SOME USES FOR SECOND LANGUAGE LEARNING RESEARCH
ANNALS OF THE NEW YORK ACADEMY OF SCIENCES Volume 379 Pages 251-258 December 30,1981 28706
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.
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
teaching" described by Galyean.7'8
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.
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.
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
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
time then to try out some basic work in this area and to report on work
in progress with speech acts in L2 learning.
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
knew that one speech act was intended rather than another. Clark
has described six of the factors involved.17 In the present
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.
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
statements such as "This soup isn't very nice" and
three questions such as "Do you know John?"—and the subjects had
in the second halves. The other dialogue supplied second halves— three
reactions such as "Really?" and three responses such as "a
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.
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.
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.
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
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
instructed to but will not do so spontaneously.27 However,
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.
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
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.
am grateful to Paul Meara and Fred Chambers for substantial comments
on this paper, many of which have been incorporated.
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