What is Instructed Second Language Acquistion (ISLA)? – Long (2017) Part 1

Should teacher be consumers or producers of research? Recent months have seen lively debate on the links between research on language learning on one hand, and language teaching on the other:

There’s certainly disagreement about what counts as research, what its aims should be, and how we should go about conducting studies and sharing results. One paper that tackles these issues is by Mike Long (2017), a leading figure in second language acquisition (SLA) research, which appeared in the first issue of the new, open-access journal Instructed Second Language Acquisition (ISLA).

Long is known especially for his research on cognitivist-interactionist SLA (see Myles), particularly task-based language teaching (TBLT). He has a lot to say directly about pedagogical applications of TBLT (Long 2014) and focus on form (see Ellis 2016 for a review). In this post, however, we consider how ISLA research proposes to bridge the gap between language teaching and second language research.

After defining the field of ISLA, the article argues that geopolitical factors make language learning an important concern for many, and thus increase the need for effective teaching based on SLA (and indeed for better SLA). He reviews some methodological innovations (eye-tracking studies, L2 repositories) and argues for a cognitivist-interactionist view of language learning which prioritises implicit learning .

I’m going to present Long’s arguments in two parts. In this post, we look at his definition of ISLA, showing how it includes some language teaching concerns but not others. We then consider some of the trickier aspects of implicit learning, focus on form, and input enhancement, with examples of recent studies, in a second post. Most of my post is in précis form, that is, using the author’s own words.

Instructed SLA, LT research, and L2 classroom research

For Long, instructed second language acquisition (ISLA) research is not synonymous with language teaching (LT) research or research on L2 classrooms. He sets out the differences with this analogy with biological sciences. Only basic research and controlled studies count as ISLA.

RESEARCH DOMAIN BASIC RESEARCH CONTROLLED STUDIES APPLIED RESEARCH
Biochemistry nutritional value of vegetables trial of new food supplements study of medical practice (how healthcare professionals treat patients)
ISLA L2 learning which is influenced by teachers, classmates, or pedagogic materials relationship between types of instruction and language learning outcomes research on language teaching

ISLA: what it is, and what it’s not*

ISLA involves incidental and intentional, implicit and explicit L2 learning, when learning processes are intended to be influenced by teachers, classmates, or pedagogic materials. ISLA does not include naturalistic learning via exposure (e.g., through residence overseas, study abroad or watching FL movies) or other forms of incidental learning in L2 environment unless instruction is involved.

ISLA research aims to understand how intervention (i.e., teaching) influences naturalistic learning processes via measurable effects on:

  1. interlanguage development and the acquisition of form-meaning-function relationships
  2. the development of learners’ ability to perform real-world L2 tasks.

Early SLA research assumed the development of learner language (no. 1 above) preceded the ability to function in the new language (no. 2 above), but now the reverse is thought to be true: it is the accomplishment of progressively more complex tasks that drives language learning.

SLA theory as well as empirical findings are used to motivate studies, with the aim of identifying causal relationships between language teaching and learning.

ISLA research differs from L2 classroom research by excluding work on identities, socialisation and acculturation, for example. It also differs from the kind of research which focuses on pedagogical procedures without making a connection with learning outcomes, such as work on teaching styles, use of L1, or learner preferences, all of which tends to be context-dependent. ISLA research operates at the level of cognitive processes and methodological principles which have the potential to be generalisable across teachers, settings, and learner types.

The ultimate purpose of ISLA research is to improve L2 learning or teaching and so some connection with language acquisition is required. Geopolitical factors, including migration, CLIL teaching, and multilingual societies, mean that second and foreign languages have become very important, and these factors have indirectly increased attention to ISLA research and spurred methodological developments, including

  1. statistical meta-analyses
  2. new technology (eye-tracking, reaction times, EEG, ERP)
  3. new instrumentation (e.g. measures of language aptitude)
  4. collaboration (repositories like IRIS, replication studies).

Long goes on to argue that SLA researchers agree on the central position of “incidental and implicit L2 learning in adults” but that this is “still a minority position in the world of language teaching” (p. 23). In my next post, I look more closely at implicit learning, including the notions of noticing and detection, and different types of input enhancement or focus on formS.

Ellis, R. (2016). Focus on form: A critical review. Language Teaching Research, 20(3), 405-428.

Long, M. (2014). Second language acquisition and task-based language teaching. Wiley.

Long, M. (2017). Instructed second language acquisition (ISLA): geopolitics, methodological issues, and some major research questions. ISLA, 1(1): 7-44. PDF

Myles, F. (2004?). Second language acquisition (SLA) research: its significance for learning and teaching issues. Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Guide to Good Practice. Southampton.

*This heading is a nod to one of my first linguistics professors, Harry Gradman, whose 1970 dissertation rejoiced in the title: The contrastive analysis hypothesis: what it is, and what it isn’t.

Featured image by Geralt

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Shona Whyte
I’m Shona Whyte. I’m an associate professor of English at the Université Nice Sophia Antipolis in Nice, France. I teach EFL, TEFL and CALL and my research focuses on technology for teaching and learning languages.

I blog now and again on second language teaching and research, and curate resources on Teacher Education in Languages with Technology at http://scoop.it/t/telt.

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