SOME USES FOR SECOND LANGUAGE LEARNING RESEARCH

Vivian Cook 
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ANNALS OF THE NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES Volume 379 Pages 251-258 December 30,1981 28706

To many people the uses of second-language-learning research are beside the point; they feel it is an area that can stand on its own feet as an academic subject with its own internal rationale unsupported by other disciplines. To others, however, the interest in second-language-learning research is chiefly in its potential for application. This paper adopts the latter of these two positions and looks at two pieces of research with possible relevance outside second-language (L2) learning itself in the fields of second-language teaching and developmental psychology.

Let us start by looking at the relationship between L2 research and language teaching. There seem to be three main periods in the development of L2 research, each of which has had a slightly different relationship to language teaching. The first period ran from the the 1950s to the mid-60s and was dominated by the ideas of language-teaching theorists such as Robert Lado and Nelson Brooks.1'2 Because of this, the ideas found a ready application in the classroom and were responsible for the flowering of the audiolingual method, many of whose techniques such as pattern practice still are found in language teaching today. The second period covered the mid-60s to the mid-70s. During this time, L2 learning began to be investigated directly but still was interpreted in terms of a methodology and conceptual apparatus drawn from first-language (LI) acquisition, such as the importance of syntax and the concept of the systematic nature of learner languages, expressed for example by McNeill for LI acquisition,3 and utilized in L2 learning most importantly by Selinker as "interlanguage." * This period had a predominantly negative effect on language teaching. Teachers were told that their ideas of language learning were inadequate, but they were not given any coherent methodology to put in the place of their audiolingual techniques—unless it were to abandon their students to unedited spontaneous language so that their natural learning abilities could operate effectively, a view associated with Newmark and Reibel;5 few, however, accepted this alternative. The third period runs from about 1975 and is called the period of "models," even if few of the proposals that have been made are models in a scientific sense. While proposals such as the monitor model have stimulated considerable discus­sion among researchers,6 in Europe at any rate, they still have had little impact on the average language teacher, nor have they led to a coherent overall theory of teaching. Occasionally the research can be used to justify existing teaching techniques: grammatical explanation now can be justified in some sense as exploiting the student's monitor; communication games can be claimed to help the students' communicative strategies. But this largely is post hoc justification of standard techniques, not the discovery of new ones. Indeed the major innovations in techniques have come from the wave of alternative methods based on a quite different humanistic tradition, such as the "silent way" suggested by Gattegno or "confluent language teaching" described by Galyean.7'8

Why is this so? One reason may be the emphasis that L2 learning still places on syntax. Undoubtedly the main movement in language teaching in Europe has been toward a specification of the learner's communicative needs: the syllabus no longer is specified in terms of grammatical rules and lists of vocabulary and situations but in terms of the functions for which the learners need to use language, the notions they wish to express, the topics about which they want to talk, and so on, best exemplified in the work of the Council of Europe.9 Most of the current models of L2 learning have little to say about this. Partly this is because they mostly accept the centrality of syntax; the monitor model for instance only seems meaningful in terms of syntax. But however sophisticated our discussions of syntax may be, the language teacher may dismiss them as irrelevant; it simply doesn't matter how the learners acquire syntax, as their main task is learning to communicate. To a great extent, L2 research has not caught up with the change in the paradigm from syntax toward language as a system of communication, found in present-day LI research and L2 teaching. It might seem perhaps that the strategy model or the conversational analysis model has more to say to the teacher, because they seem to deal with wider aspects than syntax. At a general level this must be true, and the idea of a communicative strategy goes some way toward justifying such techniques as communication games and role play. But more specific guidance is still lacking. This may be because of a certain incompatibility between the two approaches. Language teachers talk of "language functions," L2 researchers of "language strategies." This goes deeper than just terminology. To the teacher, a language function often is something that can be isolated and taught separately; it is an item like a word or a gram­matical structure. To the L2 researcher, the function exists within the negotiation of conversation; each participant has certain strategies for conducting the conversation and these have to be modified continually by the interaction with the other person's strategies. The L2 strategies research has a dynamic concept of conversation as a process of give and take; L2 teaching has a static structural approach.

How can these two be brought together? One possible point of contact is the idea of speech acts. Communicative syllabi make extensive use of this idea in one shape or another but usually do not attempt to link speech acts to the negotiation of conversation. Strategy models of L2 learning also require some idea of the purpose of the participants in a conversation. It seems that it might be fruitful to attempt to reconcile these two approaches.

There are, however, grave problems. The initial problem is that the basis for considering speech acts within conversation has been ignored within linguistics until recently and only now are we starting to see discussions by such linguists as Levinson and Ferrara as to the feasibility of using the idea of speech acts in the analysis of conversation.10-11 Nor have speech acts been studied very extensively in the psychological work on the comprehension of speech, apart from the handful of pioneering experiments by Jarvella and Collas and by Clark and his associates.12'13 The literature devoted to speech acts in L2 learning is equally sparse and largely consists of a general article by Schmidt and Richards and some experiments with Spanish-speaking learners of English by Rintell and by Walters.14"16 It seems time then to try out some basic work in this area and to report on work in progress with speech acts in L2 learning.

The first simple point to be established was that speech acts did have some psychological reality to L2 learners. This was tested with a small-scale experiment in which 16 Spanish speakers who had been learning English for four months had to distinguish between two different speech acts for the same syntactic structure. They heard declarative sentences, such as "the floor's dirty," and interrogative sentences, such as "Have you got a hankie?," embedded in dialogues and were given a choice of para­phrases expressing the speech act meaning; for declaratives, they chose between a request and a statement; for interrogatives, between a request and a question. They heard two dialogues, each of which had two versions in which four test sentences had particular illocutionary force. The dialogues were rotated so that each version was heard the same number of times; thus each student gave 8 responses. The results were that the students were correct in assigning speech acts to the sentences 73% of the time, i.e., 93 correct responses out of 128. Even at this low level of English, learners have some idea of speech acts. This hardly goes very far, and it was decided to investigate one aspect of speech acts in more detail—how the learners knew that one speech act was intended rather than another. Clark has described six of the factors involved.17 In the present research, it was decided to look at the linguistic context. For the only reason that listeners know that "Have you got a hankie?" is a request or a question is the context in dialogues such as those used in the preceding experiment. One aspect of linguistic context is the idea of adjacency pairs developed by Harvey Sacks and his associates.18 An adjacency pair consists of two linked turns in conversation, usually occurring consecutively but sometimes separated. One example is question and answer, "What's the capital of France?"—"Paris," or request and acknowledgment, "A ticket to London please"—"Okay." Looked at in terms of speech-act assignment, the adjacency pair ties down some of the possible assignments: we know that a turn that follows a question is likely to be an answer. So adjacency pairs are one of the contextual factors that help us to assign a speech act to a sentence.

How can this be linked to L2 learning? The first need was to establish that these pairs have some reality to the learner. The same test group was used, who had now been studying for five months and numbered 17. The method consisted of written dialogues in which the subjects had to fill in halves of adjacency pairs, the other halves being supplied. One dialogue supplied first halves—three statements such as "This soup isn't very nice" and three questions such as "Do you know John?"—and the subjects had to fill in the second halves. The other dialogue supplied second halves— three reactions such as "Really?" and three responses such as "a medium size"—and the subjects had to give the first halves. The results were that 90% of the subject's sentences formed possible adjacency pairs in English: only 16 out of 204 answers were impossible, 4 answers being blank (a possible adjacency pair was defined as one that could occur in English even if it was not the one that had been anticipated). First halves were slightly more difficult for the learners to devise; 13 out of the 16 mistakes were first halves. These results suggest that the learners even at this stage had a well-developed awareness of adjacency-pair relationships in English. A second experiment went on to test the hypothesis that adjacency pairs affect long-term memory; in other words, the listener may store not just the meaning of the sentence, as Sacks suggests,19 but also some record of the environment in which it occurred. The same learners were given a cued recall task in which they first heard short dialogues and then were given cue sentences and asked to supply the next sentence after each cue. Half the time the cue sentence was the first part of an adjacency pair and the subjects had to supply the second part; the rest of the time, the cue sentence was the second part of the pair and so the subjects had to supply the opening part of the next pair. There were two dialogues, each with four test items, making eight for each subject. This time the results were scored slightly differently since the learners could be divided into two subgroups, one of which—the "higher" group—had been studying in England for an average of six months, the other, "lower" group having been there for four months (there were nine in the higher and eight in the lower group). The overall results were that the subjects remembered 44% of the sentences within adjacency pairs (30 out of 68) and only 24% across adjacency pairs (16 out of 68); the lower group scored 25% within pairs (9 out of 32) and 16% across pairs (5 out of 32); the higher group scored 58% within pairs (21 out of 36) and 31% across pairs (11 out of 36). The numbers involved are too small to regard the result as significant, but it does suggest that a more elaborate experiment may succeed in proving the implication not only that adjacency pairs are stored together in memory but also that the capacity for this improves very rapidly in the early stages of learning a second language.

So it seems that there may be useful results to be gained by pursuing this line of research integrating speech acts with L2 learning in specific ways. One now can say at least that it is not an entirely arbitrary whim to use speech acts and adjacency pairs in second-language-teaching methodology since they appear to have some reality to the learner. Supposing this can be established more positively, the next stages of application are to establish which speech acts and which adjacency pairs are important and to examine the tricky problem of whether these are transferred from one language to another. This type of work can form the basis for syllabi based on actual information about the use of language in conversation; it can define the speech acts and adjacency pairs that are needed and suggest which of them have to be stressed. Another level of application is through teaching techniques. The recognition of speech acts as important to learning means that we need to examine the demands of the classroom and the techniques through which speech acts can be taught. It may be, for instance, that the virtue of pattern practice is not the learning of gram­matical structures, as its advocates supposed, but the learning of an adjacency-pair relationship between the input the student hears and the output he or she has to produce.20 Indeed this line of thinking has already led to two textbooks for teaching English as a foreign language: one, Using Intonation, teaches intonation as a part of conversational interaction and relates the choice of tone to the speech function of the sentence;21 the other, People and Places, uses a syllabus expressed in interactional cate­gories and relies on a teaching technique called a conversation exchange in which the students build up chains of adjacency pairs in the classroom.22 Thus, even if the applications are broad and general, this type of research is already yielding fruit.

Let us now turn to the other area of potential application of L2 research—developmental psychology. Here L2 research can make a dis­tinctive contribution to one or two areas. Take the example of cognitive development. Here it is notoriously difficult to separate the effects of language and cognition: the phenomenon that we are explaining as language development may in fact be due to cognitive development, and vice versa. It would be highly useful if we could, so to speak, disengage the two processes of language and cognitive development and look at people whose level of thinking is out of step with their level of language. One way of doing this is by hypnotic age regression, but this has a number of methodological problems. A more practical way of disengaging the two processes is in L2 learning, where one can study people whose cognitive processes usually are at a higher level of operation than their language. One instance is syntactic acquisition: some point of syntactic development might require that the child first acquire a certain cognitive level; the adult L2 learner is already there. For example, there is a stage in the order of acquisition of "before" and "after" where the child uses a strategy that the order of events in the sentence must mirror the order of events in the real world, the order of mention strategy described by Clark.23 The child can learn to use these properly only when he can disconnect linguistic from real-world order. Is this then a stage of cognitive development or of language development? This has been tested with adult second-language learners, and the results were that they interpreted "before" correctly but used an order-of-mention strategy for "after," the equivalent to Clark's Bl stage.24 It may be that L2 learners also start with an order-of-mention strategy, which they gradually overcome. So it is not linked to cognitive development but to language development. However, not too much weight should be attached to this because, like morpheme acquisition studies, it may be simply an idiosyncrasy of some grammatical items in English rather than any general principle.

However, let us look at a more precise point of cognitive development that can be tested through L2 research. This is the development of memory in the child. Though much remains controversial, two broad statements can be made about memory development; one is that the capacity of the child's memory increases with age; the other is that the child only gradually acquires adult memory strategies.25 One question is the extent to which memory is transferred to a new language. So far as short-term memory is concerned, it seems that not only is a large part of the capacity transferred but also the adult use of encoding through sounds. With long-term memory, there seems less transfer, and even learners at an advanced stage do not show clustering effects of vocabulary.24 Let us take one particular memory strategy, namely, rehearsal, and see if this is transferred from one language to another. The earlier research with native children suggested that rehearsal developed rather late in the child;2e children will rehearse if they are instructed to but will not do so spontaneously.27 However, attention now is focused more on the different ways of rehearsal; Craik and Watkins suggest within a levels-of-processing model that "maintenance" rehearsal is less effective than "elaborative" rehearsal.28 The child therefore may not be learning how to rehearse so to speak but learning different ways of rehearsing. Ornstein and Naus have shown in several experiments that younger children rehearse by repeating each item they hear several times, a repeating strategy;30 older children rehearse by combining several of the items they have heard together, a combining strategy. The main developmental shift therefore is from a repeating strategy to a combining strategy.

But is this a question of cognitive or of language development? It might be that you need a certain cognitive level before you can use a com­bining strategy effectively, or it might be that you need a certain amount of language development in a particular language, as for instance Stolz and Tiffany found occurs with the syntagmatic paradigmatic shift in word associations.30 Since adult L2 learners are cognitively mature but at a low level of language, here again L2 research may provide the crucial test. An experiment therefore was carried out to see if rehearsal strategies are transferred to a memory task in a new language rather than relearned from the beginning. Nine Spanish-speaking learners of English were used, who had been in England for six months. The task was modelled on that used by Orstein, Naus, and Liberty.31 The materials were four lists of 12 monosyllabic high-frequency English nouns, recorded with a five-second pause after each item. At the end of each list, the students had two minutes to write down as many words as they could remember. But they were also asked to rehearse aloud as they listened, and this was recorded. The subjects were given examples of repeating and combining strategies but were not told which to use. The results were that the students on average repeated an item 6 times per list and combined an item 18 times. Taken individually, only one of the nine students used the repeating strategy more often than the combining strategy. Put another way, out of the 36 sets of rehearsal recorded, 33 had more combining responses than repeating responses, 3 had more repeating responses (p < 0.05, sign test). This suggests that the combining strategy is indeed transferred to a new language, that it is part of cognitive rather than language development. The loophole that is left unfilled is whether these subjects used combining in Spanish, since it is possible, even if highly implausible, that Spanish speakers do not use combining strategies in Spanish and learn it specifically for using English. But putting aside this faint possibility, we do seem to have shown that the development of rehearsal strategies is indeed dependent on cognitive development; adults learning a second language rehearse in an adult way, not a childlike way. In this case, as with "before" and "after," L2 research can be used as a kind of touchstone to test ideas in developmental psychology.

To conclude, this paper has traced some of the links between L2 research and the areas of language teaching and developmental psychology. Whatever the faults of earlier researchers in second-language learning, they saw themselves in a broader context. In the present period of L2 research, we are in danger of isolating ourselves from our neighbours and of underestimating the importance of our potential contribution outside our own area. We should not forget that our research can have at least two far-ranging consequences. One is as a contribution to the study of the human mind, because of the unique nature of L2 learning. The other is as a contribution to the learning and teaching of languages; language teaching is a worldwide enterprise. Let us not forget that the insights from our field of inquiry can influence for better or worse the lives of vast numbers of people.

acknowledgment

I am grateful to Paul Meara and Fred Chambers for substantial comments on this paper, many of which have been incorporated.

references

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Verbal and nonverbal rehearsal in children's recall. Child Dev. 40: 443-452.

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