Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition

Vol. 1. No. 3 — March 1995

Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition

Vivian Cook (1993)
New York: St. Martin’s Press
Pp. x + 313.
ISBN 0-312-10355-7 (paper); 0-312-10100-7 (cloth)
US $22.61 (paper); $45.00 (cloth)

Cook’s Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition (hereafter LASLA) is a welcome addition to the recent spate of second language acquisition (SLA) texts which have flooded the market. It is unique in its focus on linguistics and SLA, and represents the tremendous growth in SLA research within a UG framework that has occurred in recent years. To my knowledge (as with Goodluck (1991) for first language acquisition), LASLA represents the first such text.

Chapter 1 begins with a disclaimer of sorts, that is, Cook makes clear that his focus is on linguistics and SLA, not psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, or language teaching. He does, however, make specific reference to work in those areas. To my mind, this is one of the real strengths of this text: Cook is up-front about his domain of coverage, but by citing work outside that domain he evidences a breadth that is all too rare in a field obsessed with borders. Having issued this disclaimer, Cook goes on to provide a rather complete assessment of early work of relevance to SLA research, including reference to the work of Weinreich on up through interlanguage and approximative systems.

Chapter 2 covers sequences in SLA, and discusses both the morpheme studies and later studies of negation. The treatment of morpheme studies is excellent, especially the discussion of their many problems. Cook makes an important methodological point in noting that most of the morpheme studies were not truly cross-sectional, but rather what he calls single-moment studies. One of the helpful features introduced in this chapter and used throughout is boxed research summaries of major articles. Cook summarizes some of the major studies discussed in detail in each chapter, giving the aim, subjects, focus, type of data, method of analysis, and results, in a concise, readable form.

Chapter 3 examines in detail the theory of Stephen Krashen. While noting that Krashen’s agenda does seem to be in line with that of linguistics (through, for example, appeal to a LAD), Cook also points out that Krashen’s use of terms and concepts from linguistics is quite different from that intended by linguists. Nonetheless, LASLA provides a judicious overview of the arguments advanced for Krashen’s theory, as well as a sound criticism of them. Overall, this is a very balanced and insightful critical summary of Krashen.

Despite the earlier disclaimer, Chapter 4 takes up the more prominent social/sociolinguistic approaches to SLA, that is, Acculturation, Pidginization, Creolization, and Variation Theory. The discussion of the latter is once again balanced and thorough, [-1-] with reference to the work of Labov, Ellis, Tarone, Huebner, and Young. Cook concludes that variation represents a “rich new area for SLA research, perhaps showing promise for the future rather than concrete results in the present” (p. 89). Coming back to his focus on generative linguistics, he notes the fundamental differences between work on variation and Chomsky’s idealized speaker-hearer, pointing out that this idealization is an acute problem for SLA research and that “syntactic variation may have to be reconciled with a description of competence in some way” (p. 91).

The work of Pienemann et al. is the focus of chapter 5. Cook presents a lucid explanation of Pienemann’s rather complex Multidimensional Model/Teachability Hypothesis, which attempts to account for both a similar acquisition order across learners as well as individual variation among learners. According to the research of Pienemann et al., the former is not amenable to instruction, but the latter may be. Cook criticizes the work of Pienemann et al. primarily on two counts: the reliance on word order and movement make it unclear just how the model is to apply to languages without movement (such as Japanese), and the conception of movement is analogous to that of earlier transformational generative grammar and so does not fit well with current theory.

Chapter 6 looks at learning and communication strategies. The discussion of learner strategies focuses almost exclusively on the work of O’Malley et al. Cook provides a complete listing of the various strategies uncovered in this work, but he also takes O’Malley et al. to task for some serious methodological problems, such as the use of the native language (L1) for one group of subjects and the use of the second language (L2) for another during interviews. Cook also covers the work of Faerch and Kasper, Tarone, and the Nijmegen Project on communication strategies, but the main focus is on the Nijmegen Project, which, among other things, takes an approach based not only on linguistic realizations but processes as well. In keeping with discussions of methodology earlier on, Cook cites some of the methodological problems in strategies research, including use of introspective data and a taxonomic approach.

Relative clauses are dealt with in chapter 7. Much of the important research on SLA and relative clauses is discussed in light of the Keenan-Comrie hierarchy, which also receives a brief summary. Again, there is an insightful discussion of research methods (which by now is clearly one of the strengths of LASLA) in relative clause research. Cook notes that while the use of experimental data (e.g., comprehension tests, acceptability judgments, sentence combining) provides different perspectives on knowledge of language than observation of speech performance, it also introduces certain problems. Among these are a lack of comparability among data types, and, perhaps most significant, the fact that “most Second Language [-2-] Acquisition researchers are not trained psychologists and so blithely undertake experiments that psychologists can easily find fault with” (p. 154).

In chapter 8, the topic turns more to the focus of LASLA by taking up Principles and Parameters syntax. Cook provides a good thumbnail sketch of important terms and concepts, but also refers the reader to his own in-depth treatment (Cook, 1988) and the more weighty introduction by Haegeman (1991). Given the usual lucid explanations, though, reference to those texts is not really necessary for understanding the discussion. Topics covered include X-bar syntax, the pro-drop parameter, binding, and the head-direction parameter. For each, the syntax is explained, followed by discussion of the major research in both L1 and L2 acquisition. This is a real strength because it underscores what is perhaps the most exciting aspect of current work in a GB framework: a partial convergence of L1 and L2 acquisition research and the potential for such work to inform linguistic theory. As before, there are insightful comments on research methods, and perhaps most striking, Cook ends the chapter with a few admonitions, namely, that “research that is specific to one particular syntactic analysis has a short shelf-life” (p. 198), and that there is the “danger that second language researchers may forget that their purpose is to discover how people learn L2s, not see if the latest fashion in linguistics can be applied to L2 research” (p. 199).

Chapter 9 is the second of two chapters dealing directly with linguistics and SLA, this time covering Universal Grammar (UG) and SLA. Cook provides an overview of some of the main tenets of UG, such as the poverty-of-stimulus argument, and then reviews the SLA research related to access to UG in SLA. Most of this has to do with subjacency and German word order, and Cook concludes that the evidence against access is rather murky. Also included is an excellent discussion of the use of grammaticality judgments in SLA research. Overall, LASLA adopts a rather balanced view of the limits of UG for SLA research. Cook notes that the “homogeneous” L1 competence that underlies L1 acquisition research is lacking for L2 learners, and that being concerned with core grammar, UG has “a part to play [in SLA research] but that part should not be exaggerated; much, or even most, of the totality of L2 learning lies outside the core” (p. 241). The chapter closes with a discussion of what Cook calls “multi-competence,” that is, the “multilingual nature of most people’s knowledge of language” (p. 245), and Cook rightly points out that this conflicts with one of the basic tenets of UG. He asserts that monolingual competence should not be the model for SLA research.

The final chapter of LASLA takes up research based on an assumption that runs directly counter to that of generative linguistics, that is, that knowledge of language is not acquired differently than other types of knowledge. Work discussed includes [-3-] Anderson’s ACT* (Adaptive Control of Thought, with the “*” indicating the most current version), McLaughlin’s information processing, and MacWhinney’s Competition Model. While noting that such cognitive approaches represent an alternative to a linguistics-based approach, Cook also points out several objections linguists have to such research, such as the reliance on negative evidence, the association between frequency and learning, and little or no consideration of grammatical structure. Before ending chapter 10, Cook reminds the reader that “linguistics is only one of the disciplines that SLA research can draw on” (p. 269), then closes by noting once again that SLA research has to come to terms with the fact that a monolingual model is not appropriate for the study of L2 competence.

Also included between chapter 10 and the references are activities for each chapter. Activities include problems involving the analysis of L2 data as well as questions designed to stimulate further thought and critical analysis of SLA research discussed in the text.

It is difficult to say anything bad about LASLA. Cook has accomplished well what he set out to do, and has done perhaps even more. Particularly welcome is the frequent discussion of research methodology, an area that needs considerable attention in SLA (and other applied linguistics) research. It is also refreshing to read a text written by someone who shows such a balanced view of his domain of coverage and its place in the larger scheme of things, and also evidences an awareness of (and more importantly a respect for) work going on outside that domain. While it is not a comprehensive SLA text and would not be ideal for all purposes (e.g., teacher training), LASLA cannot be faulted for not being something it was not intended to be. However, despite the initial disclaimer, LASLA does cover much of the ground of SLA research. Besides, Cook (1991) already covers much of what is omitted from LASLA, which is written mainly as a text for students in linguistics.

For that audience, it is an outstanding text.


Cook, V. (1988). Chomsky’s Universal Grammar: An introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Cook, V. (1991). Second language learning and language teaching. London: Edward Arnold.

Goodluck, H. (1991). Language acquisition: A linguistic introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. [-4-]

Haegeman, L. (1991). Introduction to Government and Binding Theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell

Kenneth R. Rose
Hong Kong Baptist College


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