Crap Books 2

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Ellis, R. (2008) The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: OUP.

This is the latest of a long series where Ellis attempts to summarise the research done in SLA from the 1960s. Starting with his 1985 work Understanding Second Language Acquisition, continuing with his 1993 work The Study of Second Language Acquisition, and including other works, such as his 1999 book Learning a Second Language Through Interaction, Ellis has systematically reduced the study of SLA to a boring, descriptive, often misconceived and misunderstood, and always tedious summary of work that is much better described, analysed and commented on in other works.

This 2008 book, according to its publisher, claims to offer a “comprehensive and coherent account of the research and theory in the field of second language acquisition, including chapters on instructed SLA”. The publisher’s blub goes on: “This book is an encyclopedic survey of second language acquisition research as this has developed over the last forty years. It provides sections on the description of learners’ language, the role of the linguistic environment and social context, internal mechanisms, individual learner differences, and the role of instruction. It provides a balanced account by representing a variety of perspectives, including cognitive, linguistic, sociocultural, and neurolinguistic.”

Well it certainly has some claims to being encyclopedic, being nearly 700 pages long, but as for offering “a comprehensive and coherent account of the research and theory in the field of second language acquisition”, it fails miserably. The section on learner language is muddled and misrepresents the development of interlanguage theory; the account of sociolinguistic theory is completely unbalanced; the description of “internal mechanisms” is as long as it is is wrong (I have never read a worse account); the treatment of individual differences is a travesty of work done by Skehan, Dörnyei and others; the description of the role of instruction is a hopelessly garbled misrepresentation of work done by Long, Doughty and others. It quite simply does NOT provide a balanced account of cognitive, linguistic, sociocultural, and neurolinguistic research in SLA.

But it is not the poverty of the account that chiefly marks this book, nor the dead, protracted prose that characterises its endless descriptions, but rather the paucity of any explanation for what is discussed. The worst general feature of this book is that it describes lots and explains absolutely nothing. Ellis actually says, in his typically long and laboured introduction, that he has few explanations to offer, and manages to suggest that this is a good thing: in refraining from making any effort to critically evaluate the mountain of stuff he turgidly refers to, he thus offers his readers the task of forming their own conclusions. But this is simple neglect; simple and so complete as to make one wonder how any editor would have allowed it. (The answer here, is, of course, money. Ellis’ awful books are bought by hundreds of thousands of gullible students and the editors don’t want to kill the goose (or should that be turkey?) that lays these golden, albeit putrid, eggs). I get the impression that Ellis wouldn’t be up to the job of any proper analysis, even if he’d been brave enough to attempt it.

“WHY?”, we ask, time and time again of Ellis’ descriptions. Why are things as you say scholars describe them? And answers come there none. Why is Chomsky’s UG a contradiction of Skinner? Why does Chomsky keep moving the goalposts? Why does Pienemann not go further? Why is Krashen’s “theory” seen as circular? Why did Long change his Interaction Hypothesis? Why do scholars take Dick Schmidt’s solitary study so seriously? Why is emergentism so different from the Competition Model? Why does Susan Carroll say that, pace Gregg, no property theory is necessary? Why did Towell and Hawkins fall out about their once unified view? Why did the interest in corpus linguistics fade? If you ever manage to finish reading this book, you’ll have no answer to these, and other important questions that any serious scholar of SLA should address.

A reviewer in the Amazon page has this to say: “the reader will be left with a feeling of neglect as the chapters meander from common sense to paradox or from paradox to topography of said paradox and back again. Perhaps my biggest problem with this text relates to my understanding of how it should be used. If it should be read as an anthology then the prose form of presentation is an obstruction to the facts; repetitive verbiage ‘dead-ending’ on each point: I would suggest a bullet point outlay reducing the size considerably. On the other hand, if this text is to be read as an historical account of SLA then I was again frustrated by the lack of critical analysis of the facts. Owing to the immense scope of the author’s undertaking, it is unrealistic to think that he would have a clearly defined view on each issue but I would have expected some attempt to reach partial conclusions even for the point encouraging debate or interaction with the text. The overall aim of this text is unclear to me and as a result the facts were hard to extrapolate. The narrative is weak and unenthusiastic so this book could not hold my attention and the author’s refusal to attempt critical analysis of the facts left each chapter deflated from its own ambiguity”.

I can think of no good reason whatsoever for reading this enormous, plodding, uninspired, uncritical book, apart from the chance to subject it to a critical analysis where all its multiple shortcomings are made clear; such a venture might get an MA student a good mark in a minor paper if done well. There is simply nothing to recommend it. I repeat: nothing. I honestly don’t understand why this book is so often found in the list of books recommended for those doing an MA in applied linguistics and TESOL. Anybody who recommends this book knows little about SLA research and nothing about good writing.

References

Ellis, R. (1985) “Understanding Second Language Acquisition”. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ellis, R. (1993) “The Study of Second Language Acquisition”. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Ellis, R. (1999) “Learning a Second Language Through Interaction”. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Ellis (R) (2008) “The Study of SLA”. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Alternatives to the Ellis Crap Book

* Lightbown, P. & Spada, N. (1999) “How languages are learned”. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Brief, concise, fresh, interesting: a jewel.

* Mitchell,R. and Miles, R. (2004) “Second Language Learning Theories”. London: Hodder Educational. Excellent, clear Introduction.

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