First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics. © 2000 Sharon Unsworth.
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The Acquisition of Second Language Syntax provides an introduction to, and synthesis of, the different theoretical approaches which have been used to investigate the second language acquisition (L2A) of syntax. The book is intended for students with 'no detailed knowledge of linguistics' (backcover). The author's goal is threefold: 'to outline and explain the questions asked within different research paradigms, to examine the results found in each approach, and to evaluate the contributions of each to our understanding of L2 acquisition of syntax and to possible implications for L2 instruction' (p. vii). In this review, I first describe the contents of each chapter in turn; after this, I consider the book as a whole to see how well the author has achieved her aims.
The book consists of seven chapters: the first chapter, preceded by the table of contents (pp. iii-v), preface (pp. vii-viii) and abbreviations (p. ix), introduces the different research paradigms and places them in their historical context, Chapters Two to Six deal with these paradigms one by one (First-language and second-language interrelations, Universal Grammar, Typological Universals, Processing approaches and Functional approaches) and the final, seventh chapter provides an integrative conclusion. This is followed by references (pp.190-209), an author index (pp.210-212), a language index (p.213) and a subject index (pp.214-221).
In Chapter One, Introduction (pp.1-18), the reader is introduced to the terms grammar and acquisition. Braidi points out the difficulties inherent in such definitions before presenting those which she plans to use throughout the book. She then situates L2A research within its historical context, outlining the basic tenets and criticisms of contrastive analysis and error analysis, and she explains how the problems encountered in such methodologies led to a shift in approach, that is, towards interlanguage (IL) analysis. She concludes that current approaches have drawn from all the above, with some changes. Chapter One ends with a brief outline of the remainder of the book. At this juncture, Braidi acknowledges the difficulty involved in the task she has set herself in writing such a volume, i.e. partitioning off the different research paradigms, given the lack of clear-cut distinctions. The two criteria she has used for this purpose are given explicitly: the theoretical background of the research and its main focus.
Chapters Two to Six follow a common format: First, the theoretical assumptions underpinning the framework in question are introduced, along with the structures most commonly studied within that paradigm. Then, the key issues involving research into L2A within this paradigm are detailed in a question and answer format, under the title 'Questions Explored'. This final section of each chapter is an effective means of highlighting the most important aspects of each paradigm.
In Chapter Two, First-language and second-language interrelations (pp.19-47), the historical contextualisation of L2A research is continued. Braidi explains in greater detail how contrastive analysis and error analysis were replaced with IL analysis. The reader is introduced to the idea that the learner's grammar is an independent system which, as it develops, passes through several stages. The various methods used by researchers to determine such stages and some of the more common examples of such stages are subsequently discussed. The remainder of the chapter deals with the notion of transfer. Lado's (1957) original definition is provided and the subsequent discussion outlines various problems associated not only with the term itself, but also with its accurate definition and its identification within the IL. Finally, the notion of transfer with respect to Markedness and developmental stages is addressed.
Chapter Three is devoted to Universal Grammar (pp. 48-78). First, the reader is presented with a general overview of the Chomskyan theory of Universal Grammar (UG) and the principles and parameters approach with respect to first and second language acquisition. Several of the best understood phenomena within the generative paradigm are then outlined, illustrated and discussed: these include the pro-drop parameter, X-bar theory, binding theory, the verb movement parameter and subjacency. The more theoretical considerations of the 'poverty of the stimulus' argument and the subset principle are also discussed. This chapter ends with a survey of the common debates in L2A research within this paradigm: access to UG, parameter resetting, UG and transfer, the characterisation of the initial state and the role of instruction.
Chapter Four, Typological Universals (pp.79-98), begins with a comparison of two approaches to universals: the UG approach, as described in chapter three, and the typological approach - the focus in this chapter being on the latter. Following a more detailed account of typological universals, Braidi concentrates on the Noun Phrase Accessibility Hierarchy and on question formation and describes how they have been investigated in this framework, particularly in connection with Markedness and instruction.
The first part of Chapter Five, Processing Approaches (pp.99-138), deals with the models of information processing which have generally been applied to aspects of L2A other than syntax. While this renders the chapter considerably longer than others, the reasoning behind the discussion is logical: such models have clearly contributed to the development of those processing approaches which do deal with syntax and in order to understand the latter, we need an account of the former. The approaches discussed in the main body of this chapter are the Competition Model, the Multidimensional Model and the Processability and Teachability Theories.
After a brief introduction to the basics of functional grammar, Chapter Six, Functional Approaches (pp.139-167), discusses the application of this theory of grammar to L2A, focusing on three issues: form-function mapping, acquisition of pragmatic, discourse and semantic constraints, and the idea that there is a development from an IL initial state which is based on pragmatics to one which is based more on syntax. Whilst the first two issues have thrown up some interesting findings, Braidi shows that evidence for the latter hypothesis remains uncertain.
In her final chapter, Conclusions (pp.168-189), Braidi assesses the approaches presented in the preceding five chapters in terms of the theoretical and factual contributions they have made to our current knowledge of the L2A of syntax. Comparing the results from each paradigm, she examines Noun Phrases in greater detail. This is a useful demonstration of how such an integrative approach can be used to investigate the acquisition of a particular phenomena. As the author remarks, such comparisons are beneficial because they "highlight both the similarities and the differences between the theories guiding the work of L2 researchers" (p.181).
Finally, possible pedagogical implications of the findings presented in this volume are examined. After a brief outline of the assumptions underlying her discussion, Braidi considers how these research findings may broaden and/or modify teachers' knowledge and beliefs about (i) language, (ii) language learning and (iii) language teaching. She claims that such knowledge will enable teachers to make more informed decisions, warning, however, that "the research-teaching connection may not be as direct or as strong as some would like it to be" (p.188).
The languages (both L1 and L2) used for exemplification purposes throughout the book are quite varied, including English, Italian, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Dutch and Japanese, although there is a distinct bias towards English and German (this is perhaps unsurprising given that much of the research that has been done on L2A has involved these two languages). Unfortunately, the glosses are not always that easy to pick out as both the source language, the gloss and the translation are in the same typeface. This is a common problem in works of this kind, but one which could be easily rectified by the simple use of italics and/or bold type.
The biggest problem concerning the presentation of the book is the poor quality of the diagrams. For example, the tree diagram on page 57, given to exemplify verb raising in French, shows, due to the positioning of the arrows, the verb raising through the ADV node to the INFL node. In most other representations of this phenomenon, the verb raises around the ADV node, not through it. This is undoubtedly not a theoretical flaw but a representational one. A further example is the diagram on page 125 which is supposed to represent Piennemann's (1997) Processability Theory by means of a bar chart, where certain bars are shaded, although it is not entirely clear what these shaded bars are supposed to represent. Also, the visual representations given on page 104 of VanPatten's (1996) Input Processing model and on page 63 of the different positions relating to the UG accessibility debate, demonstrate very poor formatting. It is not always clear what the arrows represent or how to follow them; on page 104, the legend is so close to the diagram that the reader could quite easily think that it actually belonged to it. These diagrams and most of the others throughout the book, are very rarely self-explanatory and at times, serve only to confuse the reader. Whilst this might be considered a rather minor failing, it does detract from the overall clarity of the book and makes it less easy to use. It is especially unfortunate as this is a problem which could also be easily solved. Hopefully, a second edition will rectify these small faults.
Braidi's style is mostly clear and accessible, but there are some places where this is not the case, for example, her preliminary discussion of UG, in chapter three, is not as clear as it might be. In particular, her presentation of the core-periphery distinction and of the notion of Markedness in relation to L1A, is very confusing. For example, she writes that language-specific structures resulting from historical change or borrowing "are not governed by UG principles and parameters and thus make up part of the peripheral grammar of individual languages" (p.50). This is by no means always true. The subsequent discussion about marked and unmarked settings proceeds without any definition of the terms being used. This would have aided the perspicuity of her explanations. Furthermore, her description of principles and parameters on page 51 ("Šthey can be seen as a binary system in which a language has either a plus (+) or minus (-) setting for a given parameter [Š] and the setting for a given parameter results in a cluster of characteristics.") might lead the inexperienced reader (for whom this book is intended) to believe that all principles are parameterised whereas some, for example, the principle of structure dependency, are not. It may also give the impression that the setting of every parameter results in a clustering effect whereas it might not. Braidi is likely aware of these theoretical issues and the above unclarity is, paradoxically, probably a result of her attempts to simplify for the sake of comprehensibility. It is possible that she is referring to the recent tendency to consider functional categories as the only categories which are parameterised and that it is the setting of these categories which result in clustering effects. Theoretically, parameter setting is supposed to result in clustering effects but in reality, these effects have been very difficult to pin down, for example, the discussion around the null-subject parameter. (Thanks are due to Melinda Whong-Barr for discussion of this point.)
On the whole, however, Braidi provides a clear, accessible and thorough introduction to her chosen topic and this volume is a welcome contribution to the field. Its comprehensive coverage is what one would expect from an introductory text and the book can be highly recommended as a coursebook for an introductory module on the second language acquisition of syntax. The author has certainly fulfilled her first two goals: the main questions examined within each paradigm are presented in some detail, the results are clearly presented and an admirable attempt at synthesising these is made in the final chapter. However, she has fallen down a little on the third goal, for whilst a discussion of the pedagogical implications of these findings has been attempted, we might wonder why, given that it is one of her main aims, this section covers only a disappointing seven and a half pages in total. Given its importance within the framework laid out by the author, this discussion could clearly have been developed further.
In addition to its intended readership, this book will also prove useful for the slightly more advanced student who wishes to investigate an unfamiliar paradigm or who requires a comprehensive overview of the field in general. It provides a refreshingly broad introduction to the field, detailing all approaches, not just the dominant generative model, in a thorough and accessible way.
Pienemann, M., 1997. A Unified for the Study of Dynamics in Language Development - applied to L1, L2, 2L1 and SLI. Ms.
VanPatten, B., 1996. Input Processing and Grammar Instruction in Second Language Acquisition. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.