A Philosophy of Second Language Acquisition

March 2005 — Volume 8, Number 4

A Philosophy of Second Language Acquisition

Marysia Johnson (2004)
New Haven and London: Yale University Press
Pp. ix + 207
ISBN 0-300-10026-4 (paper)
$40.00

How is a second language learnt? In an attempt to reconcile competent models that have been trying to address such a complex process as second language acquisition (SLA), Marysia Johnson’s A Philosophy of Second Language Acquisition argues for a new model of SLA that incorporates both mental and social perspectives. The book begins with a succinct discussion of the shortcomings of the SLA theories based on the cognitive and information-processing paradigms. These current models of SLA make a strict demarcation between the learners’ mental and social processes and between language competence and language performance. Based on Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory and Bakhtin’s literary theory, i.e. dialogized heteroglossia, Johnson proposes a controversial SLA model with a view to reconciling the tension between the mentalistic and socio-cultural dimensions of language learning as well as the separation between competence and performance.

SLA is understandably a theoretical and philosophical issue, yet the book is made accessible by Johnson’s systematic and evaluative account of the different paradigms that have claimed to offer a satisfactory account for SLA. The reader will find that their navigation through the book is greatly facilitated by the author’s lucid description and critical analysis of each tradition. The account is, on the one hand, chronological but progressive on the other in that a model is introduced to address the inadequacies of the one that precedes it. The ultimate purpose of the author in guiding the reader through a labyrinth of competing paradigms is to convincingly build up a radically new framework of SLA which represents a firmly grounded and logical destination of the critiques of the existing models.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One consists of five chapters. Chapter 1 reviews some major characteristics of the three scientific traditions. While the first tradition, behaviourism, focuses on the learner’s external environment, the second tradition, the cognitive, focused on the individual’s internal processes as the source of cognitive development. The author proposes the third tradition, the dialogical tradition, which takes into consideration of both the learners’ external and internal processes involved in cognitive growth. As such, the introductory chapter succeeds in orientating the reader to major traditions which are heavily biased towards experimental science, and in foregrounding the necessity for a new model that gives due attention to individuals and their interactions with the environment in the process of acquiring a second language.

Chapter 2 presents a historical overview of SLA as a scientific tradition. The chapter outlines the major criticisms levied on Contrastive Analysis (CA), which is closely related to the behaviourist approach to SLA, and presents evidence from morpheme order studies to support the limitations of CA theory. With Chomsky’s (1959) attack on Skinner’s behaviourism and Corder’s (1967) seminal paper on error analysis, the behaviouristic scientific tradition was replaced by the cognitive tradition. [-1-]

Chapter 3 presents and discusses the cognitive and linguistic origin of SLA theory. The chapter explains Chomsky’s UG of the cognitive tradition, the logico-deductive version, which focuses on the central role of the human mind in processing linguistic data, while the external environment plays the role of triggering the operation of UG only. Whereas the former, cognitive approach represents the prevailing attitude, the latter, social approach is somewhat acknowledged, but only superficially.

Chapter 4 discusses the impact of information-processing paradigm on SLA, which is associated with the newer version of the cognitive tradition. In models that are subsumed under this tradition (e.g., Krashen’s input hypothesis, Long’s interaction hypothesis, VanPatten’s input processing model), the process of analyzing the information is viewed as being mechanistic, predictable, stable and universal. The outside reality, or social context, is only marginally acknowledged. Interaction is basically not viewed as a social issue but as a cognitive issue.

Chapter 5 describes Hymes’s Communicative Competence Model and Canale and Swain’s Communicative Competence Model. These models illustrate how the learner is solely responsible for his or her performance. The chapter ends with Young’s description of Interactional Competence, explicating that the insights it offers have their roots in Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory. At this point, it is clear that the issue of interaction in real-life socio-cultural settings is carefully taken up by the author in order to guide the reader to a new framework–the goal that that book aims to achieve. The purposes of this chapter–to further support the current cognitive ‘bias’ in SLA theory and to tacitly introduce a new framework for SLA–are clearly elucidated.

Part Two, comprising 4 chapters, directs the reader’s attention to a dialogical approach to SLA based on Vygotsky’s Socio-cultural Theory (SCT) and Bakhtin’s literary theory. Chapter 6 focuses on SCT, the most interesting insight of which is the claim that “an essential feature of learning is that it creates the zone of proximal development; that is, learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers” (p. 110). According to Vygotsky, the child’s unfolding development of higher mental consciousness is not shaped by a cognitive code, but by other people in the community to which the child has been exposed. Simply put, Vygotsky’s theory is about “the dialectic interaction between the external (social) and internal (mental) planes, one transforming the other” (p. 117).

In a similar vein, Chapter 7 delineates the fundamental principles of Bakhtin’s literary theory: dialogized heteroglossia, the purpose of which is to complement Vygotsky’s idea that linguistic development is shaped by exposure to speech data. While Vygotsky stressed the importance of speech for human cognitive growth, which is created in the process of interaction between the learner and a more capable tutor in a real socio-cultural setting, he did not examine the characteristics of speech in a given socio-cultural context. The gap is filled by Bakhtin’s work. Bakhtin viewed language as speech and not as an abstract set of rules. For him, higher mental functioning is not only inner speech in a Vygotskian sense but inner dialogue. This inner dialogue represents the individual’s conversation with himself or herself, but since the individual self is grounded in the voices of others, this inner dialogue represents the dialogue with oneself and with others simultaneously, i.e. dialogized heteroglossia. [-2-]

Chapter 8 provides empirical evidence for the otherwise abstract discussion of the SCT and Bakhtin’s theory. It also serves to address a probable question that might be raised by the reader: in what ways may the espoused theories delineated in Chapters 6 and 7 be applied to study SLA issues? The purpose is to pave the way for Chapter 9 which delineates the new model. In presenting some of the major studies that examine the application of SCT to second language acquisition, Johnson systematically organized the studies into four areas, each representing one particular principle of SCT. They include: the zone of proximal development, the role of interaction, activity theory, and private and inner speech. The commonality of these studies is that they fall within the third tradition to SLA–the dialogical tradition–as described in Chapter 1. Nonetheless, for greater depth of understanding, the reader may wish to refer to Lantolf and Appel (1998) and Lantolf (2000), which report most studies described in this chapter. Moreover, this is the only chapter in the book that presents research findings in support of the new tradition. One would therefore like to see more substantial discussion of empirical evidence to validate the proposed framework.

Chapter 9 proposes a new approach, i.e. the dialogical approach. According to the author, “Vygotsky’s and Bakhtin’s theories provide a bridge between the learner’s external and internal realities. They allow us to examine learning processes from a holistic perspective in which two seemingly opposite parts of human existence, mental and social, merge together in a dialectic relation. That is, the external world affects and transforms the individual’s mental functioning, which, in turn, affects and transforms social, cultural and institutional settings” (pp. 170-171). In this new model of SLA, the origin of language competence lies in social reality–in language use. This language use does not take place in a vacuum but in a real and discernible social context. In short, there would not be any separation between language competence and language performance. The ultimate purpose of this dialogically based model of SLA is to discover the process that allows the L2 learner to become an active participant in the target language culture, or to investigate how participation in a variety of local socio-cultural contexts affects the learner’s second language ability.

It is commendable to see that the author concludes with some practical implications of the proposed theoretical model. Regarding teaching, for example, it is recommended that the classroom should be viewed at a socio-cultural setting where an active participation in the target language culture is taught, promoted, and cultivated. The need to require the development of many different video-tapes that would describe the learner in the appropriation of new voices, new meanings, and new understandings is also highlighted. While these are highly desirable, one would have thought that new textbooks should be written to promote the view of second language ability as the process of becoming an active participant in the target language culture. But without adequate understanding of the theoretical underpinnings, which is not an uncommon phenomenon, one would wonder how easy it will be for the new model to be translated into real-life classroom practices. The author does not seem to address this practical issue with concrete detail.

With respect to testing, the author proposes a new instrument for assessing speaking ability in a second language. The proposed testing method is based on the concept of the zone of proximal development; that is, it requires a face-to-face interaction with the more competent tester. While the author does provide concrete suggestions as to how the learner’s potential level of development is measured, it is not at all easy to determine how much assistance and what type of assistance is required on the part of the tester so that the learners may be assessed in fair and equitable means. [-3-]

The book is very stimulating at the philosophical level and provides good food for thought for experts in the field of SLA who are interested to review the strengths and weaknesses of the current models which claim to give a comprehensive account of SLA. The greatest contribution of the book perhaps lies with the proposition that language acquisition has a lot of basis on the dialogical interactions conducted between the individuals and the variety of socio-cultural and institutional settings to which the individuals are exposed. In search of a unifying framework to replace the existing conflicting models of SLA, the book provides one possible answer. Nonetheless, the book assumes prior knowledge on the part of the reader in the field in order that they may be able to make informed judgement of the validity of the new framework. As such, the book may pose a challenge to pre-service teachers or novice researchers. Notwithstanding these minor concerns, the book is intellectually provocative and well worth reading.

References

Lantolf, J. P. (2000) Sociocultural theory and second language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lantolf, J. P., & Appel, G. (Eds.)(1998) Vygotskian approaches to second language research. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.

Wendy Lam
The Hong Kong Institute of Education
<wlamied.edu.hk>

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