Rod Ellis’s Study of Second Language Acquisition: The “Before…”

Sorry… this is a long one… as you’ll see, I not only talk about the larger context of my orals, I also review a book that tries to cover a huge amount of research literature, a whole field in fact, at the time of its publication, 1994, right before the field is going to get pulled in a different direction, a direction that the rest of this orals area will follow.  So this is lengthy because it’s a “I’m going to demonstrate that I know the broader field before I focus in on one perspective within it (which turns out to be a critique of the whole field…).”

So to clarify where these posts are going, I’m trying to articulate for my Dear Reader the direction and insights of my readings for orals.  Since my first post, which outlined the area “Literacy and Social Action,” I’ve gotten feedback that I need to shorten that list significantly, which is both a relief and a hard task.  The same is true of this area, my second area, which is “Second Language Acquisition in Globalized Perspective.”  The general outline of this area (and I’m learning that if I can’t say it briefly, I don’t have it narrow enough) goes like this: Second Language Acquisition (SLA) is a field that used to be limited to psycholinguistic analysis of the language and mind of the language learner, but has gradually broadened to an awareness of social context and sociolinguistic concerns (meaning the study of language in relation to social groups, such as regional variation or interactional language uses).  In other words, whereas Second Language Acquisition research used to primarily put under the microscope how language learners thought in their heads, how they gained language with mental/cognitive tools or structures, and what that language ended up sounding like (in contrast to native speakers’ language), it gradually became more aware of the influence and issues of identification and identity, race and class, social hierarchy, language mixing and contact, and things like that.  Now, the field is very interested in what one might think would be an obvious interest from the outset, the impact of globalization (more on that later) on language and how it’s learned by non-native speakers.

Rod Ellis’s big purple book, The Study of Second Language Acquisition (1994), is kind of a point of departure.  It’s a textbook that is a pretty solid summary of the “before” of SLA, from which I’ll eventually narrate an “after.”  In fact, in the introduction of the 700 page book, Ellis describes how the field is in the process of evolving even from what’s represented in the book, and the very first way he names is the broadening of interests in the field, particularly to the sociolinguistic dimension.  But I’ll get there.  For now, it’s enough to just know that Rod Ellis 1994 is a good summary of what concerns dominated SLA up to that point.

And what were those?  He breaks them down into four concerns, into which he’ll include several sub-categories:

description of learner language. This is a focus on describing the language of second language learners.  “Describing” is an important word in linguistics because it’s a cherished principle of linguistics to be descriptive and not prescriptive, or in other words, to capture the actual facts and systematicity (or structuredness, logic, orderedness) of language rather than to arbitrate what is good, bad, or even accurate language.  Think ‘Enry ‘Iggins in My Fair Lady, the part where he’s fascinated by Eliza Doolittle’s language, not where he’s trying to correct her.  Anyway, this area of SLA was interested in what kinds of (systematic, consistent) errors second language learners made, what patterns second languages developed in (things like the natural order hypothesis, which predicted that certain language structures would come first and others would come in a certain pattern), the variability in learner language (which might sound like the opposite of the last idea, but we’re not talking about random or individual variation, but systematic variation, like variation in styles depending on the context where language is used), and the pragmatic features of learner language.  Pragmatics is an important word to know in this area.  It’s the branch of linguistics (as it tends to be categorized in North American linguistics) that deals with norms of usage and interaction, kind of the catch-all “everything else” beyond sounds, phonemes, morphemes (meaning chunks, like affixes or roots), words, syntax or grammars, and all that other sentence stuff.  (Basically, whenever you hear “Pragmatics” in the future in relation to Linguistics, think about the difference between learning words and grammar in your French textbook and actually, “practically” knowing how to ask for something among French speakers without sounding rude or like an idiot.)

explaining second language acquisition: external factors.  These next two areas are heavily influenced by the prevailing theory (at the time) of language and the mind generally, the one most associated with Chomsky, developed in SLA by many but most notably Stephen Krashen.  The idea here is that the brain is like a special computer with a unique and pretty remarkable ability to “pick up” language, as if it were specially designed to capture the language around it and feed it into an internal processor made specially to hold the complex structures of language within.  Think of how amazed we are when a toddler picks up this or that bit of sentence structure and fills it with all kinds of new and creative pieces.  Analyze the potential variety but remarkable accuracy of that child’s language, even before the child can control pee or hold a pencil, and you can see why theorists thought there must be an in-built language acquisition device in human brains.

Anyway, this area of inquiry for SLA was interested in the external factors, the “inputs” that made it possible for the language acquisition device to activate and work for gaining a second language.  These include various social factors, and here are the precursors to the lines of inquiry that will concern me as we go on in SLA.  For example, Ellis mentions Jim Cummin’s basic interpersonal communication (BICS) vs cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) here, as well as differences between classroom settings and immersion settings, sociolinguistic variables (age, sex, ethnicity, economic status), and John Schumann’s acculturation model (that’s a future post).  These are precursors because later, the “social turn” in SLA will really blow out these questions, but at this point we’re still under the basic overall framework of trying to understand mental structures and factors to learning the target language.  Besides these social factors, external factors to acquisition also include the kinds and amounts of input and interaction, two key sets of concerns.  Keep in mind the model where the second language learner is like a computer that’s trying to use the bits of linguistic data around it to calibrate the internal language processor to the structures of a new language.  What kind of data it’s surrounded by, how it’s delivered (as in, maybe, how teachers talk to language learning students, or what level the texts the might read), and how much of it gets processed is all part of the concern with input.  You can also think here about the teacher term comprehensible input.  Others pushed the question beyond input and noticed that it’s not only what the learner hears and reads, but how the learner speaks and interacts that are determinative, so types and qualities of interaction were also studied among external factors.

explaining second language acquisition: internal factors.  When we say “internal,” we don’t mean going in the specific minds of specific people (that’s the next category…sort of), but into the internal workings of the computer system/program that is the generic human brain.  Here is where what’s called “Cognitivist SLA” (in contrast to “Social SLA,” the terrain I’m going to end up on eventually) is most visibly demonstrated.  What goes on in the brain of the language learner?  One area of this involves the ways that transfer occurs between a first language and a second language.  Another set of concerns looks at what kinds of mental models best explain what’s going on in the mind of the language learner, and here one of the important terms in SLA, interlanguage, arises.  Interlanguage is, to put it in a certain way, my immigrant dad and your immigrant mom’s English.  My immigrant dad’s English is certainly not the language structure of Chinese, but it’s also not the language structure of a native English speaker, quite.  But despite inconsistencies, in his head, it’s probably pretty systematic and has moved through phases, developing in systematic and patterned ways.  Figuring out what’s going on in the learner’s computer system is trying to understand how this interlanguage is evolving, and perhaps what keeps it from getting quite all the way there to native-speaker-level English.  (If you want a clue to what critiques of these perspectives are coming up later, you can think about this idea: we all speak interlanguage, even native speakers, don’t we?)  There are some other concerns regarding the internal factors in SLA, but some of those debates and questions are fairly esoteric.  Suffice it to say that competing and complementary attempts to understand what goes on in the mysterious black box of the brain as an adult learns a language was the central concern here.

the language learner’s variations and individual differences.  Of course, despite the efforts to grasp brain universals and understand the underlying workings of the language machine, everyone’s different.  Your immigrant mom and my immigrant dad might have a similar length of stay in the US, but they’re still different.  What conditions the language learner to result in those differences.  Something about learning styles?  Previously held aptitude?  Attitudes or disposition?  Being given the right strategies?  A factor that is tricky to study but seems intuitive to us is the degree of motivation to learn.  But what’s wrapped up in motivation?  What’s to say one person’s motivated where another is not?  Very complicated.

This sounds like an overview of all the concerns of the book, but they’re actually succinctly summarized in the first couple chapters.  What they show is the general trends and concerns in the field… roughly up to this point. But as we’ll soon discuss, there are a lot of assumptions and theories behind these various approaches, which can be critiqued without altogether throwing out the insights of this large body of research.

Want an example?  I hinted at this earlier, but much of what I described above hinges on the idea that there’s this ideal native speaker of a language who knows how the language should work and is part of the community that reinforces “the standard” of the language.  Who is that?  Is it James Earl Jones?  A mid-western house wife?  God?  Isn’t James Earl Jones just one version of English, and probably he speaks different versions depending on which context he’s in and what character he plays?  And what are the implications of imagining that the mid-western house wife is the “standard,” or the “measuring stick” of English?  Or if you aggregate the hypothetical world of mid-western house wives and James Earl Joneses, then the 99% overlap of their English is the “standard,” right?  Okay, even if we granted you that hypothetical “standard” English, in that English is it acceptable to use the word “negro,” or to say “didja” instead of “did you” when talking to an authority figure?  These questions are meant to poke holes in a construct that, the more you think about it, can be easily poked to be almost empty, and yet serves as such a pillar of the ways of thinking about second language acquisition in the field that I described above in Ellis’ 1994 book.

Where is this going?  Eventually, all of this must be reconsidered in view of social context.  And social context is shaped by many things, but perhaps most significantly of all, globalization…

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