Achieving Success in Second Language Acquisition

Dr. Wendy Y.K. LAM
The Hong Kong Institute of Education,
English Department

Book Title
Achieving Success in Second Language Acquisition
Betty Lou Leaver, Madeline Ehrman, and Boris Shekhtman
Cambridge University Press 2005. Pp. 280.

Many publications on second language acquisition (SLA) assume some prior knowledge about the complexities of SLA on the part of the reader. Leaver, Erham and Shektman extend this limited readership and make a significant contribution to the field by presenting core SLA knowledge in an accessible manner to undergraduates who have had little prior contact with the area. The primary objective of the book is to enable university students to achieve optimal success as language learners by raising their awareness of the role of language learning strategies and developing their strategic competence in using a second or foreign language. Its secondary objective is to equip second or foreign language teachers with the necessary knowledge needed to make informed choices about language teaching methodologies.

The book is divided into three parts: Part I Learning, Part II Language and Part III Independence. Part I serves the purpose of orienting the reader to the key variables attributable to success in learning. Chapters 1-5 are in Part I, chapters 6-8 are in Part II, and chapters 9-10 and an epilogue are in Part III.

In Part I, chapter 1 is comprehensive, relevant and practical, providing a clear orientation to the rest of the book. It explores the many reasons for learning a second or foreign language and aims to help readers understand the scope and requirements of language acquisition. It is also intended to raise readers’ meta-cognitive awareness of language learning, thus guiding them to plan achievable goals. In chapter 2, key areas pertaining to both the cognitive and meta-cognitive roles in the learning process including cognition, memory, aptitude, and meta-cognition are succinctly outlined in a readable way. Chapter 3 is another readable section, describing learning styles and learning strategies. The relationship between these two constructs is clearly delineated and common taxonomies of learning strategies are shown without overburdening readers with unnecessary details about the many classifications claimed to have been validated in the field. Chapter 4 focuses on the role of the learner’s feelings and personality in language learning. A variety of affective variables are presented including foreign language anxiety, test anxiety, motivation, self-efficacy, personality, ego boundaries, and defense mechanism. One might think, however, that too many personality models are presented for a readership that has little background knowledge in SLA to fully understand and appreciate each model’s applications to real life situations. Given this consideration, readers might benefit more from a focused discussion of a few key personality models. Chapter 5 is particularly approachable in that it explicates interpersonal dynamics in the learning process, describing student-student, teacher-student, and student-group relationships in the classroom. Undergraduate students should find these issues particularly relevant to their needs and experiences.

Part II presents the linguistic, socio-linguistic as well as para-linguistic aspects of SLA and provides a comprehensible and comprehensive introduction to language. Chapters 6, 7 and 8 describe verbal language, socio-linguistics and unspoken communication, respectively. Chapter 6 addresses verbal language from the perspectives of linguistic structure and pronunciation in language learning. To explain the nature of linguistic structure, this section uses examples drawn from other languages to enhance comprehensiveness. The examples used to illustrate the different parts of speech of the English language system, however, are rather decontextualized, which could pose some difficulty to undergraduates. The chapter also looks at strategies that help students develop their vocabulary reserve, thereby establishing a link with language learning strategies introduced earlier in the book. Chapter 7 introduces students to concepts of sociolinguistic competence, which play a key role in success in SLA. Chapter 8 discusses the kinds of communication that occur without words, including para-linguistics and cultural behaviours.

Part III is composed of chapters 9, 10 and an epilogue. The two chapters share the aim of helping students to take control of their learning, as success in SLA requires long term commitment on the part of the learner. Chapter 9 covers cognition, affect and the teacher’s role in self regulated learning from a theoretical perspective. This is complemented by chapter 10’s practical approach towards enabling the learners to exert control over their spoken and written communication in a second or foreign language. Readers will find the practical suggestions and steps towards regulating control over one’s use of a second or foreign language very helpful. The book concludes with an epilogue that aims to stretch the language potential of readers who wants to move from high to near-native levels of foreign language proficiency.

In addition to the specific attributes of each section, all three have a few things in common. To enhance readability and facilitate students’ understanding, for example, each chapter contains an overview section, covering several related topics. Each topic is then described in some detail, followed by a case study where a sample problem and solution are presented. The inclusion of a case study section is also commendable as it serves as a nexus of theory and practice and helps the reader to connect the two. This is particularly important for resources that aim to help students and practitioners grapple with the abstract nature of SLA. Also, at the end of each chapter, there is a review section with learning activities that students can carry out by themselves.

To conclude, the strength of the book lies with its accessible content and readable style and presentation. It should be noted that this is particularly important for university students who want to develop proficiency in a second or foreign language and to course instructors who need a course or a resource book that provides the foundational knowledge needed for SLA. To ensure target readers gain the maximum benefit from the book, however, a succinct justification for the selection of Learning, Language and Independence as the key components of the text could have been included. Notwithstanding this minor deficiency, the book is a thorough and practical guide to the field of SLA. Students and teachers who need to understand the means to achieve success in SLA will find the book both interesting and well worth reading.