5 SLA researchers you should know about

“Let all the flowers bloom… You never know which ones will catch the eye to become tomorrow’s realities.”

– Lantolf, “SLA theory bulding: “Letting all the flowers bloom!” Language Learning, 1996, p. 739

If understanding what second language learning is were a simple thing, then perhaps we could all agree on one theory, and one theory alone.  We could throw all of our theoretical eggs into one embracing basket that would allow us to steadily progress towards the goal of crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s of language learning, of pinning down and mapping out all the questions with straightforward answers until we finally place our collective hands on the holy grail of language learning.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” (Einstein)

Unfortunately, or fortunately (in my opinion), it’s not very simple.  It’s actually far from it.  In fact, the field of understanding how someone learns a language after their first may be one of the more interdisciplinary programs in a university, simply because no one really knows how it fits into the typically chopped up, divided disciplines of the social sciences.

Let all the flowers bloom?

So shall we let all the flowers bloom? Shall we let every theoretical flower under the sun seek our entranced yet confused attention?

Dwight Atkinson, a second language researcher at Purdue, in responding to Lantolf’s idea above writes,

Although absolutely crucial for progress in the field, “letting all the flowers bloom” alone is no longer enough.  Having gathered the flowers, we must now lay them out in comparative perspective to see their possibilities for arrangement.  Mere profusion will not suffice – sense must be made of the richness and profusion.

Well, enough about flowers.  Let’s talk about people. I have chosen five researchers that are exploring diverse areas of SLA (second language acquisition) or second language studies (language learning in a broader sense) to give you a larger picture of the field.  This is in no way representative of the field, but it should give those who have waited with bated breath to know what on earth people might want to explore in this wide, wide world of language learning for a career.  So without further ado, here are five second language researchers you should know about.

James P. Lantolf

Lantolf is a proponent of the sociocultural theory of SLA or SCT-L2.  Yes, there is a plethora of acronyms in SLA, but I guess there’s no avoiding that. The main idea of SCT-L2 is derived from the psychological theory of human consciousness developed by L.S. Vygotsky.  I wrote a post on this a bit a go in Language Notes # 16. The central focus of this theory looks at “how learners develop the ability to use the new language to mediate (i.e. regulate or control) their mental and communicative activity.”  As Vygotsky wrote,

“The social dimension of consciousness [i.e., all mental processes] is primary in time and fact. The individual dimension of consciousness is derivative and secondary” (1979, p. 30).

Johanne Paradis

I’ve only ever read one paper by Paradis, but she explores a fascinating area of language: bilingualism in children.  As she writes on her personal webpage, some of here research explores

“the language development of French-English bilingual children: How their development compares with their monolingual peers in each language and the implications this has for theoretical accounts of the role of input in acquisition.”

She is in the area of SLA called ‘psycholinguistics’ and the issues explored in this area are mainly concerned with how learners process language, whether it be sounds (phonology) words (lexical) or sentences (syntax). To be honest I’m not too familiar with this field, but the kinds of experimental studies they do, especially now with eye-tracking and brain-imaging technology is sure to be fascinating in the future.

Guy Cook

Guy Cook is an applied linguist I discovered early on in my studies, and he is interested in a range of topics.  But what caught my attention was his exploration of “language play.” He wrote a book in 2000 called “Language Play, Language Learning” (here is a short (8 pg.) article on the topic) and it is definitely worth checking out it if you have an exceptionally free day (or month). I think his ideas on language play have some very important implications for how we understand ways in which language learning (and teaching) may be improved. He writes,

“…the effect (of play) may be especially true in language learning, not only because it involves adaptation to a new linguistic and cultural environment, but because play and language are so closely intertwined…there is a good reason to regard language play both as a means and an end of language learning.”

Patricia Duff

Duff is a researcher who investigates ‘second language (L2) acquisition and socialization, task-based interaction, L2 education, and research methods in applied linguistics.’ But the research she does I find really interesting is in language socialization. As Duff writes in a joint article with Talmy (2011) Language socialization explores language use and learning in much broader terms than much of SLA research which is concerned mainly with cognition. In addition to language development, it looks into the development of ‘other forms of knowledge’ such as social and cultural knowledge as well as language ideologies and identity. As she and Talmy write,

“second language (L2) socialization views language learners/users as sociohistorically, socioculturally, and sociopolitically situated individuals with multiple subjectivities and identities (e.g., not only as language learners), which are inculcated, enacted, and co-constructed through social experience in everyday life.”

Richard Schmidt

In addition to being one of the foremost researchers in SLA, ‘Dick’ Schmidt is a really cool guy, having gotten a chance to talk to him a bit here in Hawai‘i.  His work has mainly investigated the cognitive and affective (emotional) factors involved in adult second language learning and he is perhaps most famous for his ‘Noticing Hypothesis’ which I wrote about in my first “language notes’ on ‘the power of noticing.‘  In a recent update of the  ‘noticing hypothesis’ theory (PDF) he writes,

“For SLA, the allocation of attention is the pivotal point at which learner external factors (including the complexity and distributional characteristics of input, the discoursal and interactional context, instructional treatment, and task characteristics) and learner internal factors (including motivation, aptitude, learning styles and strategies, current L2 knowledge and processing ability) come together.”

So there you go, five researchers in the field of SLA and second language learning more broadly who are engaged in trying to figure out what this language learning stuff is all about.  In the future I hope to introduce some more lesser known people in the field who are doing some interesting research so stay tuned. And as always, I would enjoy hearing about how you think the ideas these researchers are exploring relate to your own ideas on language learning and teaching!



Ortega, L. (2009) “Understanding Language Acquisition,” Chapter 7.
Atkinson, D. (Ed.) (2011) Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition.
The featured image for this post was a plumeria that was blooming outside my window a little while back:)

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