Theory construction in second language acquisition

Theory construction in second language acquisition. By Geoff Jordan. (Language learning & language teaching 8.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2004. Pp. xviii, 295. ISBN 158814821. $42.95.

Reviewed by Marcus Callies, Philipps-University Marburg

The study of second language acquisition (SLA) is a comparatively young field of research that is increasingly being viewed as a branch of cognitive science. There is still little agreement on what phenomena of SLA are to be explained and what counts as an explanation. Moreover, researchers appear to have reached only a minimal consensus as to what the object of study of a theory of SLA is and what the goals of such a theory are. Instead, the field has witnessed a proliferation of theories and, even more so, of models, hypotheses, and theoretical constructs. SLA being an interdisciplinary enterprise, its theories draw on and have been influenced by a large number of other disciplines within the social and cognitive sciences such as linguistics, psychology, and sociology. Thus, only little progress toward a unified theory of SLA has been made.

The present book provides an overview of long-standing issues and debates in SLA and presents a comparative analysis of rival SLA theories. While theory proliferation is usually considered a weakness of a discipline, Jordan asks whether having various theories really is a disadvantage. He suggests that we may actually need more than one unifying theory to break up the many research areas subsumed under SLA. J argues that instead of setting up virtually impossible conditions for an SLA theory, competing theories need to be evaluated in terms of well-defined, rational assessment criteria that can serve as a common basis for theory construction. Thus, unlike existing volumes that aim at providing an overview of SLA theories (Diane Larsen-Freeman and Michael Long, An introduction to second language acquisition research, London: Longman, 1991; Rosamond Mitchell and Florence Myles, Second language learning theories, London: Arnold, 1998), J sets up a series of such criteria (his ‘Guidelines’), based on theories of science, against which existing theories of SLA are evaluated in the second part of the book.

Part 1 discusses fundamental issues concerning the construction and assessment of SLA theories. In Ch. 1, J outlines some key terms and current problems in SLA, explores the central issues in the philosophy of science (Chs. 2 and 3), defends the rationalist case (Ch. 4), and presents his guidelines for theory assessment (Ch. 5). Part 2 examines various theories, models, and hypotheses of SLA and evaluates them in terms of how well they stand the test of the guidelines. J discusses Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar (UG) and its role in an explanation of SLA (Chs. 6 and 7), as well as approaches to SLA that ‘offend the guidelines’, such as contrastive analysis, Stephen Krashen’s monitor model, variable competence models, environmentalist theories, and the sociopsychological constructs of aptitude and motivation (Ch. 8). Ch. 9 provides an assessment of mostly cognitive approaches that, according to the author, represent ‘signs of progress’ on the road to a theory of SLA: error analysis, the morpheme order studies, developmental studies, processing approaches, and the competition model. Finally, in Ch. 10, J concludes that a theory of SLA should address what L2 competence is, how it is acquired, and how it is put to use. He argues, however, that the domain of SLA theories needs to be far wider than Chomsky’s, as it needs to explain not only a more complex competence, but also performance. The volume ends with a bibliography, and name and subject indices.

In sum, the book provides a useful and highly accessible introduction to the philosophical background to SLA and a good overview of the development of theories and models in SLA. This overview, however, is not fully exhaustive in that, for example, a highly influential approach in SLA such as markedness and (typological) language universals is not discussed. Still, this volume is extremely valuable due its critical approach and comparative evaluation of theories. Thus, it should be of great interest and benefit not only to specialists and researchers, but also to newcomers to the field who need a comprehensive overview.