Currents in Language Learning

The journal Language Learning, founded at the University of Michigan in 1948 by the Language Learning Research Club, has always been at the forefront of Applied Linguistics.  This year sees the establishment of our biennial series Currents in Language Learning which will publish state-of-the-art reviews in the Language Sciences. To celebrate the launch, there will be two-day conference which will be recorded for later podcasting by our publisher, Wiley-Blackwell.

Themes include: Second Language Instruction (Larsen-Freeman), Practice Theory (Young), Language, Literacy and Culture (Cumming), Academic Language Development (Schleppegrell), Usage-Based Linguistics (Ellis), Language Evolution (Schumann), Age Effects in Language Learning (DeKeyser), Second Language Pragmatics (Bardovi-Harlig), Vocabulary Knowledge (Jarvis), and The Contribution of SLA to the Language Sciences (Ortega).

For further information see Currents in Language Learning or contact the General Editor, Nick Ellis.


Hussey Room, Michigan League VENUE


Sunday, April 1, 9am-6pm + GOOGLE CALENDAR  ICAL IMPORT

Monday April 2, 9am-2pm + GOOGLE CALENDAR  ICAL IMPORT

The topics and presenters are as follows:

Kathleen Bardovi-Harlig, Indiana University

Developing L2 Pragmatics

Read Abstract

L2 Pragmatics attempts to balance the sometimes conflicting and sometimes compatible research traditions and goals of second language acquisition and pragmatics. For example, empirical L2 pragmatics addresses increasingly social definitions of pragmatics and continues to hone comparisons of tasks and conversation; in contrast, task effects attributable to planning and potential for accessing explicit knowledge have not yet been investigated. In this paper, development in the field of L2 pragmatics is assessed through 1) progress in measuring change in pragmatic systems, cross-sectionally, longitudinally, and in treatment studies (Kasper & Schmidt, 1996); 2) investigation of task effects for characteristics of conversation and tasks which simulate conversation (Bardovi-Harlig, 2010); 3) investigation of task effects resulting from planning time and modes which may increase learners’ potential to draw on explicit knowledge; and 4) tracking the interface of grammar, conventional expressions, and pragmatics in the development of pragmalinguistic resources.

Alister Cumming, University of Toronto

Where do language, literacy, and culture intersect?  And what should educational researchers do about it?

Read Abstract

Language, literacy, and culture intersect almost everywhere, of course. I analyze five phenomena where intersections occur between cognitive skills, social practices, and macro-societal structures in ways that are salient, puzzling, and so relevant for educational policies because they illuminate multiple dimensions of learning literacy in situations of cultural and linguistic diversity: heuristic search strategies involving language switching for choices of words and phrases while composing, expressions of personal identity when citing source information for specific discourse communities, reciprocal modeling during dynamic assessment of writing and reading, formulation of goals to self-regulate short-term learning and long-term aspirations, and attitudes of engagement with literacy for knowledge-building purposes. Examples are drawn from a recent project with “at-risk” adolescents in a community-based, after-school tutoring program in Toronto, but extensions are developed for comparative, action research across different learner populations, media within and outside of formal institutions, and between languages and societies.

Robert DeKeyser, University of Maryland

Age effects in language learning: controversial, but crucial to understand

Read Abstract

The effect that age of acquisition has on ultimate attainment in second language learning has been a controversial topic for years. After providing a very brief overview of what the controversy is about, I will discuss the two main reasons why this issue is so controversial: conceptual misunderstandings and methodological difficulties. I will spend a good part of the talk making suggestions for improvement in subject selection, data collection, and analysis.

Nick Ellis, University of Michigan

Usage-Based Language- Investigating the Latent Structures that Underpin Aquisition

Read Abstract

One of the mysteries of language development is that each of us as learners has had different language experiences and yet somehow we have converged on broadly the same language system. From diverse, often noisy samples, we end up with similar linguistic competence. How can that be? There must be some constraints in our estimation of how language works. Some views hold that the constraints are in the learner, as innate expectations of linguistic universals. Others hold that the constraints are in the dynamics of language itself – that language form, language meaning, and language use come together to promote robust induction by means of statistical learning over limited samples. The research described here explores this question with regard English verbs, their grammatical form, semantics, and Zipfian patterns of usage. It explores the emergence of structure from experience using methods from cognitive linguistics, corpus linguistics,  learning theory, complex systems, and networks analysis.

Scott Jarvis, Ohio University

Capturing the diversity in lexical diversity

Read Abstract

Abstract: The range, variety, or diversity of words found in learners’ language use is believed to reflect the complexity of their vocabulary knowledge. It also tends to correlate well with their overall language proficiency. Many measures of lexical diversity have been proposed, most of which reflect either word-occurrence probabilities or the relationship between word types and tokens. Recent research on lexical diversity has concentrated on validating the various measures and comparing them against one another in terms of how well they overcome certain statistical challenges, such as whether they vary as a function of text length. What tends to be neglected, however, is the construct underlying the measures. In this paper, I describe how future research in this area can benefit by following the lead of color research, defining its construct in relation to both perceptual and physical properties, and calibrating its objective measurement with human perception.

Diane Larsen-Freeman, University of Michigan

Transfer and generalization of instruction

Read Abstract

A commonly observed phenomenon is that what students learn within a classroom fails to transfer outside it or fails to transfer over time.  This phenomenon has been termed “the inert knowledge problem” by Alfred North Whitehead (1929).  An explanation for the problem has not been found nor has a solution, though some have been proposed.  The problem is not merely a curiosity.  It has been said to be a significant contributor to the academic achievement gap in reading and language use among students.

In this presentation, I will discuss possible causes and possible solutions to the inert knowledge problem.  I will also problematize the use of the term “transfer,” which implies carrying over what has been learned from one situation to another.  In its place, I will adopt a complexity theory perspective to argue that learning is not the taking in and transfer of linguistic forms by learners, but rather their constant adaptation and enactment of language-using patterns in response to the affordances that emerge in communication.

Lourdes Ortega, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

The contribution of SLA to the language sciences: Trends for the 21st century

Read Abstract

In the 50th jubilee issue of Language Learning in 1998, Wolfgang Klein was pessimistic in noting that the field of second language acquisition (SLA) was “still far from providing a solid basis for foreign language teaching, or from a general theory of SLA” (p. 527) and concluding that “among the various disciplines investigating the manifold manifestations of human language capacity, SLA research does not rank very high” (p. 530). In this presentation, I take stock of currents, tides, and flows in SLA research that can be regarded as disciplinary progress at the turn of the millennium, and which have arisen in three fronts: theories, methods, and ethics. I will argue that some, though not all, of these trends hold high promise to elevate the contributions of SLA to a more equal status, for their potential to shape answers to fundamental questions that are of central interest to all language sciences.

Reference cited:

Klein, W. (1998). The contribution of second language acquisition research. Language Learning, 48, 527-550.

Mary J. Schleppegrell, University of Michigan

The role of a linguistic metalanguage in supporting academic language development

Read Abstract

Studies of the role of a linguistic metalanguage in supporting language development have produced mixed results. This is partly due to the construct being defined in different ways as well as to the different contexts in which the role of metalanguage has been studied. This paper reviews research on the role of metalanguage and the arguments for and against use of a metalanguage in language teaching to highlight the issues at stake. It then offers evidence for the role a metalanguage can play in language development from a context in which teachers are engaging English language learners in grades 2-5 in use of a functional linguistics metalanguage during classroom activities. The metalanguage enables teachers to make expectations for language use explicit and helps children analyze language choices in the texts they read and write, offering a robust means of supporting age-appropriate and discipline-specific curricular goals even while children are still learning English.

John Schumann , University of California, Los Angeles

Evolution and Adult Second Language Acquisition

Read Abstract

Our species has never had sufficient evolutionary pressure to develop neural systems that would guarantee SLA by adult learners. In our environment of evolutionary adaptation, we lived in small groups that were isolated from one another. When groups speaking different languages did come into contact, humans found several ways to cope with the problem; none of which has solved the problem:

  • Rely on individual differences to provide good language learners. Since all brains are different , within any population there would have been certain adults with a neural hypertrophy that would allow them to acquire an L2.
  • Simplify the learning task.
    • Develop of a lingua franca.
    • In the process of language acquisition, simplify the TL, develop a pidgin or creole, develop a Sprachbund where different languages become similar to each other.
  • Shift the learning burden to children.
  • Develop a class of translators and the art of translation.

Richard Young, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Practice Theory in Language Learning

Read Abstract

Ortega (2011) has argued that SLA (and thus language learning) is stronger and better after “the social turn.” Of the post-cognitive approaches she reviews, several focus on the social context of language learning rather than on language as the central phenomenon. Approaches to SLA that prioritize individual learners’ identity struggles, those that front socialization to the values of a new community, and those that recognize how social order is constructed in conversations all view language learning not simply within a social context but as both constructing and constructed by that context. In this paper, I present Practice Theory not as yet another approach to language learning but as a philosophical and methodological frame within which these three approaches can be understood. I review the work of Bourdieu, Giddens, Hanks, and Schatzki, who argue for the centrality of practice in human semiosis: the dialectic between the immediate horizon of social context and the durable and transposable dispositions emanating from and integrating past experiences of the individual.


Sunday April 1


Diane Larsen-Freeman


Richard Young


Coffee Break


Alister Cumming


Mary J. Schleppegrell


Lunch Break


Nick Ellis


John Schumann


Coffee Break


Robert DeKeyser
Monday April 2


Kathleen Bardovi-Harlig


Scott Jarvis


Coffee Break


Lourdes Ortega


General Discussion


Meeting Close