Review ~ How Languages are Learned

A highly readable introduction to research in language acquisition for second language teachers and trainee teachers.
Reviewed for Teflnet by David Truxal
How Languages are Learned

How Languages are Learned

The collaborative duo of Patsy M. Lightbown and Nina Spada is one of the most well-known and respected partnerships in the field of SLA. The two are highly prolific writers and researchers in their own right and have coauthored numerous articles and books ranging widely in subject including oral communication correction, developmental readiness in SLA and L2 learner awareness of L1 influence, to name just a few. Here, they come together again for the newest edition of the widely-used and highly-acclaimed book How Languages are Learned.

Now in its fourth edition, How Languages are Learned has been highly valued for the way it relates language acquisition theory to classroom teaching and learning and draws practical implications from the research for the language classroom. One of the strengths of all editions of this book is the emphasis on looking at relevant classroom research in which to analyze particular aspects of classroom dynamics and classroom instruction. Through looking at prior researchers’ studies, various SLA topics are examined such as the dynamics of pair work, learners talking to learners, oral and written corrective feedback and teacher’s questioning practices.

This edition of How Languages are Learned is useful for a variety of people and a variety of contexts. For teachers with entry level TESOL certificates such as CELTA, or for teachers who have not gone through a master’s program and may not be particularly grounded in SLA theory, the book gives a very good overview of various SLA theories and different perspectives that attempt to explain second language learning. As it is not as in depth in terms of SLA pedagogy as other SLA textbooks on the market (e.g. Understanding Second Language Acquisition by Lourdes Ortega) I’m certain that this book would be a great supplemental textbook in master’s level SLA classes or as the primary textbook for an undergraduate SLA class. As a parent of three budding bilingual children, I also found the book useful from a parents’ standpoint, especially the last chapter in the book in which popular ideas about language learning (e.g., “Languages are learned mainly through imitation”) are discussed from a research point of view.

New for the fourth edition are several useful improvements on the previous edition. Perhaps one of the best improvements is the section “Questions for reflection” which helps the reader personalize the book’s content, allowing for more salient connections to be made between content in the book and their own language learning/teaching experiences. I found these questions (e.g., “As a second/foreign language teacher or learner, what are your views about teaching grammar?”) especially thought provoking and enlightening as they echo similar questions teachers may ask themselves when they reflect on their own teaching. Various activities have also been included throughout the book to give readers the opportunities to explore the topics in greater detail. In addition, a companion website has been added which contains extra activities, readings and web-based material and resources to allow the reader to deepen their understanding of the contents of the book as well as providing interactive opportunities for readers to share their teaching and learning languages ideas and experiences.

As should be expected with any new edition of an SLA book, the content has been updated to reflect more recent research developments on L2 learning and teaching. The last improvement is very student-friendly in that the authors have reduced the number of suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter. Instead, they have given a description of three or four books that best correspond to the content in each chapter.

Overall, How Languages are Learned continues to be a very readable and informative introduction to research in language acquisition and is invaluable for its ability to relate language acquisition theory to actual classroom language teaching and learning. It is a highly research-based book in which research evidence is used consistently throughout the book to assess the effectiveness of various aspects of second language pedagogic instruction and feedback.

Reviewed by David Truxal for July 2013
David Truxal is an English language teacher based in Tokyo. He has been teaching for over eight years in a variety of contexts from international kindergarten to university. He holds an MSc in TESOL from Temple University Japan and teaches at two universities in Tokyo.

Leave a comment

TEFLnet : TEFL Book Reviews : Linguistics : Review ~ How Languages are Learned