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Review of  Second Language Acquisition

Reviewer: Kimberly L. Geeslin
Book Title: Second Language Acquisition
Book Author: Susan M. Gass Larry Selinker
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Issue Number: 12.1260

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Gass, Susan & Selinker, Larry. (2001) Second Language
Acquisition: An Introductory Course. Second Edition.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN: 0-8058-3527

Kimberly L. Geeslin, Indiana University

General Description

This second edition of the book initially published in
1994 includes extensive revisions and updates along with
two new chapters, one on child language acquisition and
the other on instructed second language acquisition. The
book is intended as a text for introductory courses in
second language acquisition either at the graduate or
undergraduate level. The authors aim to unify the
variety of approaches to second language acquisition in a
single volume and to do so for an audience that does not
necessarily have training in any particular area.

The book is written in English and contains an
introduction and 13 subsequent chapters, each devoted to
a different aspect of the study of second language
acquisition. Each chapter concludes with suggestions for
future reading and a list of discussion questions and
activities. There are 671 references, a glossary of
relevant terminology and both an author and a subject

Detailed Description

This first chapter includes descriptions and definitions
relevant to the various fields of study (i.e.,
linguistics) and areas of language study (i.e., syntax).
This chapter provides the requisite background knowledge
for the rest of the text as well as discussion questions
that encourage the reader to apply individual concepts
and to explore his/her own theory of language.

This chapter moves directly into a description of data
from second language learners. It provides a detailed
view of the process of data analysis in terms of the
decisions a researcher must make regarding the
categorization and evaluation of data. Three specific
data sets are explored and a distinction is made between
what these data sets show and what they do not. Methods
of data collection and types of data sets (i.e., cross-
sectional) as well as methods of data elicitation (i.e.,
language tests) are included. This chapter includes
detailed examples from data sets reported previously in
order to clarify the process through which second
language acquisition researchers go in the process of
analyzing interlanguage data.

Chapter three reviews transfer from a historical
perspective and includes background information on both
the psychological and linguistic approaches to the issue.
Contrastive Analysis and Error Analysis are included in
this chapter. Each is evaluated through a discussion of
specific examples of data and the manner in which each
data set was analyzed under a particular approach.

This chapter on child language acquisition is divided
into areas of linguistics (i.e., words, syntax and
sounds). Specific findings in each area are treated
individually. The second half of this chapter is devoted
to the exploration of the morpheme order studies (Dulay &
Burt, 1974, 1975). The theory behind studies based on
the Bilingual Syntax Measure as well as examples of data
and findings are included.

This chapter leads directly from morpheme acquisition
studies in child bilinguals to the replication of such
studies with adults. Next, more recent views of transfer
such as avoidance and learner differences (rates and
paths of learning) are explored through a discussion of
actual data. The variation between learners based on
his/her first language is also explored. It is concluded
that transfer can be viewed as probabilistic rather than
absolute due to the number of factors (i.e. perception of
first language - target language distance). The last
portion of the chapter reviews findings on transfer in
third-plus language acquisition contexts.

This chapter begins with a discussion of typological
universals and their role in research on second language
acquisition. Three specific examples are examined: The
accessibility hierarchy, question formation and voiced
vs. voiceless consonants. In each case specific data
from previous studies are explored in detail. The next
issue presented is research on the acquisition of tense
and aspect in a second language. These studies are
discussed in terms of their connection to the morpheme
acquisition studies and then to stages of acquisition.
Both the Aspect Hypothesis and the Discourse Hypothesis
are explored. The final area of linguistics included in
this chapter is phonology, specifically the hierarchy of
difficulty for second language pronunciation and the
acquisition of syllable structure. As with other
examples, specific data and research findings are

Chapter seven explores nativist approaches to second
language acquisition. A discussion of the evidence
available to learners (and lack thereof) and the
motivation for theories such as Universal Grammar is
included. Research on the Fundamental Difference
Hypothesis and access to Universal Grammar (full or
partial) precedes a discussion of the differences between
first and second language acquisition. The null subject
parameter is explored in order to exemplify the role of
parameters in the theory. The problem of falsifiability
for Universal Grammar is also included. The discussion
of transfer from preceding chapters is expanded to
incorporate specific issues such as levels of
representation, clustering and learnability. Differences
between Universal Grammar, typological approaches to
acquisition and Contrastive Analysis are discussed.
Finally, the Minimalist Program is briefly mentioned in
terms of the key changes in the role of the lexicon and
functional categories.

This chapter explores psychological approaches to the
study of second language acquisition. The competition
model and internal speech processing mechanisms are
explored first. Next the Monitor Model, and its five
hypothesis are examined in detail. Individual sections
are dedicated first to the definition of each hypothesis
and then to the critiques that have been lobbied against
them. Alternative models of knowledge representation are
explored in the second half of the chapter including a
discussion of issues such as control, explicit/implicit
learning, automaticity and the restructuring of mental
representations. Lastly, U-shaped acquisition curves and
the theory of Connectionism are mentioned.

This chapter explores the issues of variation in second
language beginning with a discussion of systematic and
non-systematic variation. Those factors that influence
language variation are analyzed. This discussion is
divided into three sections: Linguistic factors, the
social context in relation to the first language, and the
social context relating to the interlocutor, task and
topic of conversation. The chapter continues with a
discussion of research on communication strategies and
interlanguage pragmatics. The chapter concludes by
mentioning other disciplines (in addition to linguistics
(chapters 6 and 7), psychology (chapter 8) and
sociolinguistics) that have influenced research in second
language acquisition.

This chapter begins by defining concepts such as input
and intake and provides a description of what language
learners hear and the role of comprehension in
acquisition. Another topic explored in depth is output,
including the role of hypothesis testing, the feedback
learners receive, the development of fluency and/or
automaticity of processing, and the shift from a meaning-
based grammar to a grammaticality-based mode of
processing. In each case, clear definitions are provided
along with specific research and data. Other issues
discussed include the role of attention, the issue of
negative evidence, metalinguistic awareness and the
limitations of these approaches to second language
acquisition. The goal of this chapter is to exemplify
the complexity of the learning process and to expand
reader's understanding of the details of such a process.

This is the second chapter that was added to the second
edition. It discusses those characteristics that are
particular to classroom learning and distinguishes them
from those discussed in other chapters that apply to the
processes at work in second language acquisition
regardless of context. Specific attention is given to
the language that learners hear in the classroom, issues
of input processing, teachability and learnability, and
focus on form. Much of the research reviewed in this
chapter was conducted in the second half of the past

This chapter explores individual differences that have
been explored to account for varying rates of success in
second language acquisition. The chapter includes a
discussion of how this issue has been addressed in
different research areas (i.e., linguistics vs.
psychology). The factors that are reviewed include
social distance, age (including a detailed discussion of
recent research on ultimate attainment), aptitude,
motivation, anxiety, locus of control (stable vs.
unstable), personality (i.e., field independence, risk-
taking), and learning strategies.

Chapter 13: THE LEXICON
This chapter explores the acquisition of vocabulary and
the ability of learners to incorporate new words into
their grammars. Issues such as lexical knowledge and
lexical information (i.e., word associations) are
described. Lexical skills are sub-divided into the
categories production, perception, word formation and
phraseology and each is examined individually.

This chapter presents a model of acquisition that
incorporates findings from different research traditions
as well as a variety of components of the learning
process that have been examined individually. Those
components given specific attention in the model are
apperceived input, comprehended input, intake and
integration. The model aims to unite the various
traditions and research findings described in earlier

Critical Evaluation

This revised edition has a number of strengths that allow
it to compete well with its peers (Cook, 1993; Ellis,
1994; Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991; Mitchell & Myles,
1998). The text is accessible and appropriate for
readers with little or no background in the field yet
this does not compromise the quality of discussion. For
example, this book is unique in the depth with which data
from previous research is discussed. This is due in
large part to the inclusion of Chapter Two, the chapter
on Interlanguage data, which provides the necessary
background knowledge on research methodology and second
language data. This background knowledge allows the
authors to explore all subsequent issues in greater depth
than would otherwise be possible. In addition, some
concepts that are often excluded due to their novelty or
complexity are mentioned in this text but with less depth
(i.e., The Minimalist Program and Connectionism). This
provides a nice balance between excluding relevant
content and making the text inaccessible to true
beginners. Although chapters are nicely integrated, many
could stand on their own and might prove useful when
integrated into more general linguistics courses. The
discussion questions at the end of each chapter vary in
terms of the degree of specificity they require as well
as the level of sophistication on the part of the
learner. While this variation makes it likely that not
every question will be useful in every single course, it
is also probable that there are suitable questions for
each audience and teaching style.

The organization of the text itself lends additional
strength (even for more experienced second language
acquisition researchers) by linking topics and making
connections between disciplines. Examples of such links
are the presentation of the Monitor Model as a
psycholinguistic theory (rather than a historical trend),
the discussion of morpheme acquisition studies in the
context of child language acquisition and the connections
between typological research, Universal Grammar and
research on tense and aspect. The framework within which
each topic is presented adds depth to the discussion and
such connections, while seemingly obvious, are oftentimes
lost in other introductory texts. One example where the
link between chapters is not as strong is the transition
from the chapter on historical perspectives on transfer
(chapter 3) to the chapter on child language acquisition
(chapter 4). Although chapter four is an important
addition, and the chapters that follow it are clearly
linked, the transition from chapter three to chapter four
is less transparent.

In sum, Gass and Selinker have produced an updated text
with nice coverage of the breadth of information related
to second language acquisition. The detail with which
interlanguage data is discussed makes this text
appropriate for graduate level instruction but its
readability also makes this a viable choice for advanced
undergraduates. Finally, the intellectual connections
made between disciplines that contribute to second
language acquisition research are commendable.

Bibliographic References
Cook, V. (1993) Linguistics and Second Language
Acquisition. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Ellis, R. (1994) The Study of Second Language
Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Long, M. (1991) An Introduction to
Second Language Acquisition Research. London: Longman.

Mitchell, R. & Myles, F. (1998) Second Language Learning
Theories. London: Arnold.

Bibliographical Sketch
Kimberly L. Geeslin is an Assistant Professor at Indiana
University in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.
She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in
Hispanic Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition.
Her current research focuses on the second language
acquisition of Spanish and the application of
sociolinguistic research to second language acquisition.


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