Review of Memory, Psychology and Second Language Learning
|AUTHOR: Randall, Mick
TITLE: Memory, Psychology and Second Language Learning
SERIES TITLE: Language Learning & Language Teaching 19
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Maria Mastropavlou, Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, School of
English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
Randall's book is divided into two main sections, a theoretical and a practical
one; the first section (pp. 1-181) includes a preface, an introduction and seven
chapters where basic issues of psychology and linguistics and their implications
for second language teaching and learning are addressed; the second section
includes the ''Workbook'' (pp.183-193), where activities and exercises
illustrating a number of theoretical issues presented in the theoretical part
are provided, and the ''Notes on activities'' (pp.194-201), where activities are
analyzed and explained.
The Preface (pp.VII-VIII) and Introduction (pp.1-4) provide some brief
information about the book. Specifically, the author states that the book is
aimed at second language teachers as well as postgraduate students who are
interested in gaining an insight into the basic issues that psychology and
linguistics contribute to second language teaching and learning. Current views
are presented from the perspective of the language teacher, aiming to provide a
useful guide in addressing crucial points in teaching.
Chapter 1 (pp.5-30) introduces the reader into some of the fundamental questions
and debates in psychology and linguistics. The debates of behaviorism versus
nativism, symbolism versus connectionism, and serial versus parallel processing
are discussed. The chapter begins with a description of behaviorism and its
contribution to language and learning, moves to an account of cognitive
approaches to language and the role of memory in learning and concludes to the
linguistic perspective of language acquisition provided by nativists like
Chomsky. The debate between behaviorists and geneticists is introduced, while
the issue of modularity versus connectionism is discussed as an extension of
Chomsky's views on language. Finally, the author addresses the contrast between
parallel and serial processing, attempting to provide criticism on the weak
aspects of both sides.
Chapter 2 (pp.31-52) tackles issues on speech processing and perception. The
author begins by describing processes of visual perception, introducing the role
of attention in information processing and aiming to relate these processes to
auditory perception of spoken language. He then presents the way linguistics
describes the phonetic characteristics of languages, emphasizing the distinction
between universal principles and language-specific properties. The issue of
modularity and its implications for speech perception is discussed through the
distinction between unitary and modular processing, while findings on sound
discrimination in infants are interpreted through directed attention rather than
innate processes of language acquisition. The universal nature of distinctive
features is examined next, followed by a presentation of the motor theory of
speech perception and a mild criticism against the use of articulatory features
in describing language sounds. The author goes on to describe how connectionist
models account for context effects in speech perception, strongly arguing
against serial processing accounts. The last section of the chapter reviews
neuroscientific evidence on language processing with respect to brain
lateralization of language functions (e.g. phonological vs. orthographic
processing) or of different languages (L1 vs. L2), implicitly refuting a modular
approach to language.
Chapter 3 (pp.53-85) explores the processes involved in visual language
processing and reading. It starts by reviewing models of lexical access and word
recognition, illustrating both serial and connectionist views. Letter
recognition processes and their implications for second language learning are
then examined in detail. The author emphasizes the role of script-specific
properties on the way readers process written input, returning once more to the
serial versus parallel processing question. Moving from silent reading and
visual word recognition to reading out loud, a thorough investigation of the
Dual Route theory of reading and its implications for L2 learners follows. The
universal nature of the theory is discussed, returning to the role of the script
in determining the route that readers use in reading. Here the author expands
the previously made analysis by providing a rather detailed review of data from
different languages and thoroughly describing the implications for L2 reading.
He concludes the chapter by providing neuroscientific evidence for different
mechanisms responsible for processing real and pseudo words, although he
finishes by providing argumentation against a modular approach to language.
Chapter 4 (pp.87-100) considers the role of memory in language processing and L2
learning. It deals with questions such as how working memory processes input and
leads to comprehension and how newly perceived input is related to information
stored in the long term memory so that comprehension is achieved. The author
first sets out to describe the process of auditory comprehension under the
information processing model adopted in Chapter 2, referring to common problems
encountered by L2 learners due to greater processing capacity required by
communication in a second language. He then moves to reading and the way
contextual information or schema is necessary for comprehension. Implications
for the second language reader are analyzed next, leading to the assumption that
the use of contextual information to facilitate reading comprehension can be
used at rather advanced levels of L2 proficiency when automaticity of language
has been achieved.
Chapter 5 (pp.101-124) provides an account of lexical knowledge, semantic
organization and its role in L2 learning. It describes the different types of
knowledge - i.e. phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic - that are
stored along each word in speakers' lexicons. Phonological and syntactic
knowledge are analyzed first under the connectionist framework, while the debate
between symbolist and connectionist views is introduced before the author moves
to a description of morphological and semantic knowledge. Morphological
decomposition is then discussed under the title Morphological Knowledge and the
topic is seen with respect to the symbolism-connectionism issue. A brief
description of semantic organization models follows. The author then attempts to
link the semantic organization discussion of the previous section to the
question of whether this is governed by universal properties and discusses the
relation between language and thought, aiming to lead to implications for L2
learners. He returns to semantic organization models after that, focusing once
more on connectionist perspectives. He finishes the chapter by providing
neuroscientific evidence related to the issues discussed in the rest of the chapter.
Chapter 6 (pp.125-146) explores the way that memory is involved in learning,
focusing on conscious processes related to second language learning. It begins
by describing the role of working memory and the use of mnemonic strategies like
rehearsal in language acquisition and second language learning. Geneticist and
connectionist perspectives are presented before describing strategies like
chunking and repetition and their contribution to L2 learning. Reference is then
made to procedural and declarative memory, followed by a discussion of the way
these mechanisms are involved in the automatization of linguistic knowledge at
more advanced levels of L2 proficiency. The author continues by providing a
detailed description of different types of learning corresponding to different
levels and concludes the chapter by presenting neuroscientific evidence for the
types of memory involved in language learning. The conclusion at the end of the
chapter discusses implications for the second language teacher.
Chapter 7 (pp.147-175) relates the main issues discussed in earlier chapters to
current methodologies of second language teaching. The author describes
traditional, structured teaching methods and compares those to contemporary
views of language teaching that tend to focus on communicational goals rather
than rule-based learning. He interprets this shift a tendency to adjust teaching
methods to information processing frameworks of language processing. Finally,
the chapter ends with an overview of traditional teaching methods such as
translation and teaching grammar, concluding that even traditional methodologies
can offer significant gains in language learning.
In the Endnote (pp.178-181) the author provides an overview of the main
discussions provided in the book. He revisits the issue of modularity as well as
the debates of acquisition versus learning, implicit versus explicit learning
and symbolism versus connectionism. He states that neurolinguistic evidence does
point towards the existence of a language-specialized module in the brain and
then summarizes the main points argued in the book against the innate nature of
language and in favor of the connectionist approach to learning that has been
adopted. The notion of automaticity of linguistic knowledge and its significance
in L2 learning is also discussed and the author views this process as the
formulation of strong links - or ''neural connections'' - between working memory
and long term memory nodes. Finally, he considers the form that linguistic
knowledge is stored in long term memory in, stating that this can be either in a
symbolic or a non-symbolic form at different levels. The endnote finishes with
future directions for teaching, suggesting that memory and learning strategies
should play a greater role in the formulation of teaching methodologies.
Next are the Workbook and Notes on Activities, where a number of activities
illustrating the basic theoretical points discussed in the first, theoretical
part of the book are included. The activities are explained in the notes
section, where they are linked to the theoretical issues they are meant to
The book is dense with information relevant to the process of language learning
as it has been viewed by psychology, linguistics and teaching methodologies. It
addresses many topics and successfully relates theoretical issues to L2 learning
and teaching at some points, some of which can be found in chapter 3 as well as
in the last two chapters. It provides the reader with an insight into main
topics and offers the opportunity to grasp subconscious language processes
through useful activities and explanatory notes. This can come in handy to
anyone teaching - or studying - psycholinguistics and, I must say, the last two
chapters can offer quite a lot to the second language teacher, as the author
himself mentions in the preface.
On the other hand, I couldn't help noticing certain shortcomings in the book. It
often seemed to me that there are crucial issues that are only superficially
addressed when the author aims to argue against them (e.g. modularity and
dual-route models in chapter 1). At the same time, there are issues that are
covered in more detail than relevant (e.g. attention in visual processing in
What made the strongest impression to me reading the book was the weakness of
the argumentation on certain crucial points. For instance, in chapter 2 the
author tries to argue against the innateness of language and language
acquisition but fails to provide solid argumentation to support his claims. He
suggests that connectionist models provide a better explanation without
explaining why or how nativist theories fail to account for patterns of
linguistic behavior or acquisition. I am not saying that there are no arguments
against this approach but I just could not see them in the book. The author
describes aspects of Chomsky's theory, refers to universal grammar, principles
and parameters, the language acquisition device and innate processes of language
acquisition, but dismisses these claims without argumentation. He states that
connectionist views simply provide a better explanation, that the supervisory
attention system is more likely to be responsible for acquisition than the
language acquisition device and that frequency-based learning is more plausible
than rule-based acquisition.
As a result, he often appears to be biased towards connectionist approaches
without convincing the reader of their strengths compared to opposing views. The
same is true with respect to the issue of modularity, which is often refuted in
the book based on weak arguments. A clear example of this can be found in
chapter 1, where the issue is introduced and criticized merely based on evidence
from dyslexics. No reference is made to evidence for modularity that comes from
disorders like specific language impairment or polyglot savants, where serious
discrepancies between linguistic and cognitive abilities have been observed
(e.g. Smith and Tsimpli, 1995). Another example can be found in chapter 3, where
although section 3.5.1 provides lots of evidence in favor of a modular
perspective, the author interprets the fact that aphasics with a deficit in a
language area tend to compensate by other means as evidence against a modular
approach. A single study is used to support this.
Another weakness of the book mainly involves theoretical or terminology issues,
especially related to the field of linguistics. A number of linguistic terms
seem to be misused or misunderstood in the book. For example, the author refers
to 'late closure' and 'minimal attachment' as ''principles that are used to
construct languages'' in chapter 1. However, this is inaccurate as these are
strategies characterizing parsing preferences of speakers rather than
characteristics of languages. They are not used to construct languages, as they
cannot determine grammaticality. The author seems to describe them as universal
linguistic rules, when these terms actually refer to processing strategies that
lead to preferences in parsing structural ambiguities, strategies that are
completely irrelevant to grammaticality (see Frazier & Fodor, 1978 as well as
Another instance of weakness in addressing linguistic theory can be found in
chapter 5. In section 5.6, the author claims that the Bock & Levelt model
provides an ''explanation of the way that syntactic/structural information can
become involved in lexical storage and recovery.'' The author uses the feature of
gender that is included in the figure as an indication of how syntactic
information is stored and activated in this model. However, gender is not a
syntactic feature on nouns: it is a lexical feature (in the sense that it is a
lexical property of the word), a semantic feature in English (identical to
natural gender) or a phonological feature in French (see Corbett, 1991). Gender
can only be seen as a morpho-syntactic feature on adjectives or determiners, so
it is not gender that is actually involved in syntactic operations but gender
agreement. Similarly, the features of count or plurality mentioned in the next
page are also semantic features, with morphological manifestations - through the
feature of number - and syntactic implications - through number agreement.
Therefore, it does not seem that this model incorporates symbolist aspects of
language processing at all. It is clearly a connectionist model.
I think that a major setback in the book is the limited reference to the level
of second language proficiency when discussing L2 processing mechanisms.
Proficiency is undoubtedly a determining factor shaping mechanisms of processing
input in a second language. It is often acknowledged by the author himself that
processing L2 input during early stages of learning imposes great demands on
working memory and leads to bottom-up processing, while it significantly limits
the speaker's ability to access higher levels such as contextual meaning and
communicative aspects of language. However, it would seem appropriate to take
this factor into consideration when discussing or describing processes at all
levels, which is not always done in the book. For instance, the author refers to
evidence on L2 reading in chapter 4, indicating lack of correlation between
syntactic complexity and text comprehension. However, the level of proficiency
is highly relevant here, as syntactical complexity does play a significant role
in comprehension especially in lower levels of proficiency (see for example
Droop, 1998; Pearson & Camperell, 1981 and Grabe 1991 for evidence).
Leaving these theoretical issues aside, I seemed to face some difficulties
following the author's thought at some points of the book. Reading it and trying
to see the point the author was making was often strenuous and tiring. Sections
often repeat information that has been analyzed in the previous ones (e.g.
section 1.5.2 in chapter 1), while certain notions appear confusing at some
points, as in chapter 1, where the author refers to the competition model as a
means to illustrate the symbolic approach to language (pp.10-12). Chapter 3 on
reading is also quite confusing: it starts with visual word recognition, moves
to reading, then to letter processing, then back to reading out loud, and
somewhere in there writing from dictation is also mentioned, without an explicit
relation to the rest of the chapter. Likewise, in chapter 4, the author states
he is going to describe the process of comprehending an example sentence under
the information processing system adopted in chapter 2, a connectionist model
with nodes and connections reinforced by repeated activation. Yet, he goes on to
describe the process under a serial, symbolic approach in the following pages.
Finally, some sections give the impression that information is presented without
aiming to contribute to a more general point but rather in order to merely
provide information. It seems as if the author writes these sections just to say
a few more things that are related, not necessarily to make a point (e.g.
sections 2.12 and 5.2). This makes some chapters quite hard to follow.
Few language oddities I noticed involve uncommon use of terms like 'agrammatism'
(referred to as 'agrammaticism' in the book), or 'schemata' (used as 'schema' in
plural contexts in the book). A number of typos were also present, which would
require rather more careful editing.
To conclude, Randall's book can prove quite useful to anyone interested in
gaining a general insight to the main aspects of psycholinguistics with respect
to second language learning. Although certain topics of great significance are
not given the appropriate weight or depth of analysis in the book, the author
still manages to give a general idea of the processes involved in using and
learning a language. However, the reader must be aware of the fact that the
author often leans towards a connectionist approach to language and seems to be
biased when criticizing opposing views, despite his clear attempts for
objectivity, which, I should say, are successful in quite few instances.
Finally, the book provides very useful information for language teachers,
especially in the last two chapters, so it seems that the two main goals set at
the beginning of the book are achieved.
Corbett, G. (1991). _Gender_. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Droop, M. (1998). Background knowledge, linguistic complexity and
second-language reading comprehension. _Journal of Literacy Research_ 30(2):
Frazier, L. (1987). Sentence processing: A tutorial review. In M. Coltheart
(Ed.), _Attention and performance XII: The psychology of reading_ (pp.559-586).
Hove, UK: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Ltd.
Frazier, L. & J.D. Fodor (1978). The sausage machine: A new two-stage parsing
model. _Cognition_ 6: 291-325.
Grabe, W. (1991). Current developments in second language reading research.
_TESOL Quarterly_ 25(3): 375-406.
Pearson, P. D. & K. Camperell (1981). Comprehension of text structures. In J. T.
Guthrie (Ed.), _Comprehension and teaching: Research Reviews_ (pp.27-55).
Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.
Smith, N. & I.M. Tsimpli (1995). _The Mind of a Savant: Language, Learning and
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Maria Mastropavlou is a part-time lecturer at the department of Theoretical &
Applied Linguistics, School of English at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
and at the Department of Speech Therapy of Athems Metropolitan College, Greece.
She holds a PhD in Psycholinguistics and her research interests involve language
acquisition, bilingualism, clinical linguistics and linguistic research on
language-impaired populations. Her theoretical specialization is in the field of