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)[]


The Tinkerer – a corpus informed video activity

This post is a response to Vicki Holletts’ hosted ELT blog carnival on the theme of teaching and learning using videos. I had sent in a previous video activity but seeing as that was a bit old a new one was in order. The video is most suited for engineering/technical students.

This is a video activity that is also a little corpus informed. The lead-in is words taken from COCA using its synonym function. So in this case the search term was [=tinker]. I have included my transcription so that variations/extensions can be done such as gap-fills for detailed listening, or noticing spoken grammar. The jumbled text was made from Textivate.

1. Dictate the follow words to the class (the numbers are the rank order frequency from COCA):

tamper(7), fix(2), toy(4), fiddle(6), mend(8), play(1), interfere(5), repair(3).

2. These words are synonyms of this word T_ _K_R. //write gapped word on board, Tinker// What’s the word?

3. What do you call a person who does this? //Tinkerer; check that they understand the word, room here to personalise e.g. do you like tinkering?//

4. Re-arrange the text (that goes with the picture) into the correct order:

original text from Hackaday; scrambled text from Textivate

Original text from Hackaday.

5. Watch the video. //approx 8 mins//

6. What word from the list do you think is the best synonym for JJ, the tinkerer? //you could comment on the rank order frequency of the words if most students pick play as best synonym//

7. Why do you think JJ says things are too easy now?

8. Do you agree with him? Why/why not?


When I was growing up, we grew, uh we grew up in the country. I didn’t have a whole lot. Uhm, my dad is very mechanical, uhm he owned a motorcycle shop when I was growing up. So a lot of what I worked on was with engines. Yeah if a go-kart breaks I would have to fix it myself. And sometimes it was held together with bailing twine and stuff just so that I could ride it, but.

It was in West Virginia [laughs] and I picked up a runt bicycle, a bicycle with little tiny wheels. Monkey bikes or whatever they’re called. Picked one up at a yard sale for about five bucks. And I put an engine on it. And I left the bike the way it was. So it was still a pretty big size. And then I thought to myself I’m gonna make it smaller. And then I cut the frame it half. And then I welded a bunch of stuff on there, a little tiny swing arm and used the wheels off a go-ped, uh the sprocket and chains off a go-ped the engine’s off a wheat eater. It’s a micro-bike I like that. Everyone’s just lingered I, I’ve had that a longtime now and it just keeps going.

Yeah, yeah I do a lot of just research on the internet, or uh random stuff. I’ll get on tangents on scientific topics or, or on something engine related or on some sort of hacking thing. I’ll just absorb knowledge I suppose. I normally, I’ll have some sort of inspiration or see a video or something that, I’m like I gotta do that. Or I’ll do something similar or  beat it or something like that. In fact I gotta an idea. You got, you got a rolly chair and there’s a leaf blower right there. Do we want to interrupt this interview, and? [laughs] See if it works. Nope. Oh well. [laughs] It was stupid. But now we know.

And sometimes I feel like tinkering with engines and sometimes it’s that and I keep focus all my attention on that. And sometimes it’s something electronic. And sometimes it’s sumthin else. It’s just that, it varies. Right now it’s the Tesla coil ’cause I’ve been working on it a while all week. That’s, that’s my top priority. That’s what I’ve been researching. I dunno I saw a Tesla coil video, I think, on the internet when I was a teenager. And I just thought I gotta build one of those. I got my son now, and slowed, slowed down my projects. But that’s okay. He is a project, he’s a good project. I’m forming him, in, into what I want [laughs]. Did he do it? Yeah he did.

I, I’ve always had a knack for finding really good deals and stuff, like I’m good at negotiations, I’m good at spotting things that are worth money at thrift stores. It started at thrift stores. Uhm, go there and I would just see stuff that other people wouldn’t recognize. And I clean them up makes sure they work. Go through it, just resell it on Ebay.

You heard that? They shake their body. And hiss like that to sound like a rattlesnake. But you see there’s no rattle. I’ve always, I, I’ve always been a really really curious person. Hafta explore things if I see sumthin I sometimes have to just pull over and hafta look. I’d be the guy you want in a zombie apocalypse that’s for sure. [laughs] Cause I’m very uh, I’m very resourceful. I can pretty much make anything happen with whatever I’ve got on hand.

It’s too easy now. Like back in the day when you wanted a radio. Like you wanted a transmitter or something, you build it. People don’t build them now, you just go out ‘an buy it. You don’t hafta learn how it works, you just use it. Same with computers, back in the eighties and stuff you hadta know how the computer worked before you could just use one. So, stuff’s too easy nowadays.

Thanks to the ELT blog carnival for the inspiration.