Ellis: Understanding Second Language Acquisition (1985)

Book Details

Ellis, Rod: Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. (327 pages) ISBN 0 19 437081 x (out of print).


Understanding Second Language Acquisition by Rod Ellis provides an overview of what was known about second language acquisition (SLA) by (around) 1984. The author points out that the discipline was still in its infancy, so no single SLA theory could be presented as received opinion. The book was written with two types of readers in mind: students and teachers. The book assumes a basic knowledge of linguistics (for example, linguistic terms such as idiolect and minimal pairs are not explained in the glossary) but is otherwise very accessible.

Ellis explains in the introduction why it is important for language teachers to become familiar with SLA theory:

All teachers have a theory of language learning. That is, they act in accordance with a set of principles about the way language learners behave. This theory, however, may not be explicit. In many cases the teacher's views about language learning will be covert and will only be implicit in what he does. (…)
Greater consciousness of the complex process of language learning will not guarantee more effective teaching—arguably our state of knowledge is insufficient to warrant firm pedagogical applications—but it will stimulate critical thought, challenge old principles, and maybe suggest a few new ones. A conscious understanding of SLA is a basis for modifying and improving teaching.

Since the book is more than thirty years old and obviously outdated, I will not discuss the whole book but instead list the questions and areas where a lot of uncertainty existed in the early 1980s and where more research was needed. This list of open research questions can then be compared with more recent accounts of SLA to see what progress has been made since the early 1980s.

The following points highlight issues related to SLA research methods:

Most studies cited by Rod Ellis are about the learning or acquisition of English as a second language or as a foreign language. The studies that focus on the acquisition of other languages are all about languages from the same language family, i.e. the Indo-European languages, typically Germanic or Romance languages. As a consequence, the acquisition of many language features is neglected in SLA research, which is a serious limitation in the scope of this type of research. Examples of neglected features include tone in tonal languages (e.g. Standard Chinese), vowel harmony in languages such as Finnish and Turkish, case systems that are more elaborate than in German (e.g. in Lithuanian, Finnish or Hungarian), or different writing systems (Chinese, Arabic, Korean Hangul, Cyrillic, etc.). In addition, the studies cited by Rod Ellis have very little to say about the inference of the first language when that language does not belong to the Indo-European family. Perhaps this type of research was still rare in the early 1980s. SLA research has gained importance outside the Western world, so a more recent overview of SLA would be able to include findings on a wider range of languages and language features.

Other aspects of foreign language learning that were not discussed in the book are third language acquisition, potential negative effects of multilingualism on previously acquired languages (including L1), the re-acquisition of (partially) forgotten languages, and autonomous language learning in general. Some of these gaps can be explained by the fact that early SLA research focused on language learning in classrooms.

Rod Ellis has written several other books on second language acquisition, including Second Language Acquisition (Oxford University Press, 1997, 160 pages), The Study of Second Language Acquisition (Oxford University Press, second edition, 2008, 1,176 pages) and the second edition of Understanding Second Language Acquisition (Oxford University Press, 2015, 376 pages; the book has a companion website).