A sharply defined critical period for language acquisition: Hartshorne, Tenenbaum & Pinker 2018

IMG_4261.jpgA critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers

Hartshorne, J. K., Tenenbaum, J. B., & Pinker, S. (2018). A critical period for second language acquisition: evidence from 2/3 million English speakers. Cognition.



Children learn language more easily than adults, though when and why this ability declines have been obscure for both empirical reasons (underpowered studies) and conceptual reasons (measuring the ultimate attainment of learners who started at different ages cannot by itself reveal changes in underlying learning ability). We address both limitations with a dataset of unprecedented size (669,498 native and non-native English speakers) and a computational model that estimates the trajectory of underlying learning ability by disentangling current age, age at first exposure, and years of experience. This allows us to provide the first direct estimate of how grammar-learning ability changes with age, finding that it is preserved almost to the crux of adulthood (17.4 years old) and then declines steadily. This finding held not only for “difficult” syntactic phenomena but also for “easy” syntactic phenomena that are normally mastered early in acquisition. The results support the existence of a sharply-defined critical period for language acquisition, but the age of offset is much later than previously speculated. The size of the dataset also provides novel insight into several other outstanding questions in language acquisition.

Keywords: Language acquisition, Critical period, L2 acquisition

This study used a carefully designed and piloted Facebook quiz to test grammatical competence among L1 and L2 speakers of English of all ages and language backgrounds, with varying exposure and ages of onset. The study aims to answer the well-known question why older L2 learners generally do not reach L1 proficiency, based on the hypothesis of a critical period for (second) language acquisition.

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Hartshorne, Tenenbaum & Pinker (2018) sought to meet the need for larger sample sizes to check the statistical robustness of studies like Johnson and Newport (1989) and tease out contributing factors. This earlier, landmark study of what has been called the critical period for second language acquisition found

a clear and strong advantage for earlier arrivals over the later arrivals. Test performance was linearly related to age of arrival up to puberty; after puberty, performance was low, but highly variable and unrelated to age of arrival

Johnson and Newport (1989) was a grammaticality judgement study of 46 speakers of Chinese or Korean, with age of arrival between 3 and 39, and exposure times of 3-26 years. Age of testing is not reported.

The results show a clear and strong relationship between age of arrival in the United States and performance. Subjects who began acquiring English in the US at an earlier age obtained higher scores on the test than those that began later

The researchers highlighted two further points

(1) Before age 15, and most particularly before age 10, there are very few individual differences in ultimate ability to learn language within any particular age group; success in learning is almost entirely predicted by the age at which it begins.

(2) For adults, later age of acquisition determines that one will not become native or near-native in a language; however there are large individual variations in ultimate ability in the language, within the lowered range of performance.

Hartshorne et al (2018), however, distinguish three potential influencing factors, and underline the need for many more participants to test their effects on (second) language acquisition.

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To tackle this problem, the researchers designed a language quiz called Which English? The quiz used an algorithm to predict someone’s language background based on responses to a series of items (grammaticality judgement) with the aim of a) encouraging people to share their results on Facebook, thus encouraging massive participation, and b) collecting secondary data on quiz takers to purportedly refine the algorithm. As noted in the abstract, data were collected on 669K speakers. Thirty-eight L1 groups provided more than one thousand speakers, and participants were classified as monolingual L1 (N = 246K), non-immersion L2 (N = 267K), and immersion L2 (i.e., bilinguals or later English-environment learners N = 45K).

The paper is open access and supplementary materials are also available; much space is given to technical discussion of statistics. Here I present only the findings in lay terms. First, the study showed that there is a drop in learning rate at approximately 17 years of age, but that L1-level proficiency is only attained by learners beginning at age 10-12. The critical period for second language acquisition thus takes the form of “a plateau followed by a continuous decline” (Hartshorne et al. 2018: 12)

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This distinction is explained by the length of time required for ultimate attainment, which – at 30 years – appears from this study to be much longer than originally estimated for both L1 and L2 speakers.

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So Hartshorne et al (2018) looked for ultimate attainment among learners with 30 years’ exposure and aged under 70 at the time of testing (to control for potential cognitive decline).

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After running their statistical tests with numbers of participants which are comparable to previous studies, they find that the earlier results can be explained as statistical anomalies, that is, would not have appeared to be statistically significant if larger numbers of participants had been involved.

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What about different types of grammatical competence, that is, features which children tend to acquire early versus those which are only learned later?

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As far as the influence of L1 is concerned, numbers of participants were generally too low for reliable results, but little effect for larger language families was found:

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The paper concludes with the usual limitations section, citing test modality (comprehension only), quiz difficulty (ceiling effect), and L1 effects (results are “ephiphenomenal average” concealing different trajectories). The authors discuss possible reasons for this finding of a critical period: since hormonal changes must now be discarded, other influences may include cultural factors, L1 influence, modifications in neural plasticity, and maturation of neural circuitry. Phonology is a separate issue obviously not addressed in this study, while other demographic effects not relevant to the critical period appear in the results but remain to be analysed.


Johnson, J. S., & Newport, E. L. (1989). Critical period effects in second language
learning: The influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second
language. Cognitive Psychology, 21(1), 60–99.


EuroSLA 27: 2017 conference in Reading, UK

The conference of the European association for second language acquisition was held in Reading this year, August 29 to September 2. I followed what I could online, and here are the collected tweets with thanks to everyone who contributed.

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Some links


Innovation in language learning/teaching research in France (1964-2013)

Applied linguistics versus linguistique appliquée : innovation in language learning/teaching research in France (1964-2013)
Research Network 2
Tuesday, 25/Jul/2017: 10:15am – 7:00pm
Location: Queluz II
Richard Smith (University of Warwick), Giovanni Iamartino (University of Milan)


Aubin S. (2016). Bibliographie récapitulative de Robert Galisson. In Ferrao Tavares, C., & Cortès, J. (2016). Synergies Portugal, Revue du GERFLINT, 4: 195-9. http://gerflint.fr/Base/Portugal4/bibliographie_galisson.pdf
Ayoun, D. (Ed.). (2007). French applied linguistics. John Benjamins Publishing.
Chiss, J-L., (2010). Linguistique française et enseignement du français (de l’EPPFE à l’UFR DFLE) : l’épreuve de l’étranger, Documents pour l’histoire du français langue étrangère ou seconde, 44: 129-140.
Berthet, M. (2011). La linguistique appliquée a l’enseignement des langues secondes aux Etats-unis, en France et en Grande-Bretagne. Histoire Épistémologie Langage, 33(1), 83-97.
Berthet, M. (2010). De l’IPFE à l’UFR de didactique du français langue étrangère. Enjeux disciplinaires et institutionnels (1960-2000) », Documents pour l’histoire du français langue étrangère ou seconde http://dhfles.revues.org/2786
Carter, R., & McCarthy, M. (2015). Spoken grammar: Where are we and where are we going?. Applied Linguistics, 1-21.
Cobb, T. (2009). An applied linguist’s response to the linguists’ Projet de reconfiguration. [open access]
Corder, S. P. (1967). The significance of learner’s errors. IRAL-International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 5(1-4), 161-170.
Cultures de recherche en linguistique appliquée. (2013). Colloque CRELA, Nancy, France. Appel à communication. PDF
Culioli, A. (2000). La théorie des opérations énonciatives. Conférence Université Toulouse 2 Le Mirail. https://www.canal-u.tv/video/universite_toulouse_ii_le_mirail/la_theorie_des_operations_enonciatives_antoine_culioli.7883
Davies, A (2004). Corder, Stephen Pit (1918–1990). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press
De Bot, K. (2015). A history of applied linguistics: From 1980 to the present. Routledge.
Ferrao Tavares, C., & Cortès, J. (2016). Avec Robert Galisson, réhabiliter la Culture comme discipline universitaire à part entière. Synergies Portugal, Revue du GERFLINT, 4.
Fries, C. C. (1955). American Linguistics and the teaching of English, Language Learning 6 (1), 1-22.
Galisson, R. (1985). Didactologies et idéologies, Études de linguistique appliquée 60, 5-16.
Galisson, R.  (1988). La didactique des langues secondes : une discipline autonome ? Bulletin de l’ACLA 10 / 2, 99-106.
Galisson, R. (1994). Un espace disciplinaire pour l’enseignement/apprentissage des langues-cultures en France: État des lieux et perspective. Revue française de pédagogie, 25-37. [open access]
Galisson, R.  (1997). Les concepts fondateurs de la didactologie sont-ils passeurs de gué légitimes ? Etudes de linguistique appliquée 105, 73-92.
Galisson, R.  (1998). A la recherche de l’éthique dans les disciplines d’intervention. De l’éthique en didactique des langues étrangères », Etudes de linguistique appliquée109, 83-127.
Germain, C. (2010). Didactique générale, didactique des langues et linguistique appliquée. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics/Revue canadienne de linguistique appliquée, 3(1-2), 23-33.
Gregg, K. (1996). Taking explanation seriously: Or, let a couple of flowers bloom. Applied linguistics, 14: 276-94.
Gregg, K. R. (1989). Second language acquisition theory: the case for a generative perspective . In S. M. Gass and J. Schachter (eds), Linguistic Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition, 15-40. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Histoire Épistémologie Langage, 33(1) 2011. Linguistique appliquée et disciplinarisation. [open access]
Lantolf, J. P. (1996). SLA theory building:“Letting all the flowers bloom!”. Language Learning, 46(4), 713-749.
Léon, J. (2015). Linguistique appliquée et traitement automatique des langues. Etude historique et comparative. Recherches en Didactique des Langues et Cultures: les Cahiers de l’Acedle, 12(3), 9-32.
Liddicoat, A. J. (2009). La didactique et ses equivalents en anglais: terminologies et cadres theoriques dans la circulation des idees, Francais dans le monde: Recherches et applications, 46: 33-41.
Linn, A. R. (2008). The birth of applied linguistics: The Anglo-Scandinavian school as  ‘discourse community’. Historiographia Linguistica, 35(3), 342-384.
Linn, A. (2011). Impact: Linguistics in the real world. Histoire Épistémologie Langage, 33(1), 15-27.
Linn, A., Candel, D., & Léon, J. (2011). Présentation: Linguistique appliquée et disciplinarisation. Histoire Épistémologie Langage, 33(1), 7-14.
Long, M. (2017). Instructed second language acquisition (ISLA): geopolitics, methodological issues, and some major research questions. Instructed second language acquisition, 1 (1): 7-44.  PDF
Moulin, M., Odin, H., & Bouscaren, J. (1996). Pratique raisonnée de la langue: initiation à une grammaire de l’énonciation pour l’étude et l’enseignement de l’anglais. Editions OPHRYS.
Research cultures in applied linguistics. (2013). Colloque CRELA, Nancy, France. Call for papers. PDF
Schwerdtfeger, Inge C. (2003): „Der europäische Referenzrahmen – oder: Das Ende der Erforschung des Sprachenlernens?“, in: Bausch, Karl-Richard et al. (eds.), pp. 173-179. Der Gemeinsame Europäische Referenzrahmen für Sprachen in der Diskussion.
Smith, R. (2015). Building ‘Applied Linguistic Historiography’: Rationale, Scope, and Methods. Applied Linguistics.
Smith, R., & McLelland, N. (2014). An interview with John Trim (1924–2013) on the history of modern language learning and teaching. Language & History, 57(1), 10-25.
Tarone, E. (2015). Second language acquisition in applied linguistics: 1925–2015 and beyond. Applied Linguistics, 36(4), 444-453.
Valdman, A. (2004). Reflexions sur L’histoire de l’AILA. AILA Review, 17(1), 2-5.
Véronique, G. (2009). La linguistique appliquée et la didactique des langues et des cultures: une polémique française au cœur d’un débat international. La circulation internationale des idées en DDL, Recherches et applications–Le français dans le monde, (46), 42-52.
Véronique, D. (2010). La recherche sur l’acquisition des langues étrangères: entre le nomologique et l’actionnel. Le français dans le monde-Recherches et applications, (48), 76-85.
Widdowson, H. G. (2000). On the limitations of linguistics applied. Applied linguistics, 21(1), 3-25.
Widdowson, H. (1990). In memoriam Pit Corder. Applied Linguistics,11 (4): 321-s-321. doi: 10.1093/applin/11.4.321-s
Widdowson, H. G. (1980). Models and fictions. Applied Linguistics, 1(2), 165-170.
Wyss, A. (2002). Présentation de M. Antoine Culioli. Dies academicus, Université de Lausanne. http://www.unil.ch/central/files/live/sites/central/files/ds/html/dies/dies2002/images/culioli.pdf
Zarate, G., & Liddicoat, A. (2009). La circulation internationale des idées en didactique des langues. Recherches et Applications / Le Français dans le Monde PDF

Formulaic sequences in EAP and SLA

Formulaic sequences in English for Academic Purposes and Second Language Acquisition: towards the characterisation of lexico-grammatical norms
GERAS 2017

Shona Whyte & Cédric Sarré

This paper discusses a phenomenon often discussed under the umbrella term “formulaic sequences” (FS) and used to refer to chunks, clusters, collocations, idiomatic expressions, multi-word expressions, lexicogrammatical patterns, or processing units in different areas of psycholinguistics, systemic-functional linguistics, second language research and corpus linguistics, to name but these fields. With respect to the teaching and learning of English for Specific Purposes (ESP), formulaic sequences are of interest from two contrasting perspectives. The first, more traditional approach in ESP, has been to treat FS from a speaker-external perspective, defining FS as “the use of idioms, idiomatic expressions, and collocations used by NSs and L2 learners, that is, what is formulaic in a given language” (Myles & Cordier, 2016). In phraseological terms, FS may be viewed as “the preferred way of saying things in a particular discourse” (Gledhill, 2000). A second approach is favoured in second language acquisition research, and involves a speaker-internal or psycholinguistic definition of FS as “multiword units which present a processing advantage for a given speaker, either because they are stored whole in his/her mental lexicon (Wray 2002) or because they are highly automatised” (Cordier, 2013). Each approach is appropriate to the research questions of interest. Thus in second language research, objectives include the characterisation of FS in L2 speech production and their role in L2 development. Studies thus compare learners’ use of strings retrieved holistically with those generated online, using distinguishing criteria such as fluency, form-function mapping, and frequency in input and output (Myles & Cordier, 2016). In ESP research, on the other hand, one goal is to improve the efficiency of ESP teaching by focusing on particular FS. Give the importance of FS in fluent processing, and high frequency of such “semi-preconstructed phrases” (Sinclair, 1991), it is argued that “the more frequent items have the highest utility and should therefore be taught and tested earlier” (Nation, 2001, cited in Simpson-Vlach & Ellis, 2010). To this end, Simpson-Vlach and Ellis (2010) applied a number of frequency, collocational and pedagogical criteria to FS in spoken and written corpora of academic and general English to generate an academic formulas list of 200 FS deemed most worth teaching. It remains to be shown, however, how L2 acquisition of such externally defined FS proceeds, or how pedagogical intervention can encourage this process. This paper reviews definitions of FS from these two contrasting perspectives, highlighting problems at the intersection of the two approaches identified by Myles and Cordier (2016). It discusses the design of research instruments to replicate an empirical study by Lindstrom et al (2016) in order to address the question of how FS can best be taught and learned in English for Academic Purposes.


Boers, F., Eyckmans, J., Kappel, J., Stengers, H., & Demecheleer, M. (2006). Formulaic sequences and perceived oral proficiency: Putting a lexical approach to the test. Language teaching research, 10(3), 245-261.
Bolinger, D. (1979). Meaning and memory. Experience forms: Their cultural and individual place and function, 95-111.
Corrigan, R., Moravcsik, E. A., Ouali, H., & Wheatley, K. (Eds.). (2009). Formulaic language: Volume 1. Distribution and historical change. New York: Benjamins.
Corrigan, R., Moravcsik, E. A., Ouali, H., & Wheatley, K. (Eds.). (2009). Formulaic language: Volume 2. Acquisition, loss, psychological reality, and functional explanations. New York: Benjamins.
Ellis, N. C. (2002). Frequency effects in language processing. Studies in second language acquisition, 24(02), 143-188.
Ellis, N. C., Simpson‐vlach, R., & Maynard, C. (2008). Formulaic language in native and second language speakers: Psycholinguistics, corpus linguistics, and TESOL. Tesol Quarterly, 42(3), 375-396.
Fitzpatrick, T., & Wray, A. (2006). Breaking up is not so hard to do: Individual differences in L2 memorization. Canadian Modern Language Review, 63(1), 35-57.
Gatbonton, E., & Segalowitz, N. (1988). Creative automatization: Principles for promoting fluency within a communicative framework. TESOL quarterly, 22(3), 473-492.
Gilquin, G., Granger, S., & Paquot, M. (2007). Learner corpora: The missing link in EAP pedagogy. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 6(4), 319-335.
Gleason, J. B., & Weintraub, S. (1976). The acquisition of routines in child language. Language in Society, 5(02), 129-136.
Gledhill, C. J. (2000). Collocations in science writing (Vol. 22). Gunter Narr Verlag.
Gledhill, C., & Kübler, N. (2016). What can linguistic approaches bring to English for Specific Purposes?. ASp. la revue du GERAS, (69), 65-95.
Granger, S., & Meunier, F. (2008). Phraseology in language learning and teaching: Where to from here? Phraseology in foreign language learning and teaching, 247-252.
Hoang, H., & Boers, F. (2016). Re-telling a story in a second language: How well do adult learners mine an input text for multiword expressions?. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 6(3), 513-535.
Lindstromberg, S., Eyckmans, J., & Connabeer, R. (2016). A modified dictogloss for helping learners remember L2 academic English formulaic sequences for use in later writing. English for Specific Purposes, 41, 12-21.
Meunier, F., & Granger, S. (Eds.). (2008). Phraseology in foreign language learning and teaching. New York: Benjamins.
Myles, F., & Cordier, C. (2017). Formulaic sequence (FS) cannot be an umbrella term in SLA: Focusing on psycholinguistic FSs and their identification. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 1-26.
Nation, P. 2001. Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Paquot, M., & Granger, S. (2012). Formulaic language in learner corpora. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 32, 130-149.
Pawley, A., & Syder, F. H. (1983). Two puzzles for linguistic theory: Nativelike selection and nativelike fluency. Language and communication, 191, 225.
Peters, A. M. (1983). The units of language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Peters, E., & Pauwels, P. (2015). Learning academic formulaic sequences. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 20, 28-39.
Rundell, M., & Fox, G. (Eds.). (2007). Macmillan English dictionary for advanced learners.2nd edition. Oxford: Macmillan. (key features)
Simpson-Vlach, R., & Ellis, N. C. (2010). An academic formulas list: New methods in phraseology research. Applied Linguistics, 31(4), 487-512.
Sinclair, J. 1991. Corpus, concordance, collocation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tomasello, M. (2000). First steps toward a usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cognitive linguistics, 11(1/2), 61-82.
Weinert, R. (1995). The role of formulaic language in second language acquisition: A review. Applied linguistics, 16(2), 180-205.
Fillmore, L. W. (1976). The second time around: Cognitive and social strategies in second language acquisition. Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University.
Wray, A. (2012). What do we (think we) know about formulaic language? An evaluation of the current state of play. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 32, 231-254.
Wray, Alison. 2002. Formulaic Language and the Lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wray, A. and Fitzpatrick, T. (2008). ‘Why Can’t you Just Leave it Alone? Deviations from Memorized Language as a Gauge of Nativelike Competence’, in F. Meunier and S. Granger (eds), Phraseology in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching (123–48).

What’s in your head? Van Patten on language teaching

In his video lectures What everyone should know about second language acquisition, Bill VanPatten attacks a number of myths about language learning and teaching. He claims  foreign language teachers don’t know about second language research findings, and so are unable to make teaching decisions based on this research.

Following the adage there’s nothing more practical than a good theory, VanPatten gives an overview of theories about the nature of language with a view to dispelling some myths. Part 1 introduces the following, then develops the first point:

  1. What’s in your head is not what you think is there.
  2. Practice is not what it’s cracked up to be.
  3. Communication is distinct from mental representation.
  4. You cannot automatically blame the first language.
  5. Language acquisition isn’t always about aptitude.
  6. Acquisition is just too complex to reduce to simple ideas – there are no shortcuts to language acquisition.

What we know about language is an implicit, abstract representation, but the rules we know are not “the rules in your head” and the mental representation is nothing like pedagogical grammatical rules (in grammar books).

  1. re- means do again
    rerecord, remake, redo – to do these things again
    Possible with some verbs (resurface) but not others (*repet)
  2. ain’t isn’t good English
    I ain’t got none versus *I’aint have any
    Even if it’s not standard language, it still has a grammar (in your head)
  3. Y/N question formation
    Does Bill study second language acquisition?
    Does study Bill study second acquisition acquisition?
    Studies Bill second language acquisition?

What speakers have in their minds is an abstract system. But these cannot be stated simply; there are no rules to be learned.

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Pedagogical rules describe the surface parts of the sentence but not the underlying information (features and operations) which are really inside your head. Much of the grammatical information is actually stored in words.

How about conjugation and declensions? What people have are networks of words with connections to meanings, inflections and grammatical information.

In our heads, we have information that governs what is possible and not possible, and also networks that encode meaning and grammatical information. We don’t have rules in the sense that we teach or discuss as language teachers.

How does this information get into our heads? VanPatten tackles this issue in the subsequent video clips.


In support of a developmental sequence model of second language acquisition: Ellis, 2015

Researching Acquisition Sequences: Idealization and De‐idealization in SLA
Ellis, R. (2015)., Language Learning Early view

DSC04473This paper examines Long’s claim regarding developmental sequences in second language acquisition, or what R. Ellis terms “Long’s law:”

“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.”

Epistemological framework

To judge these different types of research, R. Ellis asks

  1. What exactly is a theory?
  2. What is the process by which theories are developed?
  3. 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.”

References (Ellis, 2015)

  • Berdan, R. (1996). Disentangling language acquisition from language variation. In R. Bayley & D. Preston (Eds.), Second language acquisition and linguistic variation (pp. 203244). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. CrossRef
  • Cancino, H., Rosansky, E., & Schumann, J. H. (1978). The acquisition of English negatives and interrogatives by native Spanish speakers. In E. Hatch (Ed.), Second language acquisition (pp. 207230). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
  • Corder, S. P. (1967). The significance of learners’ errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 5, 161170. CrossRef,
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Epistemological issues in L2 research and teaching

gateSome quotes (English, français) on what we do when we conduct L2 research, who is involved, for what reasons, and how we go about it. Then how this relates to the second (foreign) language classroom – whether second language teaching is a separate or related endeavour, and how technologies and teacher engagement with research affect the picture.

See quotes