Book Review & Reflection: “How Languages are Learned” by Lightbown and Spada

How Languages Are Learned by Patsy M. Lightbown and Nina Spada is probably one of the best-known books that gives an overview of the research on language acquisition. Its latest edition—the fourth edition—was published in 2013, so it combines information about some of the early, foundational research studies on language acquisition along with some more current research. I found it to be an interesting read with a lot of good information. It confirmed some of what I already knew about language acquisition but also challenged my thinking in some areas.

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In my opinion, the book strikes a good balance between being scholarly and being accessible. I know that the book is often used in graduate-level courses on second language acquisition; however, it can also be read and enjoyed by language teachers who don’t have much background in reading a lot of academic research.

The first chapter of the book focuses on first language acquisition in young children. The authors explain some of the ways in which children pass through stages in their language acquisition process, such as the stages of learning question formation in English. They also correct some of the common myths of first language acquisition, like the idea that children learn language by imitating it. Lightbown and Spada also include a section on childhood bilingualism, and they document some of the research showing that it’s important for children who speak a home language different from the language spoken at school to maintain their home language. They argue that “continued development of the child’s home language actually contributes in the long term to more successful acquisition of the school language” (32). I’m glad they included this information since there are still some states in the U.S. where bilingual education is considered a controversial issue, and it has even been banned in some states.

The rest of the book focuses on second language acquisition. The authors explain why some of the popular early methods of language instruction (such as audiolingual and grammar-translation) don’t work well. People don’t learn a new language simply by learning grammar rules and “practicing” applying the rules or by memorizing lists of vocabulary words. And language acquisition doesn’t follow a linear path; in fact, sometimes students make more errors on a particular language feature while they are in the process of internalizing it. Lightbown and Spada write: “Both first and second language acquisition are best described as developing systems with their own evolving rules and patterns, not simply as imperfect versions of the target language” (41).

As a teacher, the most interesting part of the book for me was the chapter “Second Language Learning in the Classroom.” Lightbown and Spada describe the six major “proposals for teaching” that are most commonly used in language classes. Some of these teaching approaches are at least loosely based on one or more of the major theories of language acquisition. The six approaches they describe are:

  1. “Get it right from the beginning” (the idea that students must produce correct language from early on and should be corrected when they make errors)
  2. “Just listen…and read” (a comprehension-based approach)
  3. “Let’s talk” (the idea that learners need lots of opportunities to talk and interact in the target language)
  4. “Get two for one” (content-based language teaching, where students learn about a subject matter while simultaneously learning the target language)
  5. “Teach what is teachable” (based on Pienemann’s processability theory, which proposes that students will only benefit from explicitly learning about a particular grammatical feature if they are developmentally ready for it)
  6. “Get it right in the end” (the idea that many language features will be acquired naturally but that some explicit instruction or noticing of forms can be helpful or even necessary)

I consider myself at least primarily within the category of comprehension-based teaching, so I was most interested in the authors’ explanation of the “Just listen…and read” approach. As an example of a comprehension-based class, Lightbown and Spada describe a research study done on elementary school English learners in Canada. Every day in this class, the students chose a book they wanted to read from a large library in the classroom. Most of the books were children’s books, at various difficulty levels. After students chose their books, they sat at their desks, put on headphones to listen to the audio recording of the text, and read silently. The teacher walked around the room occasionally to make sure students’ equipment was working.

Lightbown and Spada report that after two years, the learners in this program performed equally as well (or, in some cases, better) than the learners in an audiolingual program on measures of both comprehension and speaking, “even though the learners in the experimental programme had never practiced spoken English in their classes (Lightbown et al. 2002; Trofimovich et al. 2009)” (161). However, three years later, they compared the students in the comprehension-based program with students in a program that used audiolingual instruction as well as “speaking and writing components, teacher feedback, and classroom interaction.” They found that the two groups of students did equally well in comprehension and “some measures of oral production” but that the students in the non-comprehension-based program made more progress in certain areas, especially in writing.

In interpreting the results of this study, Lightbown and Spada emphasize that input is essential in language learning. “Comprehension of meaningful language is the foundation of language acquisition,” they write. However, they also say that “considerable research and experience challenge the hypothesis that comprehensible input is enough” (165).

Lightbown and Spada mention some of the research studies that have shown the benefits of including some error correction and other types of focus on form (i.e., explicit instruction in grammar). Of course, as I read this section, many of the typical arguments of comprehension-based teaching sprang to mind—Were the students in these studies using language spontaneously in communicative situations, or were they consciously using forms in “practice exercises”? Did these effects last over the long-term or only the short-term?

The authors didn’t go into enough detail about the studies to fully answer these questions, though they did briefly address the issue of short-term versus long-term gains. They mention a study conducted by Lydia White focusing on adverb placement by English learners. One group of students received explicit instruction on adverb placement and the other group did not. When tested immediately after instruction and again six weeks later, the students who received explicit instruction “dramatically outperformed” the students who didn’t receive instruction. But when tested one year later, those gains “disappeared, and their performance on this structure was like that of uninstructed learners (White 1991)” (186).

However, a separate study found that students who received explicit instruction on question formation maintained their gains after six months when compared with a control group of students who didn’t receive explicit instruction (White, Spada, Lightbown, and Ranta 1991).

There is no clear answer as to why some studies seem to show more long-term benefits to explicit instruction than others, but Lightbown and Spada speculate that it might be related to one of three reasons: 1) whether students are developmentally ready to learn a particular grammatical feature; 2) how complex the feature is; 3) whether the learners continue being exposed to that feature in input after receiving explicit instruction.

But despite some of these uncertainties, for Lightbown and Spada, the research evidence is strong enough for them to conclude that “Approaches that provide attention to form within communicative and content-based interaction receive the most support from classroom research” (195).

I think that a lot of comprehension-based teachers are already following this recommendation, at least to some degree. That’s one of the reasons why I was a little bothered by Lightbown and Spada’s description of the comprehension-based classroom where students simply read books independently every day and there was “virtually no interaction in English with the teacher or other learners” (161). I can understand why the authors used it as an example of a comprehension-based approach, and it is interesting to see the results of a completely “pure” input-based method, where students never speak or receive any explicit instruction.

However, I’ve never encountered any comprehension-based teacher who teaches in this way. Most of the comprehension-based teachers I know (myself included) try to promote a lot of interaction in class—even if that interaction, especially at lower-levels, includes a lot of one-word answers from students. Many of us use pop-up grammar explanations to provide some focus on form without taking away too much focus from meaning. And especially in higher-level classes, most comprehension-based teachers expect students to speak and write in the target language at least occasionally, if not on a regular basis.

Of course, I think Lightbown and Spada probably encourage a little more emphasis on explicit instruction than a lot of comprehension-based teachers would, and the book did challenge me in thinking about my own teaching. The book has inspired me to try to do more to track my students’ progress on certain grammatical features of English to see whether a focus on form seems to help over the long term.

I highly recommend How Languages are Learned if you’re looking for a book that gives an overview of the research on second language acquisition and how some of those findings might be applied—in a very general way—in the classroom. But if you’re looking for a book that will tell you exactly how to teach, this one isn’t it. As the authors say, “The complexities of second language acquisition, like those of first language acquisition, represent puzzles that scientists will continue to work on for a long time…Agreement on a ‘complete’ theory of language acquisition is probably, at best, a long way off. Even if such agreement were reached, there would still be questions about how the theory should be interpreted for language teaching practice” (121).

This can be frustrating for us teachers who are looking for “the right” way to teach or “the best” method to use. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear answer. That doesn’t mean that anything goes; Lightbown and Spada do make some general recommendations for language teaching based on the available research evidence. But even armed with this knowledge, there is still not a clear answer about one exact right way to teach.

In my view, that’s what can make language teaching difficult and frustrating but also what makes it interesting and exciting. There’s still so much to discover.

If you want to hear more about the book, you can also listen to this interview with Patsy Lightbown to get an overview of the book. And here’s a video of a presentation she gave related to the topic of form-focused instruction.

Research Studies Cited:

Lightbown, P.M., R. Halter, J.L. White, and M. Horst. 2002. “Comprehension-based learning: The limits of ‘do it yourself.’” Canadian Modern Language Review 58/3: 427-64.

Trofimovich, P., P.M. Lightbown, R.H. Halter, and H. Song. 2009. “Comprehension-based practice: The development of L2 pronunciation in a listening and reading program.” Studies in Second Language Acquisition 31/4: 609-39.

White, L. 1991. “Adverb placement in second language acquisition: Some effects of positive and negative evidence in the classroom.” Second Language Research 7/2: 133-61.

White, L., N. Spada, P.M. Lightbown, and L. Ranta. 1991. “Input enhancement and syntactic accuracy in L2 acquisition.” Applied Linguistics 12/4: 416-32.

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