What is Second Language Learning

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What is Second Language Learning?
Vivian Cook, Newcastle University
This talk considers what is meant by ‘second language learning’ and how this relates to an
independent discipline of SLA research.
1. What is the language in second language learning?
The word ‘language’ is understood in different ways by those carrying out SLA research,
including
- language as a property of human beings,
- language as an institutional abstraction,
- language as a collection of sentences,
- language as social behaviour, as knowledge in the mind,
- language as a form of action.
Any SLA research needs to start by defining its view of language; arguments about say
language as a collection of sentences are not compatible with language as knowledge.
2. What is the second in second language learning?
The word ‘second’ is typically undefined in SLA research, apart from being sometimes
contrasted with ‘foreign’. A language can be:
- second by official fiat when other languages are laid down as first by law,
- second by chronological sequence in that the person learns it after the first,
- second by priority, usually discussed in terms of dominance,
- second contrasted with foreign by function or location.
SLA research needs to define how ‘second’ is interpreted in any given research, particularly
in a European context now rife with terms like ‘first second language’.
3. What is learning in second language learning?
The meaning of ‘language’ and which interpretation of ‘second’ that you choose dictates
what you call learning – the appropriate learning theory and the research design. Learning
language as a set of sentences is different from learning language for social relationships.
One issue is the extent to which SLA research is dependent on psychology or developmental
psycholinguistics for accounts of learning or can make up its own account, as has happened
in recent years. SLA research needs to make explicit the type of view of learning it is drawing
on or is inventing.
4. Where does SLA research come in?
The underlying issue is whether SLA research is an autonomous area or is dependent on other
disciplines. If it is relying on psychology, it needs to justify itself in terms of contemporary
psychological models of learning and development, not bygone theories; if drawing on
linguistic descriptions of syntax, vocabulary, phonology, etc, it needs to square these with
current linguistics: any X-based research should be justifiable in terms of contemporary X. In
particular drawing on other disciplines is dangerous when it combines theories or ideas that
are no compatible within the discipline, say incompatible models of memory or syntax.
Alternatively SLA research can do its own thing – and remain largely irrelevant to its
neighbours in psychology, education and linguistics.
References
Cook, V.J. (2006), ‘Interlanguage, multi-competence and the problem of the “second”
language’, Rivista di Psicolinguistica Applicata VI, 3, 39-52
Cook, V.J. (2007), ‘The nature of the L2 user’, in L. Roberts, A. Gurel, S. Tatar & L. Marti
(eds.) EUROSLA Yearbook, 7, 205-220
Cook, V.J. (2008), ‘Linguistic contributions to bilingualism’, in J. Altaribba & R. Heredia
(eds), An Introduction to Bilingualism: Principles and Practice, Erlbaum, 245-264
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