Second Language Acquisition for Dummies…PART 1

Not really for dummies. For all the very clever people reading this. Part 1 is all about why SLA is useful and then Part 2 will look at an SLA overview.

It’s a pretty big field and academics are always arguing about how much SLA knowledge is even useful to teachers anyway.  The applied linguistics/SLA field was originally about “…transmitting the findings of linguistics to practitioners, especially language teachers” Cook (2015, p.462, emphasis my own), so I would argue it’s pretty useful to have some knowledge of the process to aid your classroom practice.

A quick look at the elements I think make up part of the TD journey:


Most teachers have a ‘bag of tricks’; handy tasks, activities, classroom management skills and so on to see them through a class.  They have been given these at initial teacher training stage.  And they pick them up from course books, the classroom, colleagues and maybe even TD events.

For many teachers this is enough. Many, though, do go on to develop language analysis skills. Mostly from the teachers’ books, but I can always tell someone who has studied the English language/linguistics.  I can also see things going ‘wrong’ in the classroom when teachers lack this skill, but such observations are subtle and often missed.  Many teachers teach for decades without picking up language analysis skills.

The third point on the triangle is SLA and I find this point is not covered at initial teacher training stage nor beyond.

So, why bother?

Well, we know there is no ‘one method’ of teaching for all.  And we (think) we know:

  • Language learning is messy
  • Teachers come from a variety of disciplines
  • Language classrooms are often founded on the latest method and/or textbook
  • Language schools and centres are also….messy

So, I think knowledge of SLA aids teachers in negotiating this messiness and supporting their students’ instructed language learning (that is, classroom based instruction rather than picking up language ‘on the streets’).  And it is useful because, after 100s of hours of classroom observations, I have noticed:

  • Telling students their right answer is wrong
  • High teacher talk time
  • Questionable grammar explanations
  • Teachers teaching the textbook, but forgetting to teach the language and…you know…the students
  • Very uneven power balances
  • Zero Learner Autonomy

A little SLA knowledge goes a long way to iron these issues out. It also helps iron out such myths about second language learning which manage to filter into public consciousness:

  • Why bother, older learners can’t learn as well
  • Confusion between implicit and explicit knowledge
  • Some people just have the knack for language learning and some don’t (great get out clause!)
  • The latest METHOD! It really works!

Spada (2015), Thornbury (2011)

Why is this useful? Why does it matter? Well, if you are a teacher and you believe half-truths then:

…it is impossible to act, as a teacher, without having theories (including values) that inform teaching actions, at least to some degree.
Crookes (2003: 47)

So you are passing these beliefs to your students and not helping them learn English to the best of YOUR ability.  It matters in terms of economy (of time and money), value and professionalism.

Selected/useful references

Borg (2001) Teachers’ beliefs. ELT Journal, 55/2, pp 186-188
Cook (2015) Birds out of dinosaurs: The death and life of applied linguistics. Applied Linguistics, 36/4, pp 425-433
Larsen-Freeman (1997) Chaos/complexity
science and second language acquisition. Applied
Linguistics 18/2, pp 141–65.
Doughty & Long (2003) The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition.Oxford: Blackwell
Dornyei (2005) The psychology of the language learner: individual differences in second language acquisition. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum
Spada (2015) SLA research and L2 pedagogy: Missaplications ad questions of relevance. Language Teaching, 48, pp. 69-81
Thornbury (2011) Language Teaching Methodology, in Simpson, J (ed), The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics. London: Routledge

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Marc says:

    Brill post. There is often too much lip service paid to SLA. E.g. “Krashen says you need input so here, buy this book and CD. Swain says output is important and Long and Gass say negotiated meaning is how language is learnt so book a 30-hour course.”
    I wonder how much training would be needed to make teachers (and institutions) SLA-aware in a meaningful way.

  2. Nadine Early says:

    A good introduction to SLA is Lightbown & Spada How Languages are Learned. Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers.
    Very accessible and filled with great nuggets.
    Looking forward to part 2 Rachel!

    1. rachaeltesol says:

      Yes, that’s the first recommendation!

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