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Understanding second language acquisition by Lourdes Ortega, Understanding Language Series, Hodder Education

Reviewed by Margaret Horrigan, IH Rome – Manzoni

When this book arrived in my hand for review I was pretty excited. Second Language Acquisition (SLA) was something I had to study a while back. The author, Lourdes Ortega, was one of those names that kept recurring over the duration of my own research and when I opened the book I was pleasantly surprised to see some very familiar references. I felt at home immediately. Be warned, however, this book is not for light reading. It is quite an academic book and, maybe it’s just me, it requires the retracing of your steps to ensure that you have got the intended message on a few occasions.

The plethora of literature on SLA has long been dominated by some giants in the field such as Stephen Krashen, Vivian Cook and Rod Ellis. Given the leap in technology and data processing in the last decade there certainly was a gap in the literature of SLA research which needed to be filled. This book does exactly that. It is an excellent introduction and overview to SLA theories.

Some really positive aspects of the book are the chapter summaries, various types of indices but, in particular, the annotated suggestions for further reading which end each chapter of the book. This allows the knowledge hungry student to focus their reading really well. The extensive referencing which was initially a positive did, however, become a negative at times and made the book read more like a doctoral dissertation. This tended to break up the meaning and caused me to retrace my steps on a couple of occasions. I also stumbled over the author’s definition of ‘markedness’ …again the fledgling student would probably need some specific examples to ensure that they have understood! A question also hung over the notion that EFL learners do not need to achieve pragmatic outcomes but, as my colleague Deborah pointed out, this is not always the case as exam students are frequently required to carry out tasks which are intended to be pragmatic. These issues are fairly isolated though and the book delivers a wide-ranging perspective on SLA research and theory, literally on the shoulders of giants.

In general, Ortega provides a series of 10 very logical chapters where the reader is guided through the quagmire of what SLA theory and research is. Her arguments seem consistently well balanced throughout and provide the reader with food for thought and reflection. Some interesting points highlighted are Ortega’s examples from second language users. She has clearly made an attempt to account for SLA broadly and not just from the non-native speakers’ of English perspective. The examples and case studies are predominantly from the 1990’s-which is relatively recent in terms of SLA research! The new perspective of not gauging SLA on monolingual language development, as was the norm, was very interesting.  The old continuum of accuracy and fluency is rightly stretched into a triangle in order to accommodate the relative newcomer ‘complexity’ in this chapter also, although, in my opinion, it could have been given a little more space.

Some recent staples of SLA are present and accounted for. Namely, Schmidt and his ‘noticing’ theory, Swain and her output hypothesis theory and to a much greater degree Vygotsky and his theory on the Zone of Proximal Development. This was a pleasant surprise as Vygotsky has often been relegated less space elsewhere yet his theories still prevail over the decades.

All in all, Ortega has provided students of applied linguistics or similar courses with an excellent introduction to the field of SLA and if you’re not a student, you still might find it a challenging yet interesting read.

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