Friday, August 28, 2009

Review: The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition

The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition by Zoltán Dörnyei was published on Feb 19, 2009 to very little fanfare. I found out about it through an alert, but even though I pre-ordered it, three months later Amazon shrugged and said, "Although we'd expected to be able to send this item to you, we've since found it's not available from any of our sources at this time."

It now seems to be available, but it's not selling well at all. Today, the Amazon rank (for what that's worth; I expect these numbers jump around quite a bit) is #569,249. In comparison, Lightbown & Spada's How Languages are Learned is #1,011, Michael O'Malley's Authentic Assessment for English Language Learners: Practical Approaches for Teachers is # 7,341, and Rod Ellis's The Study of Second Language Acquisition is #44,171. Even Dornyei's other books are also selling much better (e.g. #79,777 for Research Methods in Applied Linguistics).

What about reviews? Google books says, "We haven't found any reviews in the usual places," and I didn't have any better luck. I even had trouble tracking down the table of contents (here; scroll down past the Japanese). Not sure why this text is flying so far under the radar.

Anyhow, I finally asked OUP to send me a copy, and they very kindly did on the promise that I'd write a review and post it here. So:

Firstly, the target audience was not easy for me to identify. On one hand, it seems to be aimed at people who know almost nothing about language teaching. For example, it takes half a page to explain what the grammar translation method is, adding nothing that wouldn't be familiar to anybody who'd taken a TESL certificate course. But on the other hand, many of the topics brought up would have little relevance to anyone without some background in applied linguistics and language teaching, especially if you want to make sense of it as a whole. The series is supposed to be "aimed at applied linguists, lecturers, teacher trainers, students on advanced/postgraduate courses, and practitioners interested in gaining a wider perspective on their work," but I think it might have benefited by trying to be a bit more narrow in its range. As a text in an intro-to-psycholinguistics course, though, where it is supported by lectures, discussions, and other readings, it might work well.

The first half of the book is mainly of interest to grad-students and researchers who are unfamiliar with cognitive psychology and may be interested in seeing how they personally might fit themselves and their research programs into this tile in the mosaic of academia. Dörnyei introduces and explains a multitude of approaches and terms including a brief lesson in the anatomy of the brain. There's very little here for most teachers.

The second half, however, includes more that might help teachers think about their teaching differently, but it will take a careful reader who is good at seeing analogies to extract such insights. To be fair, there are no pat solutions for teaching language, but even the final chapter on the psychology of instructed second language acquisition seems to offer very little in terms of guidance for language teachers, though Dörnyei does inlcude six keys on the final page: Language instruction should...
  1. be meaning-focused and engaging while including practice activities to increase automaticity.
  2. include explicit instruction.
  3. pay attention to formal/structural aspects as well as meaning.
  4. teach formulaic sequences.
  5. include extensive exposure to massive amounts of the target language.
  6. and offer many opportunities to interact in the L2.
The major thesis (there isn't really a main one) seems to be that researchers need to take a dynamic systems approach to studying second language acquisition. But since all that math is "impenetrable" to us language folk, rather than actually taking a dynamic systems approach, Dörnyei suggests that we try to take on some of its vocabulary and conceptual framework. And he tries to do so himself.

He applies the metaphor of an attractor to a number of individual factors involved in SLA, one being future self-guides (generally, the idea that a clear vision of an ideal self is a motivating force). "future self-guides can be seen as broad attractor basins subsuming a variety of components." Although I understand very little about attractors, it seems to me that Dörnyei is at least two layers deep in metaphor and may have lost sight of what an attractor actually is. On the other hand, as I said, I don't understand attractors well, so this may in fact be a very apt description.

In the end, Dörnyei does a good job of bringing much information together, but I wanted a lot more detail, not just the brief overviews offered. I did find quite a few references that I want to follow up. Three researchers really stand out as contributing disproportionately to the bibliography: Nick Ellis, Norman Segalowitz, and Jan Hulstijn along with Peter Robinson. I wonder if I'll find more of what I want in Robinson & Ellis's Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. Maybe that will be my next review.

1 comment:

Follambule said...

What a useful review!A very enjoyable read as well. Thank you!