Theories in Second Language Acquisition
eBook - ePub

Theories in Second Language Acquisition

An Introduction

Bill VanPatten, Gregory D. Keating, Stefanie Wulff, Bill VanPatten, Gregory D. Keating, Stefanie Wulff

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eBook - ePub

Theories in Second Language Acquisition

An Introduction

Bill VanPatten, Gregory D. Keating, Stefanie Wulff, Bill VanPatten, Gregory D. Keating, Stefanie Wulff

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This third edition of the best-selling Theories in Second Language Acquisition surveys the major theories currently used in second language acquisition (SLA) research, serving as an ideal introductory text for undergraduate and graduate students in SLA and language teaching.

Designed to provide a consistent and coherent presentation for those seeking a basic understanding of the theories that underlie contemporary SLA research, each chapter focuses on a single theory. Chapters are written by leading scholars in the field and incorporate a basic foundational description of the theory, relevant data or research models used with this theory, common misunderstandings, and a sample study from the field to show the theory in practice.

New to this edition is a chapter addressing the relationship between theories and L2 teaching, as well as refreshed coverage of all theories throughout the book. A key work in the study of second language acquisition, this volume will be useful to students of linguistics, language and language teaching, and to researchers as a guide to theoretical work outside their respective domains.

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Informazioni

Editore
Routledge
Anno
2020
ISBN
9780429995538
Edizione
3
Categoria
Linguistica

1

INTRODUCTION

The Nature of Theories
Bill VanPatten, Jessica Williams, Gregory D. Keating, and Stefanie Wulff
Almost everyone has heard of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. People have also heard of things such as the Theory of Evolution, Atomic Theory, Quantum Theory, Plate Tectonics, and The Big Bang Theory. What is common to all these theories is that they are theories about what scientists call natural phenomena: things that we observe every day or are somehow observable. Theories are a fundamental staple in science, and all advances in science are, in some way or another, advances in theory development. If you ask scientists, they would tell you that the sciences could not proceed without theories. And if you ask applied scientists (such as those who develop medicines or attempt to solve the problem of how to travel from Earth to Mars), they would tell you that a good deal of their work is derived from assumptions and laws within theories.
Theories are also used in the social and behavioral sciences, such as psychology, sociology, and economics. As in the natural sciences, social sciences attempt to explain observed phenomena, such as why people remember some things better than others under certain conditions or why the stock market behaves the way it does.
In the field of second language acquisition (SLA) research, theories have also come to occupy a central position. Some researchers, though by no means all, would even say that the only way SLA can advance as a research field is if it is theory driven. The purpose of the present book is to introduce the reader to certain current or mainstream theories in second language (L2) acquisition and provide a background for continued in-depth reading of the same. As a starting point, we will need to examine the nature of theories in general.

What Is a Theory?

At its most fundamental level, a theory is a set of statements (“laws”) about natural phenomena that explains why these phenomena occur the way they do. In the sciences, theories are used in what Kuhn (1996) calls the job of “puzzle solving.” By this, Kuhn means that scientists look at observable phenomena as puzzles or questions to be solved. Why does the earth revolve around the sun and not fly off into space? Why are humans bipedal but gorillas knuckle-walkers? Why are some eyes blue and some brown, for example, but not red or orange? These are all questions about things that confront us every day, and it is the job of scientists to account for them.
In short, then, the first duty of a theory is to account for or explain observed phenomena. But a theory ought to do more than that. A theory also ought to make predictions about what would occur under specific conditions. Let’s look at three examples: one familiar, the other two perhaps less so. In the early part of the 19th century, scientists were already aware of the presence of microorganisms in the air and water, and they had an idea about the connection between the organisms and disease. However, they had no idea of how they came into existence; indeed, belief in the spontaneous generation of these organisms was widespread. Disease was thought to be caused by “bad air.” Careful experimentation by Louis Pasteur and other scientists demonstrated that microbes, though carried by air, are not created by air. Living organisms come from other living organisms. These discoveries led to the development of the germ theory of disease, which proposed that disease was caused by microorganisms. The acceptance of this theory had obvious important applications in public health, such as the development of vaccines, hygienic practices in surgery, and the pasteurization of milk. It not only could explain the presence and spread of disease, but it could also predict, for example, that doctors who delivered babies without washing their hands after performing autopsies on patients who had died from childbirth fever would transmit the disease to new patients. Even more important, the same theory could be used to connect phenomena that, on the surface, appeared unrelated, such as the transmittal of disease, fermentation processes in wine and beer production, and a decline in silkworm production.
Now let’s take an example from psychology. It is an observed phenomenon that some people read and comprehend written text faster and better than others. As researchers began to explore this question, a theory of individual differences in working memory evolved. That theory says that people vary in their ability to hold information in what is called working memory (defined, roughly, as that mental processing space in which a person performs computations on information at lightning speed). More specifically, the theory says that people vary in their working memory capacity: Some have greater capacity for processing incoming information compared with others, but for everyone, capacity is limited in some way. Initially used to account for individual differences in reading comprehension ability in a person’s first language (L1), the theory also accounts for a wide range of seemingly unrelated phenomena, such as why people remember certain sequences of numbers and not others, why they recall certain words that have been heard, why people vary on what parts of sentences or sequences they remember best, why certain stimuli are ignored and others attended to, and why some students are good note takers and others are not. A theory of working memory, then, allows psychologists to unify a variety of behaviors and outcomes that on the surface level do not necessarily appear to be related. There are even attempts to apply the theory to SLA in order to explain why some people learn faster and better than others.
Let’s take a final example, this time from language. In one theory of syntax (sentence structure), a grammar can allow movement of elements in the sentence. This is how we get two sentences that essentially mean the same thing, as in the following:
  • (1) Mary said what?
  • (2) What did Mary say?
In this particular theory, the what in (2) is said to have moved from its position as an object of the verb said to occupy a place in a different part of the sentence. At the same time, this theory also says that when something moves, it leaves a hidden trace. Thus, the syntactician would write (2) like (3):
  • (3) Whati did Mary say ti?
In (3), the t stands for the empty spot that the what left and the i simply shows that the what and the t are “co-indexed”; that is, if there happens to be more than one thing that moves, you can tell which trace it left behind.
To add to the picture, the theory also says that ts, although hidden, are psychologically real and occupy the spot left behind. Thus, nothing can move into that spot and no contractions can occur across it. Armed with this, the syntactician can make a variety of predictions about grammatical and ungrammatical sentences in English. We might predict, for example, that (4) is a good sentence but (5) is bad and not allowed by English grammar:
  • (4) Should I have done it?
  • (5) Should I’ve done it?
The reason for this is that should has moved from its original spot and left a t behind, as illustrated in (6):
  • (6) I should have done it. → Shouldi I ti have done it?
At the same time, the syntactician would predict restrictions on the contraction of want to to wanna. Thus, (7) is fine because there is no trace intervening where a contraction wants to happen:
  • (7) Whoi do you want to invite ti to dinner? → Who do you wanna invite to dinner?
All English speakers would agree, however, that (8) is awful:
  • (8) *Who do you wanna invite Susie to dinner?
You could probably work this out yourself, but the reason (8) sounds bad is that the who has moved and has left behind a t that blocks a possible contraction. Compare (7) and (8) redone here as (9) and (10):
  • (9) Whoi do you want to invite ti to dinner? → Who do you wanna invite to dinner?
  • (10) Whoi do you want ti to invite Susie to dinner? → *Who do you wanna invite Susie to dinner?
Be careful not to pronounce wanna like want tuh; want tuh is not a contraction and is merely the schwawing of the vowel sound in to. Want tuh sounds OK in sentence (8) precisely because it is not a contraction.
Thus, the theory unifies constraints on contractions with modals (should, would, will, may, might), with auxiliaries (do, have), with copular verbs (be), with the verb want, and with pronouns (I, you, he, and so on). It makes predictions about good and bad sentences that perhaps we have never seen or heard, some of which—like silkworms and beer—don’t seem to have much in common.
To summarize so far, a theory ought to account for and explain observed phenomena and also make predictions about what is possible and what is not. In addition, most theories—good ones, that is—when accounting for and predicting things, also tend to unify a series of generalizations about the world or unify a series of observations about the world. In the brief view we had of syntactic theory, the few generalizations made about how syntax works unify a variety of observations about contractions and not just contractions with should. All contractions conform to the generalizations.
For SLA, then, we will want a theory that acts like a theory should. We will want it to account for observable phenomena (something to which we turn our attention later in this chapter). We want it to make predictions. And, ideally, we want it to unify the generalizations we make as part of the theory. In other words, we want a single theory to bring all of the observed phenomena under one umbrella. Whether this is possible at this time has yet to be determined and is something that this book will explore.

What Is a Model?

Many people confuse theories and models. A model describes processes or sets of processes of a phenomenon. A model may also show how different components of a phenomenon interact. The important word here is how. A model does not need to explain why. Whereas a theory can make predictions based on generalizations, this is not required of a model. In short, theories are always explanatory and predictive whereas models need only be descriptive. The problem is that in the real world—and in SLA as a research discipline—this distinction is not always maintained. You will find as you read further in the field that researchers often use model and theory interchangeably. Thus, although in principle it would be a good idea to distinguish between these two terms as they do in the natural sciences, in practice many of us in SLA do not do so.

What Is a Hypothesis?

Distinct from a theory, a hypothesis does not unify various phenomena; it is usually an idea about a single phenomenon. Some people use theory and hypothesis interchangeably, but in fact, they are distinct and should be kept separate. In science, we would say that a theory can generate hypotheses that can then be tested by experimentation or observation. In psychology, for example, there are theories regarding memory. You may recall the theory about working memory and capacity discussed earlier. The theory says (among many other things) that working memory is limited in capacity. This means that people can pay attention to only so much information at a given time before working memory is overloaded. The theory also says that there are individual differences in working memory and how people use what they have. Some people have X amount of working memory capacity as they attend to incoming information, whereas others have more or less. A hypothesis that falls out of this, then, is that working memory differences among individuals should affect reading comprehension: Those with greater working memory capacity should be faster readers or should comprehend more. This is a testable hypothesis. We oug...

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