Horses for courses #researchbites

Scott Thornbury weighed into a recent debate on the use of the construct native speaker in second language acquisition (SLA) with this:

“Hi Marek. A bit late in the day but… I suspect that Geoff insists on the NS-NNS distinction because it is absolutely central to the Chomskyan project (to which he is fervently – dare I say uncritically – committed) which presupposes an innately determined (hence genetic) language learning device which, like milk teeth, can only be available for a very limited period, whereafter general (i.e. non-language specific) learning abilities kick-in, accounting for the less than ‘native-like’ proficiency levels attained by late-starters. If, on the other hand, you take the perfectly plausible view (e.g. argued by Michael Tomasello, Nick Ellis, and many others) that general (i.e. non-language specific) learning capacities are implicated in language acquisition from the get-go, and hence that there is no need to hypothesise either a genetically-programmed language acquisition device nor a qualitative difference between native and non-native speakers, then the whole Chomskyan enterprise collapses, taking with it the distinction between man and beasts, and leading to the end of civilization as we know it.” []

Here we see an assumption that theories in SLA necessarily have to conflict. This ELT Research Bites blog carnival entry describes a different position by Jason Rothman and Bill VanPatten – On multiplicity and mutual exclusivity: The case for different SLA theories published in 2013.

Why are there various theories about adult SLA?

Why so many and why not convergence onto one theory? An analogy to physics is made – at the macro level there is general relativity, whilst at the micro level quantum theory. Those theories further subdivide depending on the area of interest. More importantly we cannot assume SLA is a unitary or singular thing. It is multifaceted and so there are multiple theories which look at those many different aspects of SLA. This evokes the story of the many wise blind scholars describing the many parts of an elephant.

So SLA can look at the internal issues of acquisition (e.g. input processing, output processing, internal representation, storage, retrieval) or it can look at external issues of acquisition such as interaction and its factors (e.g. context, social roles, identity, communicative intent).

How do various theories treat the S, the L and the A of SLA?

All theories can be said to assume that “second” means any language learned after acquisition of the first in childhood. Rothman and VanPatten go on to put various theories and frameworks into 4 groups:

  1. Language is a mental construct – generative approach, connectionism, input processing, processability theory
    2. Language is a socially mediated construct or originates from communication – systemic-functional approaches, socio-cultural theory
    3. Language is a hybrid mental/social-communcative construct – spoken language grammar, socio-cultural theory
    4. Language is not specified – interactionist framework, skill acquisition theory, dynamic systems theory

If we look into the particular groups we can further subdivide, e.g. for group 1 there is a division between those that see language as domain specific and modular (generative approach, input processing) or not (connectionism). In group 4 there may be no clear view on the precise nature of language but they are clear on what it is not. Dynamic systems theory for example rejects the generative view that language is modular and has innate components.

Each theory’s view of language affects how they think language is acquired and what causes the change in acquisition – e.g. a generative view would see most acquisition from universal constraints by learner internal language specific mechanisms whereas connectionism would see acquisition as exclusively sourced from external stimuli in coordination with general non-language specific mechanisms.

How does environmental context influence theories?

For theories that see language as primarily a mental construct they are interested in how language becomes represented. So generative, connectionism, input processing and processibility theory see external contexts as independent of their concerns. By contrast theories such as skill acquisition and sociocultural are focused on factors unrelated to grammatical representation and processing. Rather they look at the roles of practice, negotiation, interaction, attitude, participant relationships, aptitude, motivation etc.
Consequently some theories that have direct implications or are based on classroom contexts will be popular with teachers. Whereas others with no classroom basis will be seen as more abstract and less useful for teachers.

To what extent are theories in competition?

Coming back to Scott’s implication that either Chomsky is right and connectionism is wrong or vice versa, Rothman and Vanpatten argue that theories can be seen as more complementary than generally thought. For example acquiring vocabulary and surface forms can arguably be best described using connectionism whilst a generative approach can best describe syntactic acquisition.

In skill acquisition theory, it is assumed that domain general mechanisms are at play but this is only so if we don’t see a distinction between learning and acquisition. If we do make the distinction then what skill acquisitionists are describing is learning – a process where meta-linguistic knowledge, independent of competence, forms a separate system of performance. Whilst generative approaches are concerned with acquisition – where syntactical knowledge is processed and represented.

Rothman and VanPatten admit that skill acquistionist bods may well disagree with the description presented but the simple point is that such a description is possible.


Returning to the debate on how SLA conceptualises native speakers, we can say that theories concerned with mental representation of language use the construct of the native speaker at a larger abstract level for their purposes. Meanwhile socio-cultural theorists are concerned with contextual and environmental questions and the native speaker construct at more granular levels is problematic and may need to be discarded.


Rothman, J. & VanPatten, B. (2013). On multiplicity and mutual exclusivity: The case for different SLA theories. In M. P. García-Mayo, M.J. Gutiérrez-Mangado, & M. Martínez Adrián (Eds.), Contemporary approaches to second language acquisition (pp. 243–256). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Available at (pdf)[]



4 thoughts on “Horses for courses #researchbites

  1. Very interesting point Mura about how two theories can both be right at describing different aspects. I’ve seen this suggested in other areas whereby rather than viewing opposites as being completely exclusive (either this is right or that is right) in actually fact they may be more right for different situations/times or even (using quantum mechanics again) depending on what is being observed (hence how evidence could show that both are true when they are investigated, even ignoring observaer-expectancy bias which usually result in positive. It might also go to explain how some SLA studies can seemingly throw up contradictory results.

    1. hi Chris
      how ya doing!?
      yeah within certain approaches there will be mutually exclusive positions or true dichotomies if you will; outside such approaches the divisions seem to be less important than usually presented

      1. Not bad Mura,
        That’s a good point that there are indeed dichotomies but I think it is a useful philosophical perspective to bring to seemingly contradictory studies that they may be compatible…or that could be “doublethink” …so yeah, not always great.

Penny for your thoughts

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