Distilling some insights from Second Language Acquisition Research

Photo source: the Leaky Grammar blog.

Today’s guest post comes from the voice behind the Leaky Grammar blog, Gavin Lamb.  Since its inception, I’ve wanted the EDLL blog to be among other things, a portal into the academic world of second language acquisition research, distilling the lessons and findings of researchers into actionable ideas for everyday language learners.  Gavin does just that for us in today’s guest post.  Enjoy.


A difficult onion to peel

What are the differences and similarities between first and second language learning?   Why do some people seem to have a knack for learning languages, while others struggle, or even resign themselves from the task entirely?  Does age matter in learning another language? How do our own unique individual differences, like learning styles, affect our ability to learn a new language? What are the roles of implicit and explicit learning: can we just soak up the language like a sponge or do we have to pay attention to the details in order to learn? How does your first language influence how you learn a second language?

And perhaps the question everyday language learners might be most curious about, what influences how well and how fast an individual learns another language?

This last question, especially, is the one everyone wants to know, but one that has been surprisingly tough to pin down, at least ‘scientifically.’  All of these questions, though, are just a few of those that have been asked by Second Language Acquisition (SLA) researchers in a number of ways over the past four decades the field has been in existence, questions which have led them down all sorts of different paths in their efforts to peel off the layers of the language learning onion.

And it has been a difficult onion to peel, to say the least.  

The bigger picture

But for a language learner who wants to know what the ‘science’ says about how best to learn another language, how can you begin extracting understanding from the overwhelming amount of those jargon-packed research articles?  Or should you even bother?

A lot of the research in SLA is very focused, whether it be on how specific languages are acquired by different learners, exploring the language learning process from different theoretical perspectives, or investigating some aspect of the ever growing language learning industry in both public and private education, for example, language testing or language teaching.

But rather than spending too much time on all of that, in this post, I’d like to zoom out a bit, get a ‘bigger picture’ of SLA and hopefully offer up a few insights from the SLA research for the average, everyday language learner.

This is because I feel the research on language learning has not only helped me to get a better grip on what the process of language learning involves, but has also helped me see how I can begin relating the numerous theories, findings, and insights in SLA to my own language learning practice.

I’m still wading through the SLA swamp a bit myself, but I’ve managed to pull a few clumps of insight on this question from the mud as a grad student in SLA.  These insights have helped me to see the language learning process from diverse vantage points and, perhaps most importantly, begin making connections to my daily practice as a language learner.

So, without further ado here are a couple of insights from SLA I think every language learner should consider when learning another language:

The trifecta of effective language learning

These three approaches to language learning are somewhat obvious, but have been described in various ways by researchers coming from all sorts of different perspectives in SLA, and they seem to more or less hold true for all language learners:  a) learn the language in context, b) learn the language by using it for specific purposes, and c) learn the language in interaction.

a) By learning language in context, I think SLA researcher Bonnie Norton puts this well when she writes, “Second language learners need to struggle to appropriate the voices of others; they need to learn to command the attention of their listeners; they need to negotiate language as a system and as a social practice; and they need to understand the practices of the communities with which they interact.”  Language should be seen as embedded in linguistic, social and cultural practices and using resources that give a learner access to these different contexts when learning the language is a good way to go.

b) Using the language for a specific task or purpose: learning by doing seems to be one of the keys to learning another language as it allows people to both gain knowledge of various aspects of the language as well as gain experience using the language. “To achieve the benefits of task-based practice,” SLA research John Norris writes, “we must first accept that language develops not as accretion of discrete bits of knowledge but through a series of holistic experiences.”  Through using the language from the very first day, and for purposes that allow you to experience the language in meaningful ways by doing specific tasks with the language, we can build our language up one experience at a time rather than just one noun or verb at a time.

c) Lastly, learning language in interaction is an obvious point for anyone who has had the experience of studying a language on their own prior to a trip, only to be met later with disappointment when they struggle to engage in a simple conversation with a native speaker.  Whatever new cultural and technological ways language is now being used, from literature to facebook, the original home of language is in face-to-face conversation.  Having to negotiate meaning with other speakers on the fly seems to be one of the key ways to develop our language ability.  And with new language learning resources like Skype now available for motivated language learners to take part in second language interaction, this is getting much easier to do.

Developing a practice and your language learning intuition

Through systematic research we can provide fantastic descriptions and theories of the various facets of the language learning process, but things get a bit less crisp when we begin making general prescriptions for how best to go about learning another language.  The ‘science’ of SLA can tell us a lot about both the universal aspects of language learning as well as the individual quirks that make each of our language learning journeys a bit different.  The key for the language learner however is to become a researcher of yourself in a way, bridging your knowledge of both the language and the language learning process along with your own experiences in developing a unique path towards your language learning goals.

I like to think of the journey of learning another language as learning to develop a daily practice.  By this I mean that learning another language is about fostering the energy, motivation and consistency that any kind of long-term practice requires of someone. Perhaps, most importantly, this is why whatever path you choose towards learning a new language, the most effective one will be the one that most resonates with you, and as a consequence, will be the one that you stick with for the long haul.

“Intuitions are formed at the crossroads of knowledge and experience,” says H.D. Brown, an SLA researcher I’ve drawn quite a bit of inspiration from.  By learning about the language learning process, paying attention to our own experience as language learners, and by constantly taking risks on our language learning journey that might reveal insights into our own language learning practice, we can begin developing our ‘intuition’ about how best to begin, and persist on one of the most awesome, enriching and rewarding journeys there is if I might say so myself.

Intuitions are formed at the crossroads of knowledge and experience.  -H.D. Brown  (Click to Tweet)

The process of language learning is complex, as complex as the individual quirks of people who embark upon the journey of learning a new language, and as complex as the multitude of languages and language learning situations that people find themselves in around the world.  “Each language lesson is in some ways a unique drama” one researcher writes,  and understanding these ‘unique dramas’ that populate our lives as language learners is what, I think, makes both researching SLA and learning another language so fascinating.

Building Language Learning Bridges

Learning another language isn’t just about the acquisition of a new skill.  Language learners know from their own experience that it is also about an ‘expansion of perspective’ of the world they live in. This point is echoed in Bialystock and Hakuta’s 1994 book on second language acquisition:

“Learning a second language is not simply a technical feat; it is an expansion of perspective. We live in a world community that speaks more than 7,000 distinct languages. We cannot hope to understand ourselves and our own place in this world without understanding the enormous impact of linguistic and cultural diversity on the human social condition. Recognizing the implications of learning a second language and understanding something of the process of its acquisition propel us toward this goal.”

If anything, my goal with this post and with my own blog Leakygrammar.net is to share with people some of the insights, ideas and findings that come out of language learning research.  In the process, hopefully, I can encourage more bridges to be built between everyday language learners and the academic community of language learning researchers, a community that hasn’t always done a great job of communicating outside of its own circles.

Lastly, my hope is that you are encouraged to absorb as many insights as you can on the language learning process from sites like the Everyday Language Learner which are devoted to sharing resources with learners, and simultaneously maintain a constant sensitivity to your own experiences, your own motivations, and your own intuitions during your language learning journey.

Best of luck and aloha!



Gavin Lamb is a graduate student in applied linguistics, an educator, and a lifelong learner.  His research interests include second language acquisition, sociolinguistics, and the intersections between multilingualism and globalization. He also does a bit of research into surfing on the side:-)  You can find Gavin at his blog, Leaky Grammar, on Twitter or at the Leaky Grammar Facebook page.

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7 Responses to Distilling some insights from Second Language Acquisition Research
  1. Natalie
    January 2, 2013 | 11:52 am

    Hi Gavin, this is a great post! I’ve read your blog before, but I didn’t subscribe to the RSS feed and thus forgot about it. I’ll definitely have to go subscribe now. :)

    • Gavin
      January 2, 2013 | 11:12 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment Natalie, glad you enjoyed the post!

  2. Janet Abercrombie
    January 2, 2013 | 3:57 pm

    Hi Gavin, I’m a bit of a research junkie. Could you sens me or post some of the seminal articles- or perhaps the articles that get the most coverage in your grad classes? Thanks!

    • aarongmyers
      January 2, 2013 | 4:24 pm

      Hello Janet,

      Gavin sent me this list of resources that he used in the post. I am sure he will add more, but this may be a start.

      Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Lourdes Ortega, 2009.

      Task-based Teaching and Testing. In the Handbook of Second Language Acquisition, John Norris, 2009.

      Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition. Edited by Dwight Atkinson, 2011.

      Principles of Language Learning and Teaching 5th edition. H.D. Brown, 2006.

    • Gavin
      January 3, 2013 | 1:44 pm

      Hi Janet, Aaron gave you a few of the sources I used for this post, I’m building a larger bibliography (still under construction) on my blog that has a lot more resources you can find:


      If you click on the general second language acquisition link, that should give you an idea of the more influential articles we are first exposed to in the field.



  3. Allan
    January 3, 2013 | 4:32 pm

    Hi Aaron and Gavin!

    This post is really informative. I share your interest in reading about research. I have always found them fascinating and very insightful.

    I love several points in the post most specifically: building languages through experiences, becoming a researcher of yourself and building language learning bridges.

    The latter point is of special interest to me. This part of the article is quite true.

    “We cannot hope to understand ourselves and our own place in this world without understanding the enormous impact of linguistic and cultural diversity on the human social condition”

    In Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, he mentions that we as humans don’t know how to value something by its own merits. In order to do so we need to compare it to something else (relativity). In this case, we couldn’t fully appreciate our own culture and language without really expanding our horizons by learning different one.

    By doing so, we not only get to appreciate a different culture but also have renewed appreciation for our own and in the end have a better perspective not only of the world, but also in life.


  4. Dreaded questions… | Leaky Grammar
    April 2, 2013 | 8:43 pm

    [...] who asked me wish they never did).  I’ve tried to answer at least part of this question in a guest post I did over that Everyday Language Learner, but I’m not sure I really managed to do the question any [...]

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