages for every aspect of language.

A more intriguing development is the impact of the second language on the first. On the one hand the first language may change through attrition from the second language in the same mind; Schmid (2002) for instance found Germans living in the USA used more SVO sentences in speaking German than monolinguals. The first language may itself be transformed by the second language so that the person no longer speaks in the same way as a monolingual native speaker; Cook et al (2003) showed that L1 speakers of Spanish, Greek and Japanese used slightly different cues for choosing the subject of an L1 sentence if they spoke English; Porte (2004) found that expatriate native speaker teachers are not immune to these effects, thus showing their native speaker status has a sell-by date rather than being good for the rest of their lives. In the dynamic systems model, the language system in the L2 user’s mind is seen as constantly changing rather than ever achieving a static fixed form (De Bot et al, 2005). For language teachers and students then it may be a relief to discover they are not alone in feeling their first language is changing slightly may give them a defence against their friends and relatives who point out that are sounding slightly odd, as in the case of the reverse transfer of pro-drop settings.

b) Relating two languages in one mind

As well as the relationships between the two languages over time, research has looked at how the two languages relate at a particular moment in time. In particular a rich vein has explored the relationships between the two sets of vocabulary in the mind. One question has been whether the L2 user’s lexicon is organised as two distinct stores, one for each language, or as a single store including both languages, or as two separate stores that overlap in some areas. While the answer often depends on the methods for measuring vocabulary, the consensus seems to be for a combined store accessed through two different routes (De Groot, 2002); if, say an L2 user of English and French meets the written word chat, they perceive it as a word in the language of the particular context and then look it up in their mental lexicon where the two meanings of cat and talk are stored, one of which gets more activated because of the context. Several experiments have shown that both languages are invoked when an L2 user hears a word, only one being stronger than the other; a French L2 user of English has both meanings for the word coin activated even when they are reading their first language (Beauvillain and Granger, 1987). Learning an L2 vocabulary is not then done in isolation from the first. Without advocating direct translations, nevertheless teacher needs to be aware that the first and second language words are interconnected in all sorts of ways not learnt and stored in complete separation.

The most dramatic relationship between the two languages in the same mind is demonstrated when they are both used simultaneously. Francois Grosjean (2001) claims that L2 users have two modes of using language – the monolingual mode in which they use one or the other language exclusively and the bilingual mode in which they use both at once in code-switching, as in a Greek student’s Simera piga sto shopping centre gia na psaksw ena birthday present gia thn Maria (Today I went to the shopping centre because I wanted to buy a birthday present for Maria). Code-switching is by definition unavailable to monolinguals. It shows a complex ability to switch virtually instantaneously from one grammar to another grammar, one set of vocabulary to another, even one pronunciation system to another, with hardly any effect on fluency. Obviously code-switching takes place in very particular circumstances, notably when the listener shares both languages, and has strict rules of occurrence according to the situation, the topic, the social role, the overlap between the grammars of L1 and L2 and so on (Muysken, 2000).

According to the view of code-switching known as the Matrix Model (Myers-Scotton, 2002), the matrix language selects the overall syntax along with the grammatical morphemes as a frame for the system, the other fits vocabulary from the embedded language into this frame. For example the Russian/English sentence On dolgo laia-l na dog-ov (He barked at dogs for a long time) shows matrix Russian grammatical morphemes and structure but an embedded English content word dog (Schmitt, 2004). Code-switching is a normal ability of L2 users in real-life situations and can be utilised even by children as young as two years old (Genesee, 2003). In a sense code-switching in the classroom has been prevented by the reluctance to see the bilingual mode of language as natural. Students need to see that this is a normal, and highly clever, thing that bilinguals can do.

The view that the two languages are always in a constantly changing relationship in the mind has consequences both for the practice of language teaching and for the learner’s final goal. Language teaching has tried to treat the learner as a tabula rasa with no other language available; at best the L1 is an hurdle to be surmounted. The classroom has been treated as an ersatz monolingual situation in which only the second language should occur and teachers feel guilty if they use the L1 (Macaro, 2001); if only the target language is proper, the students are effectively denied their whole experience previous to the class and the lives they lead outside the class. The lesson is that, however much you deny it or attempt to eradicate it, the first language is constantly there in the students’ minds: the classroom is an L2 using situation with both languages present, albeit sometimes invisibly. Hence it may be better to consider rationally how this can be accommodated and exploited in language teaching (Cook, 2001). As Swain and Lapkin (2000) put it, ‘To insist that no use be made of the L1 in carrying out tasks that are both linguistically and cognitively complex is to deny the use of an important cognitive tool.’

In terms of the goals of teaching, the lesson is that L2 users are never going to be monolingual native speakers of the L2; they will always be different and will be capable of a range of activities that monolinguals cannot do, such as code-switching, and thinking and using language in distinctive ways. Hence while it is possible to compare L2 users with native speakers, it is not possible to say that the goal of language teaching is to speak like a native speaker, particularly for a global language like English where perhaps the majority of communication is between non-native speakers. The native speaker is on the one hand unattainable, on the other a limitation of L2 users to what monolingual native speakers can do. Language teaching has to train the learner to be a fully effective L2 user rather than a poor imitation of a native.


Cook (2008) outlines three ways in which SLA research can contribute to language teaching. Let us look at these three in the context of what we have been saying here.

1. Understanding the students' contribution to learning

It is the student who learns, not the teacher, obvious as this sounds when spelt out. The implication for teaching is that more stress has to be placed on what the students bring to the learning task, not on the teacher laying down what has to be done and what the student has to know. The Universal Grammar model sees the teacher as the provider of language input on which the student’s mind can get to work. The strategies approach sees the teacher as providing opportunities for the student to tackle learning in different ways through tasks etc. SLA research is providing more and complex accounts of how the learner’s mind works that the teacher can use to gain insight into their students and to affect their own behaviour.

2. Understanding how teaching methods and techniques work

If we start from what happens in classrooms, i.e. the sheer techniques of teaching, there is also much to be gained from SLA research. A technique implies certain ways of  learning and processing, a certain type of student and a certain classroom situation. A structure drill for example was seen as a classic way of teaching oral structures and identified as an application of behaviourist learning theory. But it is also a communicative interaction in which people exchange information; it has strong implications for how the learner’s memory stores and processes information; it involves particular kinds of learning  strategy – all of which have been massively studied in recent years. SLA research provides multiple viewpoints on everything that goes on in the classroom. It can take us beyond the task itself to seeing what processes of processing and learning are used in the tasks teachers use in the classroom.

3. Understanding the goals of language teaching                       

Much of the contribution of SLA research however applies not to the question of what the teacher should do next in the classroom but to the general questions of why we are teaching and what we are teaching. As seen earlier, some SLA research starts to raise the issue of the kind of person we want the learner to be and how we imagine the new language will function in the L2 users’ minds and what they will do with it. They may need to do things no native can do, like code-switching; they may need to talk to their fellow native speakers if their goal is English as Lingua Franca. Or, if they are learning English to be part of a multilingual community, say in Toronto, they need English for dealing with the public officialdom, with other non-native speakers in different communities, and with the monolingual English-speaking community.

SLA research certainly does not have magic solutions for language teaching. But it can provide some general ideas and some particular ones that may contribute to the totality of language teaching. The usefulness of SLA research for language teachers has hardly yet been tapped. As the discipline develops, it will surely provide suggestions that are more classroom related and thus fulfil the ambitions of its founders to base language teaching on a firm foundation of knowledge about second language acquisition.

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This chapter looks at the relevance of second language acquisition (SLA) research to second language teaching. It describes the ideas out of which modern SLA research originated, such as interlanguage, sequence of acquisition and motivation. These are seen partly as contributing to the rise of communicative methods, mostly as a large bank of ideas that teaching has barely drawn on.

One major idea has been Universal Grammar which sees second language acquisition as the setting of parameters of variation and the acquisition of the structural properties of vocabulary. The teaching implications concern the necessity of input for setting parameters and the acquisition of vocabulary in structural contexts. A second main idea is that learners employ strategies both for communicating and for learning of language. Teaching can choose between teaching such strategies directly and making them available to students to develop their own autonomy.

Next the chapter considers three assumptions of language teaching laid down by methodologists and governments. One is the primacy of the spoken language. While implicit in almost every teaching method, there is no justification from SLA research; over-reliance on the spoken language has stopped teaching from covering the unique features of written language. The second is the avoidance of the first language, part of  the official teaching doctrine in most countries. SLA research tends now to oppose the discrete separation of two languages and hence to advocate the judicious use of the first language when appropriate. The third is the explicit teaching of grammar, more or less banned till the recent rebirth of Focus on Form. SLA research shows that in some circumstances for some aspects of syntax, explicit instruction may be helpful for learners.

Finally it explores the implications of the multi-competence idea that the two languages in one mind are linked in a constantly changing relationship. Examples are reverse transfer in which the L1 is affected by the L2 and code-switching in which learners effectively use both languages at once. These indicate that language teaching cannot have a native speaker goal but has to see the learner as a potential L2 user, different from any monolingual.

Linking SLA research to language teaching can then lead to a better understanding of the student’s contribution to learning, of the demands and nature of teaching techniques and of the goals of language teaching, particularly for languages used as lingua francas.