Second Language Aqcuisation

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Language Learning 46:4, December 1996, pp. 713-749

Review Article

SLA Theory Building: “Letting All the Flowers Bloom!”
James P. Lantolf
Cornell University This article presents a postmodernist critical analysis of the SLA theory building-literature as primarily represented in the writings of Beretta, Crookes, Eubank, Gregg, Long, and t o some extent Schumann. I argue that there is no foundational reason to grant privileged status to the modernist view of SLA theory these scholars espouse. Scientific theories are metaphorical constructs that are elevated to theoretical status because they are “taken seriously”by their developers. All of which argues against cutting off any would-be SLA theory before it has the opportunity to be taken seriously (i.e., to bloom). Scholars concerned with the problem of second language acquisition (SLA) have recently begun to focus their energies on the question of SLA theory and theory building (e.g., Beretta, An earlier version of this paper was presented as a plenary address to the annual meeting of the British Association ofApplied Linguistics, University of Southampton, September 1995. I thank all those who provided important feedback, suggestions, and criticisms on earlier versions of this article. I am especially grateful to Merrill Swain, John Schumann, Elaine Tarone, and Leo van Lier. Any shortcomings, and there are no doubt many, are my responsibility alone. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to James P. Lantolf, Department of Modern Languages, 314 Morrill Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853 USA. Internet:



Language Learning

Vol. 46, No. 4

1991, 1993; Beretta & Crookes, 1993; Crookes, 1992; Eubank & Gregg, 1995; Gregg, 1989, 1993; Klein, 1990, 1991; Long, 1985, 1990, 1993; Spolsky 1985, 1989, 1990). Presumably, this indicates that the field has attained sufficient maturity, empirical richness, and sophistication that in order t o legitimize itself as a science it requires a centripetal core around which the efforts of its researchers, supposedly engaged in normal Kuhnian science, can coalesce.’ Others have worried not so much about the shape of SLA theory or theories as they have about the interface between theory and practice (Clarke, 1994; Ellis, 1994; Pennycook, 1990, 1994;van Lier, 1991,1994,among others). Still others, especially Schumann ( 1983)have wondered whether the entire enterprise of theory building is even worth the effort, given the “relative”(I use the term with due caution) unimportance of the field. I want here to address the literature whose concern is to imbue the field with a proper sense of theory, and consequently, of science. Hence, I primarily focus my remarks on the writings of Beretta, Crookes, Eubank, Gregg, Long, and Schumann.

Coming to Terms
As a point of departure, I would like t o consider two key portions of Beretta, Crookes, Gregg, and Long’s (1994) brief written reaction to van Lier’s (1994) response paper t o the special issue of Applied Linguistics (1993) on theory construction.2 In their reaction, Beretta, Crookes, Gregg, and Long accused van Lier of not having read what they had written and attributing t o them a “joint position” that they in fact do not have (p. 347).3 For his part, van Lier (1994) stated up front that he in no way wished “to imply that its [the special issue] contributors can be lumped together as representing one single view” (p. 328).” As the editors of Applied Linguistics commented on Beretta et al.’s reaction, there is indeed a common bond among the special issue’s contributors-a commitment to the rationalist epistemology and (despite claims t o the contrary) the positivist legacy that continue t o pervade SLA research.



I suspect that van Lier had indeed read every word of the texts in question and probably more than once. However, I also suspect that the contributors to the special issue take a strict modernist,...
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