Sunday, October 14, 2007

Book Review: How Languages are Learned

Book Review: How Languages are Learned.
By Patsy M. Lightbown and Nina Spada.
Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1996. 135pp.
ISBN 0 19 437169 7

This book is yet another state-of-the-art survey of second language acquisition. It is the result of the two authors' extensive experience in classroom-centred research on second language acquisition. The book is organised into six chapters. The introduction, the recommended readings concluding each chapter, the glossary of the words that have special or technical meaning within second language acquisition research and language teaching, the bibliography and the index are all admirable. In the introduction, the authors make what seems to be an unusually commonsense point. We are told that 'One important basis for evaluating the potential effectiveness of new methods is, of course , the teacher's own experience with previous successes or disappointments. In addition, teachers who are informed of some of the findings of recent research are better prepared to judge whether the new proposals for language teaching are likely to bring about positive changes in students' learning '. In this introduction, we are also invited to reflect upon (1) twelve popular views about how languages are learned and (2) what the implications are in respect of how these languages should be taught. The questionnaire used for this purpose has been professionally executed. I outline these views below as they are, taken as a whole, an organiser for five chapters (1-5) of the book and as they engage us personally throughout the remainder of the book.
  1. Languages are learned mainly through imitation.
  2. Parents usually correct young children when they make grammatical errors.
  3. People with high IQs are good language learners.
  4. The most important factor in second language acquisition success is motivation.
  5. The earlier a second language is introduced in school programs, the greater the likelihood of success in learning.
  6. Most of the mistakes which second language learners make are due to interference from their first language.
  7. Teachers should present grammatical rules one at a time, and learners should practice examples of each one before going on to another.
  8. Teachers should teach simple language structures before complex ones.
  9. Learners' errors should be corrected as soon as they are made in order to prevent the formation of bad habits.
  10. Teachers should use materials that expose students only to those language structures which have already been taught.
  11. When learners are allowed to interact freely ( for example in group or pair activities), they learn each other's mistakes.
  12. Students learn what they are taught.

The authors' argument is corroborated by evidence - a series of case studies illustrating the phenomena under scrutiny. These are truly convincing.
In the second chapter, the authors present and assess four theories of language: behaviourism, cognitive theory, creative construction theory , interactionist theory. Their focus on only these theories has been justified on the grounds that they represent views which are based on the assumption that first and second language learning are identical.

The third chapter neatly deals with the ways in which intelligence, aptitude, personality, and motivational characteristics, learning styles, and age can impact on second language learning. The authors are disarmingly honest in warning that the research literature in learner characteristics is extremely scarce: 'so far, researchers know very little about the nature of these complex interactions' they warn. Yet, they assert that 'in a classroom, a sensitive teacher, who takes learners' individual personalities and learning styles into account can create a learning environment in which all learners can be successful in learning a second language'.

The fourth chapter focuses on learner language. Drawing on the findings of second acquisition research, the authors present a number of samples of learner language to illustrate the various research findings and 'to give you an opportunity to practice analysing learner language.' Of particular interest to the reader here is the over-all picture of the steps learners go through in acquiring elements of the second language.

In the fifth chapter, the authors argue convincingly that both accuracy and fluency should be focused on concurrently. We are, then, offered a series of tips on how this can be done. This chapter merits careful reading by any classroom practitioner willing to go against the prevailing trend which completely rejects attention to form and error correction.

As indicated above, in the sixth and final chapter the authors present their own responses to the twelve commonly expressed views on language learning and what their implications are with regard to how languages should be taught. For example as regards the view that languages are learned mainly through imitation and its implication for language teaching, the authors assert that 'children do not imitate everything they hear, but often selectively imitate certain words or structures which they are in the process of learning. This is also true of younger and older learners learning their second language in natural settings.' True, imitation has some role to play in language teaching, but it should not be taken too far, they seem to suggest.

Evaluated in terms of its own aims, the book succeeds. It provides us with information about the findings and theoretical views in second language acquisition research, which 'allows us to better judge the claims made by textbook writers and proponents of various teaching methods'. Nonetheless, there are some curious omissions in Lightbown and Spada's survey of the literature. For example, the implications of second language acquisition for language syllabus design. Also missing is any reference to what the learner linguistic input can tell us about second language acquisition. And I would have liked more discussion of the impact of the conversational adjustments that native speakers make in interacting with non-native speakers upon acquisition. None of these complaints, however, diminishes the significance of what this book accomplishes.

Dulay, M., M.Burt, and S.Krashen.1982. Language Two. New York: Oxford University Press.
Einstein, M., N.Bailey, and C.Madden. 1982. It takes two: Contrasting tasks and contrasting structures. TESOL Quarterly 16/3: 381-93.
Ellis, R. 1985. Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hatch E.1983. Psycholinguistics: A Second Language Perspective. Rowley, Mass : Newbury House.
Pienemann, M. and M. Johnson.1987. In D. Nunan (ed). Applying Second Language Acquisition Research. Adelaide: National Curriculum Resource Centre.

Reviewed by Mohamed Najbi (Master's in TESP (the teaching of English for Specific Purposes) from the University of Exeter, England, currently a member of the Textbook Writing Unit in the Moroccan Ministry of National Education, co-author of Bridges - a wide-angled ESP textbook that is used in Moroccan secondary schools.

1 comment:

  1. "People with high IQs are good language learners."

    It sounds opposite to me! *sob*


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