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Review of Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition
EDITOR: Dwight Atkinson TITLE: Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor & Francis) YEAR: 2011
Annamaria Cacchione, Departamento de Filología Italiana, Universidad Complutense de Madrid
This book starts from the consideration that, in the last 20 years, several interesting ''alternative'' approaches to SLA research have arisen -- alternative in the sense that they do not belong to the dominant cognitive perspective. All these approaches developed autonomously, without being able to integrate and reducing, in this way, their heuristic potential. According to the editor and author, Dwight Atkinson, ''it therefore becomes necessary for all the varied perspectives, and this includes cognitivism, […] to ''talk'' to each other'' to achieve at last a ''richer, more multidimensional understanding of SLA'' (p. xi).
The volume begins with a detailed and clear introduction that outlines the goals of the book and summarizes each of the following six chapters, corresponding to six different alternative approaches. The book ends with a discussion of the presented approaches, thus summarizing some of the most relevant findings and providing a comprehensive point of view.
The Introduction -- ''Cognitivism and Second Language Acquisition'' -- by Atkinson, is focused just on cognitivism, as the main reference point for the whole book. After defining it by means of a set of ten main features -- the first three being ''mind as a computer'', ''representationalism'' and ''learning as abstract knowledge acquisition'' -- and tracing back its roots in the Cartesian dualism, he describes the Cognitive Revolution, born as a direct response to American behaviourism and fully developed by Chomsky starting in 1959.
Atkinson then highlights what in his opinion are the cognitivist bases of SLA: Krashen’s emphasis on input, Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis (1990) and the editing of “The Handbook of SLA” (2003) by Catherine Doughty and Michael Long.
The last part of the Introduction presents the common plan Atkinson, as the editor of the book, proposed to all the authors in order to ''to make those approaches directly comparable'' (p. 16). The comparability lies in the common organization of each chapter, structured around the same six topics/questions that the editor put to all the contributors: Overview (distinctive features of the approach); Theoretical principles of the alternative approach; Research methods; Supporting findings; Differences vis-à-vis other alternative approaches described; and Future directions of the proposed alternative approach.
The first chapter -- “The sociocultural approach to Second Language Acquisition: sociocultural theory, second language acquisition, and artificial L2 development” - is by James Lantolf. His contribution is built on the key idea of mediation, defined as follows: ''If/how learners develop their ability to use the new language to mediate (i.e. regulate or control) their mental and communicative activity'' (p. 24). The sociocultural approach -- first elaborated by Vygotsky (1978) - focuses on the development of the mediational ability. ''Translated'' into SLA research, ''this means studying how learners deploy the new language to regulate their behavior when confronted with communicatively or cognitively challenging tasks'' (p. 26). In the “Supporting findings” section, Lantolf highlights issues that are particularly relevant in daily life at school (e.g. the connection with classroom interaction and teacher’s feedback uptake).
The second contribution is by Diane Larsen-Freeman, ''A complexity theory approach to second language development/acquisition''. It focuses on a growing research field emanating from the natural sciences -- complexity theory. In contrast with her generative training, the author found that the image of a ''complex, adaptive system, which emerges bottom-up from interactions of multiple agents in speech communities'' (p. 49) was much more consistent and correct The third contribution is by Bonny Norton and Carolyn McKinney. It is entitled ''An identity approach to Second Language Acquisition,'' and, as the title shows, focuses on identity perspectives on SLA -- a theoretical perspective rooted in the post-structuralism theories of language. SLA is conceived as part of the identity construction process. This means that every time a learner speaks, he/she negotiates his/her self in relation to the world, and speaking a second language is part of this continuous process. The implication for SLA comes in particular from the construction of identity as multiple: ''learners who struggle from one identity position can reframe their relationship with their interlocutors and reclaim alternative, more powerful identities from which to speak'' (p. 74). A second language can thus play a major part in this relationship complex and reframe it in a more positive shape.
Patricia Duff and Steven Talmy are the authors of the fourth chapter, ''Language Socialization Approaches to SLA''. This kind of approach has strong ethnographic and anthropological roots. The chapter addresses the way L2-related socialization unfolds in different contexts and situations, where experts and novices mutually construct their identity. The attention provided to socialization in any kind of context provides a good starting point to investigate new, virtual contexts and the related forms of socialization, like those of social media.
Gabriele Kasper and Johannes Wagner are the authors of ''A Conversational-Analytic Approach to SLA'', chapter 5. CA investigates how people make sense of conversational interactions. Hence CA-SLA focuses on social aspects of language acquisition. CA methodology explores ''the resources that L2 speakers, jointly with their interlocutors, draw upon to keep the interaction going'' (p. 129), and, as linguistic elements are among these resources, it can catch the appearance of new linguistic elements and to trace their development -- this is ''development CA'' (Wootton 2006). Several CA extracts, treated following ''classical'' and CA transcription methodology by Sacks, Schegloff & Jefferson (1974), are presented and discussed.
The book’s editor, Dwight Atkinson, is also the author of the sixth chapter, focused on sociocognitive theory -- ''A sociocognitive approach to SLA''. This new approach describes an ecological framework in which components of different natures, including cognition, function integratively, as the subtitle claims: ''How mind, body, and world work together in learning additional languages'' (p. 143). Humans are organisms continuously adapting themselves to the changes occurring in the environment. Learning a new language can thus be seen both as a change occurring in an already structured environment and the creation of a new environment. Cognition, in this innovative perspective, is no longer rejected but is treated as one of the key factors -- to be precise, it promotes intelligent adaptive action-in-the-word (p. 143).
In the closing chapter, ''SLA after the social turn'', Lourdes Ortega tries to answer two main questions: ''What can we make of differences between cognitivism and alternatives in SLA?'' and ''How can our knowledge help advance our understanding?'' (p. 167). The key issue is the ''social turn'' of the title: the social dimension is in fact the leading thread of all the six approaches described. These approaches brought about relevant insights (e.g. the roles played by social practices, values and indexicality). Therefore, Ortega concludes by claiming that SLA is stronger and better after the social turn: epistemological diversity can lead to ''a fuller and ultimately better understanding of the learning of additional languages'' (p. 178).
The book has an ambitious goal that is not easy to accomplish, given the deep diversity among the approaches presented -- a diversity sometimes turning into incommensurability.
Sometimes the differences between the proposed approaches are difficult to understand , and there seems to be large zones of overlap. Several sections are not so easy to understand for those who do not share the same theoretical background. In these cases, further explication and practical case studies would be helpful. An example: in chapter 1 about the sociocultural approach, Lantolf says that the over-usage of progressive aspect to describe actions means that ''the speaker did not control the task and therefore could not create a coherent narrative'' (p. 27): why could this simply not indicate that the speaker can use only the progressive aspect at his L2 stage -- and why should a narrative be incoherent just because it includes only progressive aspect?
Another difficulty in understanding the proposed approaches is the fact that some chapters do not fully develop all the six steps of the scheduled common plan, which results in problems in making a comparison.
Samples of data collected and analyzed -- like in the chapter on CA -- should have been included more extensively, to show how the theory unfolds in practice.
These limitations do not prevent the book from being very useful in many ways. The book, in fact, can be read at different levels by different target-readers: undergraduate and/or junior researchers can benefit especially from the framing chapters and senior researchers can find the central chapters useful for consultation, and can search for additional sources if needed.
But most of all it is a remarkable effort to provide a comprehensive overview of current trends in SLA by gathering together different approaches in a critical way. This could be an example to follow also in other linguistic subfields.
Doughty, Catherine J. & Michael H. Long (eds.). 2003. Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Maturana, Humberto & Francisco Varela. 1972. Autopoiesis and Cognition. Boston MA: Reidel.
Sacks, Harvey, Schegloff, Emanuel A. & Gail Jefferson. 1974. A Simplest Systematics for the Organisation of Turn-Taking for Conversation. Language 50. 696-735.
Schmidt, Richard W. 1990. The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics 11. 129-157.
Vygotsky, Lev S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Weaver, Warren. 1948. Science and Complexity. American Scientist 36. 536-544.
Wootton, Anthony J. 2006. Children's practices and their connections with 'mind'. Discourse Studies 8. 191-198.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Annamaria Cacchione has a PhD in Linguistics and Didactics of Italian as
L2. She teaches Italian L2, Textual Linguistics and Acquisitional
Linguistics at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. She also teaches
Italian L2 at the University of Molise, Italy. Her research interests
include SLA, clinical linguistics and pragmatics. Her present research
includes investigations on mobile language learning and ICT-based
innovation in education in general.