Researching Acquisition Sequences: Idealization and De‐idealization in SLA
Ellis, R. (2015)., Language Learning Early view
“learners of different ages, with and without instruction, in foreign and second language settings, follow similar developmental sequences for such items as English negation”
Ellis develops an epistemological framework drawing on idealisation theory in the philosophy of science (Leszek Nowak, Cliff Hooker, Michael Weisberg) which he then applies to four successive studies of L2 negation in the same dataset, from 1978 to 2011. While retaining an interest in variation both at the level of learner language and theory development, he concludes that research generally supports the developmental sequence model of second language acquisition.
What follows is my own summary of Ellis’ argument in this 2015 Language Learning article. The references are his; I haven’t included dates in the text.
Early, cognitive models of SLA (Corder) based on developmental stages have been challenged by socio-cognitive theory (Watson-Gegeo, Lantolf), discourse/conversation analysis (Firth & Wagner), and dynamic systems theory (Larsen-Freeman, de Bot et al.). Ellis argues that we should therefore “reevaluate the long-held claim that the acquisition of L2 grammatical features involves predictable and universal stages of development” (p. 2).
Research in interlanguage variation (Ellis, Tarone) shows that such stages are an idealisation. Order of acquisition studies (Dulay & Burt), work on sequences of acquisition (Dulay, Burt & Krashen), and developmental sequence research (Pieneman & colleagues) have variously measured the emergence and stabilisation of morphemes and syntactic forms in learner language. Variation in the production of these forms has been related to factors such as context (Tarone, Ellis), form-function mapping (Schachter), and creative speech versus formulaic chunks (N. Ellis). This research appears to call into question “the existence of clearly delineated stages of acquisition and also emphasize the differences in the L2 development of individual learners.” The alternative term “trajectories of learning” is preferred to “sequences of acquisition.”
To judge these different types of research, R. Ellis asks
- What exactly is a theory?
- What is the process by which theories are developed?
- What constitutes robust empirical evidence?
He reviews the investigation of developmental sequences in L2 acquisition by researchers using “set-of-laws theory,” or “research-then-theory” (as opposed to “axiomatic-causal theory,” or “theory-then-research”). Following Long, this work has focused on selecting a phenomenon such as negation, examining samples of learner language to identify systematic patterns, and then proposing generalisations about the acquisition of this interlanguage feature. These generalisation are idealisations, being accurate, though simplified, theoretically tenable, intelligible, and empirically verifiable (Hooker). An idealisation neglects secondary factors (Nowak) and intentionally distorts, for pragmatic reasons, or as a minimalist model (Weisberg). For Hooker, idealisation can have a positive effect (“simplifying,” when based on correctible quantitative error) or a negative effect (“degenerate,” based on conceptual error).
Weisberg argues for multiple models to achieve greater generality, accuracy, precision and simplicity and Ellis concurs, since “theories (and the idealizations that constitute them) can only be judged in terms of the specific domain they address.” He takes a relativist stance, following Schumann’s position that “all knowledge is subjective and reality is multiple.” He further argues that theories can be de-idealised without abandonment.
L2 negation studies
Applied to the question of acquisitional sequences, Ellis reviews four approaches to Cancino et al.’s 1978 data from six naturalistic learners of English in their first year after arrival in the US, involving both spontaneous and elicited oral production from two young, two adolescent and two adult Spanish speakers collected over a 10-month period.
- Cancino et al’s original analysis discarded memorised chunks (e.g. I don’t know) and calculated frequency of types of negation over time to produce a universal developmental sequence. Not all subjects had reached the end of the sequence by the end of the study, and one was considered to have stopped developing (fossilised; Alberto).
- Schachter then reanalysed data from another of the six learners (Jorge) to relate different forms of negation to discourse function (e.g., rejection, affirmation).
- In the third study, Berdan conducted a more sophisticated frequency analysis to show systematic use and development of negation in the learner originally considered to have fossilised.
- Finally, Van Dijk et al took a dynamic systems approach and through statistical analysis highlighted the importance of interlearner variation which was related to age. This analysis also showed random variability in use of negation forms for one learner.
These results call into question Long’s claim that L2 learners follow similar developmental sequences. They show it to be a simplifying idealisation which nonetheless holds up well in the four studies examined. Ellis argues that these studies de-idealise the theory in helpful ways, particularly for those who seek to apply SLA research findings to instruction. (In this respect, the dynamic systems analysis does not offer an improved model.) Since the studies focused on untutored learners with the same L1/L2 pairing, the effects of instruction, and of other languages, must be verified. In the meantime, however, R. Ellis suggests that his arguments drawn from the philosophy of science should militate against discarding Long’s developmental sequence “law.”
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