November 1999 — Volume 4, Number 2
Second Language Learning Data Analysis (2nd ed.)
Susan Gass, Antonella Sorace, & Larry Selinker (1999)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Pp. x + 126
US$22.50 (manual & tapes free upon adoption)
First, a bit of history: this book is actually the third incarnation of a 1984 workbook by Susan Gass and Larry Selinker originally called Workbook in Second Language Acquisition. This book was then redone in 1994 and reissued as Second Language Learning Data Analysis. This new edition is basically the same as the previous edition, but it has been shortened and tightened up. For example, data and questions which used to take up 4 pages of text (perhaps so students could write answers in the book?) now take up a snappy 2 pages through reduction in the spaces between items. The appendix, which contained some extended transcripts, has also gotten the ax.
Second Language Learning Data Analysis is designed as a workbook (even if it is no longer called as such!) of supplementary exercises for university classes in Second Language Acquisition (SLA), and in this function it excels. The strength of the book is that it offers practice in a wide range of data gathering instruments and research focuses, so that the book is not tied to any one approach to investigating SLA. Besides raw non-native speaker (NNS) data and acceptability judgements, it includes activities with sentence combination tasks, NNS’s comments on their own production, a word association task, longitudinal interview data, and a whole range of language production tasks such as production of stimulus sounds, describing shapes, and NNS telephone surveys. The other nice thing about the book is that it aims to familiarize students with various research instruments, and also helps them to begin to think like SLA researchers. The task questions often have the students ponder why the data is as it is, rather than seeking a right answer. There are also tasks examining why some data-gathering instruments are not very good for certain purposes. For example, in activity 1.3 students are confronted with the problem of how far you can trust informants’ claims on how much they understand. Activity 6.2 shows how the linguistic input that the NNS gets can influence the interlanguage data they produce. Furthermore, the activites are not limited to the usual studies of NNS’s lexicons, morphology, and syntax, but also focus on linguistic questions of semantics, phonology, language variation, and communication strategies. Finally, while most of the exercises examine the acquisition of English as a second language (by people with quite a variety of first languages), there are many activities that use a variety of other languages (e.g., Dutch, French, Italian, Chinese), so the book can be used for classes that do not focus on ESL teaching. There is also a cassette tape which is needed for several of the exercises; however, I did not have access to the tape so I can say nothing of its value. [-1-]
What the book really needs is a table of contents or other tables to clearly show how it is organized and what kinds of activities are where. For example, take the first section, Research Methodology. Its first activity is called Acceptability Judgements–so far so good. The next task, however, is Relative Nouns; personally, I can’t figure out how relative nouns can be conceived of as a research methodology. The third activity in this section is not any better: Misunderstanding 1 (there is no Misunderstanding 2). Although the labels for the other six sections seem clear (Lexicon, Syntax & Semantics, Phonology, Variation, Oral Language, and Communication Strategies), it is not clear why the activities are presented in this order or why these categories were chosen. Some activities seem to teach about problems in researching SLA while others concentrate on research methodology, and there is no table separating these two categories. If you only want to look at activities with a certain type of task, such as acceptability judgements, you have to go through the whole book activity by activity.
That said, each activity begins with a nice summary of relevant information, such as native language of participants, target language, data source, learner information, and so forth. There is a teacher’s manual, available (with the tapes) free of charge when the book is adopted for use in a course. Without the manual, you will have to figure out the point (or points) of each exercise yourself!
Despite these shortcomings, this book can be a very valuable supplement to most any SLA class. What about for teachers? I can imagine that some of you out there are thinking, “Hey Nat, this journal is primarily for teachers! Would you recommend this book for teachers, either alone or in study groups, who want to learn about studying SLA in their own classrooms?” The answer is an emphatic “NO!” (Was that loud and clear enough?) First of all, there is no way to check your answers without having to run to some SLA person. I’m not saying you have to be an Einstein to do the tasks in the book, but beginners need more guidance than this book offers. Moreover, the organizational problems, mentioned above, would even further confuse novices to this field. In addition, this book only covers one particular slice of the whole research process. While the book does deal with various problems in researching SLA, it does not provide a complete framework for researching SLA. Not only are there no comments on why a particular data gathering and/or analysis method was used to research a particular question, there is often no mention of the actual research question. Finally, the kind of research these activities are designed for is looking for generalities in language and language learning. While some teachers may be interested in investigating these kinds of questions, my experience is that language teachers are interested in the peculiarities of the language and language learning of their students, and that is not something this book places an emphasis on. Where this book might be useful is for a teacher or group of teachers who already have a solid background in academic SLA and SLA research, and are looking for examples of different kinds of data gathering tools. [-2-]
Second Language Learning Data Analysis (2nd ed.) fills a need in the SLA text book world–inhabited primarily by summaries of research or research guidelines–by providing a rich variety of second language data where students can get their hands dirty in SLA analysis. While this is an excellent supplemental resource for an experienced linguist teaching SLA, it is not suitable for beginners learning on their own, and probably was not written for this purpose..
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