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The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition, Zoltán Dörnyei. Oxford University Press

Reviewed by Andrew Scott, IH Journal Editor

This year’s Ben Warren Prize winner has a formidable title. At the start of the book, Dörnyei notes that ‘the study of the acquisition, processing, and mental representation of a second/foreign language (L2) is in a process of transition towards acquiring a new disciplinary identity that is increasingly linked to aspects of relevant psychological research’ (p.1). This process makes the book particularly timely and relevant, providing the reader with a clear understanding of the background as well as current issues.

After providing an overview of these influential disciplines (i.e. Cognitive linguistics, Psycholinguistics, Neurolinguistics, Cognitive science, Cognitive neuroscience), the introduction goes on to explore language acquisition, covering first language acquisition, bilingualism, second language acquisition and multilingualism.

Chapter 2 examines language and the brain and takes the reader on a tour of this remarkable organ. Dörnyei notes that:

With tens of billions of neurons, connected by trillions of transmission points, the brain is one of the most complex structures in the known universe (Baars 2007b). This complex system has as much as 10 terabytes of information storage capacity (Murre 2005), which is gigantic memory potential; Anderson (2000a), for example, compares the processing power of the brain to that of 100 billion interconnected and interacting personal computers! (p.29)

The following tour covers three main areas. Firstly, there is a summary of brain anatomy, accompanied with clearly labeled diagrams. Then there is an examination of ‘the neurobiological basis of brain functioning’ (p.29), followed by an investigation into the usefulness of mapping language functions to particular areas of the brain. The author skillfully leads the reader through this challenging landscape, providing an accessible path through these areas and issues, making them accessible, informative and interesting.

Any detailed discussion of the content is beyond the scope of this review, but I hope an overview of the remaining chapters will prove useful to potential readers. Chapters 3 and 4 look at psychological processes in language acquisition, and cover theories including Universal Grammar, Connectionism, Emergentism, and the explicit – implicit dichotomy amongst others. Each chapter begins with an introduction that surveys the ground to be covered and ends with a summary, which helps the reader keep the key issues in perspective.

Chapters 5 and 6 examine the learner and the various factors that impact on the learning process. These include the ‘individual differences’ paradigm, the cognitive, motivational and emotional systems, and the age issue. The final chapter is of particular interest to language teaching professionals, as it focuses on the language classroom and considers the practical applications of the theories and research already discussed in the book. Dörnyei’s treatment of current issues, including focus on form, fluency and automatization, and formulaic language provide an indispensable overview of these developments and offers ‘some valid scientifically tested pointers and principles that can inform future developments in language instruction’ (p. 267).

If the title sounds a little dry and academic, don’t let it put you off because there is plenty here which is of great interest to the practicing teacher. Despite a wealth of complex ideas and terminology, the clarity of Dörnyei‘s writing makes them comprehensible and interesting. For teachers who are no longer looking for tips and tricks but seeking greater insights into the increasingly prominent role psychology has come to play in second language acquisition, this is essential reading, and a worthy winner of this year’s Ben Warren Prize.

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